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The Importance of Anaerobic Training

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Here we are in April. Most of us are eagerly anticipating the outdoor season of tennis play and competition that begins north of the equator. College players are already in the heat of spring competition, and high school players are beginning to prepare in earnest for their spring competitions.
 
If you have been following my column, you know many of the ways in which I suggest that players prepare for a new season. From physical conditioning, racquet and equipment preparation to frank analysis of where one needs to go to improve her/his game; all are part of the process of getting set for outdoor tennis.
 
One area that many players, including myself, will overlook in their preparations is the training necessary to minimize anaerobic situations during practices and matches.
 
What does the term anaerobic mean?
 
Anaerobic is a technical word which literally means without oxygen, as opposed to aerobic. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).
 
In this wonderful game of ours, there are many times when we are competing but find ourselves literally struggling to gain sufficient oxygen for our muscles. Each of us have played points where the continuous and strenuous movement involved literally leave the cells in our body screaming for more oxygen. Usually when ending these points, we are gasping for breath.
 
It surprises many players who believe that they are in very good physical condition that such a situation can occur. Indeed, it is probably true that many players are in excellent physical condition, but still find themselves literally "out of breath" at the end of a point.
 
Hopefully, each of us spends lots of time stretching, aerobic training, strength training in addition to practicing our strokes. If we used the time during the off season well, we spent time in gyms and indoor tennis courts working on all of these. We may have been lifting weights regularly to improve our body strength. We may have found ourselves running on treadmills, using elliptical devices and/or stationary bikes to improve our overall aerobic condition and endurance levels. If we are fortunate enough to have the resources to avail ourselves of indoor court facilities, we may have played in league competition or simply played recreational sets with hitting partners. All of these are absolutely great ways to get ready for the summer season of outdoor tennis.
 
Still, there is one area where we may fall short in the off season and even during the outdoor tennis season. Specifically, I am referring to the concept of anaerobic training.
 
Anaerobic training involves exercises that strain our bodies to their maximum capacity for short periods of time. The idea is to push our bodies to a level where we are literally struggling to flood our body cells with more oxygen.
 
In my mind, anaerobic training is the single most important form of training in which a tennis player can engage if he/she wishes to improve his/her physical capacities on the court.
 
Outdoor tennis usually is played in warm if not very hot conditions. Humidity can exacerbate the effects of heat on the body. Long points, where players are running hard to retrieve balls, are generally more likely to occur in summer-like, outdoor conditions. Humidity can exacerbate the effects of heat on the body. When playing on clay courts, the likelihood of long, groundstroke games is at its height. However, hard courts and the manner of play associated with the "modern game" of tennis often times produces long and extremely strenuous points.
 
I am sure that each of us is familiar with the phenomenon. We get done playing a point, and we feel like we will never be able to "catch our breath." These are anaerobic situations where the amounts of oxygen we need greatly exceed the amount of oxygen that is being provided to our body's cells.
 
This kind of fatigue can lead to a complete breakdown in tennis form. Frequently, we make errors immediately after playing such a point. Why? Well, our body has not really fully recovered from the oxygen deprivation. We generally don't move as fluidly, don't think as clearly, and more often than not, attempt to execute shots that are risky at best. In some situations, the aggregate effect of many such points is a total breakdown of our tennis form. Literally, we seem unable to execute any shot effectively.
 
Well this month, I want to address some of the things that you can do on court and off court to improve your body's anaerobic threshold. By this, I mean that through specialized practice, a player can actually extend the limits of his/her body. One can actually extend how long it takes before we find ourselves "sucking air."
 
The important thing to realize from the outset is that this kind of training should be introduced gradually and in reasonable increments. Attempting too much anaerobic training and/or attempting to increase levels of anaerobic training too quickly can actually cause injury. Indeed if you are a senior player, you certainly want to discuss this kind of strenuous training with your health care professional before beginning any anaerobic regimen.
 
Assuming that you are already able to head out to courts for practice, let's take a look at what I deem the most beneficial, on-court drill regarding anaerobic training. I refer to this drill as the figure eight drill, but some of you may know it as the X drill.
 
Below, you will find a diagram that illustrates the basics of this drill.
 
In the above diagram, you are working with a hitting partner. Let's say you begin the drill by hitting a down the line, backhand (assuming you are right handed) groundstroke. Your partner runs to his forehand wing (assuming he is right handed) and hits a cross court groundstroke to your forehand side. You run to retrieve this shot, and again, you hit down the line to your partner's backhand wing. He replies by hitting cross court to your backhand wing, and then, the entire series repeats itself.
 
The person who is always hitting down the line will do more running than the person who always hits cross court. So, you try to do this drill for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, you change with your partner. In the above example, your partner now is hitting everything down the line, and you are hitting everything cross court.
 
I assure you that this drill will get your breathing going!!! The idea is to work with each other in performing this drill. The person hitting the cross courts should not try to hit them at too severe of an angle. The goal is to continue the drill without an errant or missed shot as long as is possible.
 
At first, this may take a little adjustment. However, I assure the reader that she/he can get the hang of the drill relatively quickly, and find ways of extending the rallies.
 
If you are performing this drill correctly, you will find that your breathing becomes a bit labored after about a minute or two. The longer you can do the drill without stopping, the more your body will begin to scream for oxygen.
 
An additional benefit of this drill is that as you perform it, you become fatigued. This puts a greater burden on you to maintain proper footwork and stroke production.
 
If there was only one drill that the modern player of our wonderful game did while on court, the figure eight drill would be the best choice.
 
Much of your anaeorbic training must take place off court. In training anaerobically, I would strongly suggest that you do this kind of training every other day rather than on a daily basis. The body needs to rest a bit from this kind of training, and too much of it will actually break the body down, and perhaps, lead to injury.
 
Sprints are the next best form of anaerobic training. Most of us spend time running, biking or using machines that help develop our aerobic endurance. However, sprints are the bread and butter of off-court, anaerobic training.
 
Some years back when training at Tommy Thompson's facility located at Saddlebrook, I was taught a series of sprints which really do put your breathing in an anaerobic position. I have nicked named this series of sprints a Saddlebrook after the location where I learned it.
 
Below, is a description of the drill that first appeared in one of my columns that addressed footwork.
 
A "Saddlebrook" consists of 10 sprints with a jog back to the starting point in between each sprint.
 
The idea is to never stop running or jogging. Do not walk back to the starting point in between sprints unless this is absolutely necessary. The ten sprints should be run in the following order:

  1. Sprint from the starting point to the end point at full pace. Then without stopping turn around and jog back to the starting point... make certain you jog... do not run.
  2. Repeat step 1 with another full pace, straight ahead sprint... jog back.
  3. Now "sprint" using a side step. Using quick-paced sidesteps, "run" to the end point at full speed. Do not use crossover steps. Rather bring the feet together as you move sideways... jog back. Football players who play the line frequently practice this type of movement. Try to keep your body low in a somewhat crouched position as you do these sidesteps.
  4. Repeat step 3 but this time turn around before you begin your side steps. Because you have turned your body around (if you were facing North in step 3, you are now facing South in step four) you will in effect be "sprinting" in the opposite direction... jog back.
  5. Now, you sprint backwards making certain to stay on your toes and to pump your arms as you move. Be careful that you path is clear of any debris before you run this backwards sprint as you will not be looking in the direction that you are moving. Pay attention to when you have passed the end point. Stop. Then, jog back.
  6. Repeat step 1 with a full out, forward running sprint... then jog back.
  7. Now we will do a sideways sprint as in step 3, but this time we will use crossover steps. A crossover step is when one foot moves in front of the other as you move sideways. Frequently in tennis we need to use a crossover step when we recover quickly from being pulled wide by an opponent's shot. Don't be afraid to really try to move fast as you do this sprint... jog back.
  8. As was the case in step 4, we want to move sideways, but in the opposite direction. To achieve this, simply turn around and do the crossover step . As was the case in step 4, because you have turned around, you are effectively moving in the opposite direction... jog back.
  9. Repeat step 5... then jog back.
  10. Repeat step 1... then jog back.

By the time you have completed the "Saddlebrook," you will have run 4 straight-ahead sprints, 2 sidestep sprints, 2 backwards sprints and 2 crossover side movement steps... 10 sprints all together. In addition, you will have jogged back to the starting point after each sprint.
 
Now, I know that this "Saddlebrook" does not seem challenging. Believe me it is. You may find yourself struggling to get your breath if you sprint too hard at first. Take it easy until you know with certainty what your fitness level is. This is why you should not run back in between sprints. You want to let the body slow down a bit before you sprint again. This replicates the extreme nature of tennis... running hard, then idle... running hard, then idle... etc.
 
As time goes on and you become more conditioned to this series of sprints, you can try to reduce the time it takes you to complete the cycle. In addition, you may find that you can work your way up to completing 2 or 3 Saddlebrooks in one training session. As you do, you will find that your speed on the court when playing tennis increases significantly, and more important, you will find yourself struggling less to gain oxygen during long or demanding points.
 
Allied to sprints, another off-court, anaerobic, training technique is running hills or stairs.
 
Find yourself a reasonably challenging hill or look to use the stairs in the stands of a stadium or arena.
 
If you find a hill that is about an eighth of a mile or so, and is somewhat steep, it will serve you well. Here, you sprint at full speed up the hill. When you reach the top, you stop, and then, slowly jog downhill to the original starting point. You repeat the sprint. Again, you need to take it slow at first, and carefully measure how many repetitions are appropriate given your physical starting point.
 
A bit more "dangerous" is running up stairs in a stadium. One begins at the bottom of a set of stairs, and then, runs up to the top... or whatever level is appropriate given your physical abilities and conditions. Here, you do not run down the stairs. Rather, simply walk down the stair to resume another race upward. Running down the stairs is when most of the accidents may occur. So, I don't recommend running downward on any stairs.
 
With both hills and with stairs, the major risk deals with the knees. Stairs, in particular, are likely to put strain on the knees. If you have problems with your knees or if you overdo these kinds of training sessions, you can do permanent harm to your knees.
 
At one time Stair Climbing machines were very popular at gyms. Many, if not most, gyms have removed these machines because of knee injuries. So, stair running is definitely the more dangerous of these two training drills.
 
With hills, you can often find hills that will work that are not paved but consist of grass or softer surfaces. My thinking is that using these types of hills is a far better option in terms of safety and injury.
 
On a daily basis, you can improve you anaerobic capabilities simply by walking up stairs rather than avail yourself of elevators or escalators. Let's say that you work on the seventh floor of a building. Well, begin by walking up two or three flights of stairs at a somewhat quick pace. Then, take an elevator up the remaining 4 or 5 floors. The next day, walk an additional flight of stairs. Eventually, you will find that you can do the 7 floors without harming yourself. Still, you may find that you are a bit out of breath at the end of your climb. Don't hesitate to walk down the stairs whenever you can. Simple as this may seem, the overall effect will be that you find yourself climbing 7 flights of stairs with very little if any struggle for air. In effect, you have developed an anaerobic stamina that is probably more significant than you imagine.
 
Generally, I recommend that formal anaerobic training be introduced three days per week. On alternate days, try to incorporate strength training and/or traditional aerobic training in addition to whatever on-court training in which you may be able to engage each week.
 
In my mind, anaerobic stamina is a critically ingredient in developing the physical foundation for an improved tennis game. I promise the reader that if she/he regularly trains in anaerobic exercises that in no time you will find yourself becoming a tennis overdog!
 

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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