How well we perform on the court has a lot to do with how well we prep our bodies off of the court. Often taken for granted, the 10-15 minutes pre- and post-tennis are crucial. Much like a car in the dead of winter, needing to be driven slowly for the first few moments as it warms up, so too do our bodies require a slow and gradual start to activity. Unlike a car engine, however, it can actually be dangerous for our hearts to have an abrupt stop to activity. A cool down period enables your heart rate and breathing to return to resting levels gradually. How you spend the time before and after your hit has the potential to not only help you perform better, but may play an important role in reducing your risk of injury.
Most of us grew up trained to warm up by stretching, holding different poses for 25 seconds or more. However, research has shown that this is actually counterproductive to activity. Stretching out a muscle leads to less elasticity of that muscle - translating into decreased speed and explosiveness. Holding stretches before activity will actually leave you weaker and more unstable during activity.
Therefore, an effective tennis warm up should be dynamic, focusing on preparing your upper and lower body for the quick, abrupt movements that occur on court. The warm up should occur immediately before playing, as every time you sit or stop moving, your body will tighten up again. The initial goal is to gradually rev up your cardiovascular system by raising your body temperature, and increasing blood flow to your muscles. Next, the goal is to activate your muscles, improve your muscle and joint range of motion, and gain body awareness, before finally beginning to play.
Start broad by warming up large muscles groups first. You can walk briskly, skip or lightly jog for 3-5 minutes, while adding in arm circles as you jog. Proceed to get more explosive with some leg swings, high knees, and footwork related moves, like shuffles and crossover steps. Once this has occurred, you can get into more specific, smaller muscle groups. Hip openers, knee tucks and front lunges are great dynamic stretches to effectively warm up the hips and groin muscles. Try doing 12-15 repetitions on each leg. Consider investing in a theraband, as there are a variety of great warm up exercises that can be performed for both your upper and lower body.
Once ready to play, shadow swing strokes with the racquet, before beginning with mini tennis (service-line to service-line) for a few minutes to get your timing and rhythm. Once this is achieved, you can move back to the full court with fuller swings, gradually increasing your swing acceleration and intensity.
So you finish your hit, now off to the showers? Not so fast. Spending 5-10 minutes cooling down is essential to your recovery, and can prevent soreness that could last for days otherwise. A cool down enables your heart rate and breathing to return to resting levels gradually. An abrupt heart rate and blood pressure decline can lead to dizziness or even fainting, as blood pools in the large muscles of the legs with this sudden stop of vigorous activity. A cool down also prevents the buildup of lactic acid, which is effectively removed with gentle exercise, an essential aspect in your body’s recovery. Effective cool downs consist of any low-intensity activity, such as walking or light peddling on the stationary bike. Following this up with some static stretching for 5-10 minutes is the perfect way to both relax your body and improve flexibility.
Your warm up and cool down should be a predetermined routine, performed each time you play. Listen to your body, and pay attention to muscles that require extra care. If your hips are tight, spend a little extra time on them. Don’t be fooled by watching the pros warm up before their match. Their real warm up happened 2 hours prior to the match, with both the on and off court details discussed above. After all, who has time to waste the first 20 minutes of an hour long court, or the first 4 games of a match, to “warm up.” Take the 10-15 minutes before and after play, to ensure you are at optimal performance on the court; in the end, you’ll be thankful you did, and your game will be better for it.