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Training for Tennis “Marathons”©

By LaRue E. Cook, BS, MHA, JD, CPT

As a competitive tennis player, I often get involved in long matches. In one recent tournament, my match lasted four and a half hours, which is why I frequently describe tennis as a “marathon comprised of mini-sprints.”

To improve your preparation for such “marathon” events, you should properly train your cardiovascular system. This means performing low- to medium-intensity distance training, plus some short-distance, higher-intensity sprint and interval training work. Before you begin any cardiovascular fitness program, however, be sure to check with your physician to ensure that it’s healthy for you to train in this manner. Remember: “Safety first!”

Many tennis players jog or bike for their cardiovascular conditioning. While these are great ways to improve your cardiovascular endurance for tennis, jogging or biking alone may not be enough to improve your overall cardiovascular fitness, including anaerobic fitness, for a marathon comprised of mini-sprints. For tennis-specific cardiovascular fitness, some sprint work and interval training should be added to your workout.

Jogging and biking at a low- to medium-intensity will help you to increase your stamina for long matches, and the goal in performing these activities is to increase your endurance by progressively increasing the distance or duration that you exercise. You should conduct your distance training at an intensity level that you can safely sustain for a minimum of 20 minutes—preferably more.

Exercise intensity level can be determined by what’s known as the “talk test.” If you can talk normally, without gasping for air, while exercising, you’re probably working at a low enough intensity level for cardiovascular distance training purposes. However, this method for determining exercise intensity tends to be conservative, and since there’s a wide exercise intensity range for which you could talk and exercise, the talk test may not have you exercising at your optimal level for these purposes.

A more detailed and accurate measure of cardiovascular exercise intensity level can be found by using the “target heart rate” (THR) measurement. THR allows you to calculate your own personal heart rate range for endurance training, and then monitor yourself throughout the exercise routine. Experts generally recommend that a healthy adult should exercise at an intensity of between 60 and 90 percent of their maximum heart rate for cardiovascular conditioning purposes.

The basic formula for determining THR is: 220 – your age (this yields your “maximum heart rate” MHR) X (the percentage of your MHR that you are looking to achieve; for example, 60 percent). So, a fictitious healthy 40 year old’s THR (at 60-90 percent of MHR) would be 108 – 162 heart beats per minute. Determining your THR should be a part of a program to improve your tennis fitness, or establishing a cardiovascular training program for you.

The sprint work and interval training that you add to your cardiovascular fitness program should be performed at a greater intensity level than your distance training. However, this doesn’t mean that you’ll have to run like an Olympic sprinter to get results. Speed—like anything in the fitness world—is relative to you. Consequently, the goal is to challenge yourself within your own personal range.

A word of caution: increased exercise intensity can increase risk of injury unless you train properly. I recommend seeking a certified fitness trainer who is knowledgeable about tennis and experienced in working with tennis players. He or she can help develop a program for you that mimics the intensity levels of a typical match. This will be invaluable in preparing you for the cardiovascular “highs and lows” of tennis.

As a way to address the specific needs of my clients, I use a combination of on-court drills, timed-sprint work and “step drills,” with planned recovery periods. By varying the distances covered, the speed of the exercise and the recovery time—in essence, simulating the peaks and valleys of a match—I can develop a challenging routine for players and help increase their ability to perform and recover during a match.

So in preparing for a tennis match: think “a marathon of mini-sprints.” And along with your low-to medium-intensity distance training, throw in some high-intensity sprint work and interval training. Then that four-and-a-half-hour match won’t seem so intimidating.

As with all forms of exercise, check with your physician before undertaking any of the training methods or exercises described in this article to make sure that they are appropriate for you. Always have an experienced, certified personal trainer assist you with setting-up any new exercise routine or program.

Copyright 2004-2006 by LaRue E. Cook All Rights Reserved

LaRue E. Cook is a certified personal trainer, tournament tennis player, and fitness author with over 14 years training experience. He also competes in sanctioned tournaments throughout the country, and uses this unique blend of training and tennis-playing experience to help other players get fit for tennis through his “Tennis Fitness Program.” LaRue has trained a variety of tennis players, including “elite” junior players, many who are nationally, and regionally ranked, adult tournament and league players, and people new to tennis. He also works with a variety of general fitness clients, including the elderly, and those looking to lose weight or firm-up. LaRue’s first tennis fitness book, “A Tennis Player and Racquet Athlete’s Guide to Stronger Shoulders and Core Muscles” has recently been released. This E-Book, and information on his training and training seminars can be obtained on his website He can be reached at: