While the thrill of watching Andy Murray et al may leave many raring to hit the court themselves, it’s worth remembering that professional tennis players are amongst the fittest sportspeople around, and playing the game is a lot harder than simply watching it.
With Wimbledon in full swing, experts from Physio Med offer tips and advice for tennis enthusiasts on how to prepare for matches, how to make it through them and how to recover afterwards, especially if it’s been a while since you last played.
Common Tennis injuries
The bad news is that pretty much every part of you is at risk of injury when playing tennis, as it is a sport which uses the whole body. However, the injuries most frequently requiring physio treatment are those caused by playing too much, particularly if the player is out of practice.
The most common upper body injury sites are the shoulder, elbow and wrist, all of which can be irritated by overuse as tendons repeatedly pass over the joints, causing pain and inflammation. This is also the cause of the infamous tennis elbow condition, which occurs when the muscles attached to the elbow and used to straighten the wrist are overused, causing swelling of the tendons and pain in the elbow and arm. On the opposite side of the arm, overusing the tendons that connect the elbow and forearm can result in golfer’s elbow.
On the lower body, the knee and ankle are the most prone to tennis-related injury. With tennis players needing to constantly twist, turn and change speed, both the patella tendon below the kneecap and the medial ligament inside it can be easily damaged, while pain in the Achilles tendon is common as a result of repeated jumping.
The good news is that injuries can be avoided by ensuring your body is properly prepared!
Before playing Tennis
If you’re returning to the court after a period of inactivity, in addition to warming up properly, you should also try and gradually increase the amount of time you spend playing tennis over several weeks.
Initially you should play for no more than 30 minutes at a time once or twice a week, leaving at least two or three days between sessions to allow your body to recover. Increase your playing time by 10-15 minutes a week until you’re comfortable playing for two hours at a time. This will help you bridge the gap between the exercise level you are used to and that required to play a full tennis match.
Playing against an opponent of a similar skill level is also advisable; running non-stop around the court chasing shadows is not!
It is also worth considering a visit to a physiotherapist, especially if you have recently been injured. A sports massage is another great way to keep all muscle groups flexible and could give you a valuable advantage over your opponent.
Before a match, it’s important to eat sensibly, especially if you are playing soon after breakfast. A bowl of porridge with honey is perfect as it is high in carbohydrates to give you the energy required. Avoid eating anything heavy – such as a cooked breakfast – as this is likely to give you a stitch, and remember to drink plenty of water as it is easy to become quickly dehydrated during a game. Having a sugary energy drink before the match begins will also help you go the distance.
The best way to avoid injury is a proper warm up to prepare your muscles for the demands of the game and reduce the risk of injury by increasing blood flow.
First, go for a brisk, ten-minute walk, then move on to stretching to condition your muscles and prevent muscle cramps.
The three key stretches are:
1) The standing hamstring stetch
Put your left foot slightly in front of your right foot with your toes raised. Bend your right knee slightly, keep your left leg straight and lean forward, resting both hands on your right thigh for balance, until you feel light resistance in the back of your leg. Hold for 20 - 30 seconds, then swap legs and repeat five times.
2) The standing calf stretch
Stand facing a wall and lean against it with your hands. Place your left leg slightly behind your right leg, then bend your right leg while keeping your left leg straight with your heel firmly on the floor. Lean forward until you feel the muscles in the straight leg begin to stretch, then hold for 20 - 30 seconds, swap legs and repeat five times.
3) Hip adductor stretch
To stretch the group of muscles in your inner thighs, stand with your feet wider than hip width and keep your left leg straight, then bend your right knee so that you are supporting your body weight on the side of the knee. Keep your left foot pointing forward. Hold for 20 - 30 seconds, then swap legs and repeat five times.
It is also advisable to gently stretch and warm up your lower back. Begin by standing with your feet hip distance apart and place both hands on your hips. Then, gently lean backwards whilst still looking forwards, until you can feel a stretch in you lower back. Hold the stretch for five seconds and repeat 15 times.
Finally, rotate your shoulders and wrists ten times clockwise and ten times anticlockwise.
During a game
Staying hydrated is essential for success on the tennis court because loss of fluids causes your blood volume to decrease, impairing your stamina, speed, concentration levels and reaction times. In extreme cases, dehydration can even cause nausea and vomiting. As you can expect to lose between 0.5 and three litres of fluid for every hour you play, keeping drinks to hand is imperative.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to have some food to hand throughout a match, just in case. Soft fruits, such as bananas or oranges, are ideal as they contain the right combination of vitamins and minerals to help players stay energetic and alert. Glucose-based soft sweets are also helpful as they provide sugar to boost energy levels and improve concentration. Only eat if necessary though.
After playing tennis
Once the game is over you should do a simple warm down as it helps your breathing and heart rate return to normal levels, as well as helping your muscles relax. It also helps remove lactic acid from your muscles, reducing the risk of post-exercise soreness.
Begin by taking a few minutes to relax and catch your breath, then walk gently for five minutes. Finish by repeating the stretches carried out during your warm up, drinking plenty of water to help nourish your muscles and have something to eat to help replace the energy you’ve burned off – a bagel or granola bar is ideal.
Finally, three-to-five days later, help your muscles recover fully and prepare for your next match by going for a sports massage. Next stop, Centre Court!
Tennis case study
Cameron Fraser, 60, Director of Tiles and Mosaics, Leeds
“I play tennis regularly throughout the year and that is mainly due to the physiotherapy treatment I received after an injury some years ago. I broke my left collar bone in a rugby accident and as a result had ongoing problems with my left arm. I developed a double-handed backhand to try to overcome the problem but in the end sought out physiotherapy treatment. I was given a personalised exercise programme, involving light weights, and it really helped.
“I have genuinely done those exercises every day since and, having recently turned 60, am still running around, playing mixed doubles for Almscliffe Tennis and Bowling Club, in Huby, in the summer and indoor men’s doubles for Ilkley in the winter.”