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Are you really training for tennis-specific endurance?

by Mark Kovacs, Ph.D., USPTA

<i>Training for tennis requires a structured endurance-training program.
Training for tennis requires a structured endurance-training program.

January 2008 -- Competitive tennis requires players to compete in many matches that last longer than two hours, but also involves short and intense bouts of exertion combined with brief rest periods [1]. The duration of work and rest is highly variable and each match has a different physiological profile [2]. For these reasons, training for tennis is complex and it requires a committed coach to plan and implement a structured endurance-training program based on an athlete’s physiology, playing style and competitive level.

When designing training programs, it is important to train the metabolic energy systems that dominate during match play. A common problem that still occurs with regard to training specificity is the method by which tennis endurance (aerobic capability) is developed. Developing tennis endurance is usually the major focus during the off-season or pre-season (general preparatory/specific preparatory) periods of training. Traditional slow aerobic conditioning or even long-interval training sessions are still used in many tennis conditioning programs. It is still common to see well-meaning coaches run their players using inefficient training routines. Examples of this include running multiple 400-meter sprints on a track or running miles to build aerobic capabilities or even increase lactate tolerance. The question that needs to be asked by these coaches and trainers is: How specific is that training program to the sport of tennis?

To understand if an activity or drill is specific to the sport, it is important to focus on a few major variables: the length, the recovery and the intensity. Although long-distance, continuous aerobic routines, such as 30-minute to 60-minute runs, do develop aerobic capabilities, is this type of capability transferable and necessary to tennis play? Long, slow, continuous movements are not highly specific to the length of movements, the recovery or the intensity seen during match play. Simply stated, they do not match the physiological requirements of tennis match play. Many of you reading this will be thinking that athletes still need aerobic training to last for long matches and also recover fast after long matches. Aerobic capabilities still need to be developed since the majority of energy regeneration is performed aerobically. Therefore, short sprint/interval training would be a more tennis-specific method of training if the workload could replicate match play (i.e., work/rest intervals) and is performed for 30 to 45 minutes.

Work/rest analysis
A good method for noninvasively determining the requirements of tennis match play is a work/rest analysis. The ideal way to make this specific to your athletes would be to videotape five to 10 matches and have your athletes determine how long points and rest periods lasted. Timing the average length of points and rest periods, as well as determining in what time frame the players predominantly played most of their points (i.e., 0-5 seconds, 5-10 seconds, 10-15 seconds) would allow the coach to design highly individualized programs for each player. If you do not have the equipment or time or the number of students that you teach is just too large to practically make this work, a brief summary of the tennis-specific research in college and professional tennis players is provided.

In the majority of studies the average point length is less than 15 seconds [3-8]. An analysis conducted by our research group compared the final of the 1988 and 2003 U.S. Open men’s singles. It is interesting to note that the average point length has decreased by over 50 percent in the last 15 years. The time of work for each point decreased from 12.2 seconds in 1988 to 5.99 seconds in 2003. Furthermore, the average rest between points also decreased by approximately 50 percent when compared to 15.18 seconds in 2003. A statistic that is potentially more important is that 93 percent of all points lasted less than 15 seconds [9, 10]. Therefore, if coaches are using old training guidelines from outdated data, they may think they are designing tennis-specific programs; however, without using current work/rest data these programs will be inefficient for developing the endurance requirements of today’s tennis athlete.

Work/rest ratio
The previously mentioned data led to the next important component for training design - the work/rest ratio. The currently published data reveals that for every second of work performed there is three to five seconds of rest [2]. Therefore, it is important to structure programs utilizing a work to rest ratio that mimics match play.

Current errors in program design for tennis
This data provided highlights of how short the time of each point is during tennis match play. These findings, although important, are rarely used when designing physical conditioning programs for tennis players. Until now too much emphasis has been placed on traditional aerobic training methods such as 1.5- or 3-mile runs or lactate-producing interval training in the form of one- to two-minute sprints (400- to 800-meter sprints). Furthermore, it has been shown that plasma lactate levels do not rise during tennis competition [11], which would suggest that training involving large increases in lactate (one- to two-minute sprints) would not be beneficial and is, in fact, ill-advised for tennis players. It is much more specific and efficient to train athletes using time frames ranging from five to 45 seconds at a higher intensity and repeating those varied intervals for 30 to 45 minutes to develop tennis-specific endurance. Conclusion
The purpose of this article is not to provide examples of different court drills, but to present ideas on how to incorporate your current drills and movement patterns (both on and off court) into a scientifically and physiologically based tennis conditioning program.

Further recommendations that should be followed when designing tennis-specific training programs are as follows [12]:

  • It is beneficial to maintain physical conditioning intensity equal to or greater than match intensity.
  • The majority of work should take less than 15 seconds to complete.
  • Work should not exceed 45 seconds without an appropriate rest interval.
  • Work/rest ratio should be comparable to that of match play. An acceptable range is between two to four seconds of rest for every second of work.
  • After every 10 to 15 repetitions, a longer rest period (to simulate rest during games) should be taken.
These recommendations are for energy system development specifically for tennis. They should not be used when focusing on speed development or high-intensity agility.

Mark Kovacs, Ph.D., USPTA, is a coach, trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist and tennis physiologist. He is an assistant professor of exercise science and wellness at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala., and is a former professional tennis player, collegiate All-American and NCAA doubles champion at Auburn University. He is the co-author of "Tennis Training: Enhancing On-Court Performance," which is available through and bookstores. He can be contacted at

  1. Kovacs, M., W.B. Chandler, and T.J. Chandler, Tennis training: enhancing on-court performance. 2007, Vista, CA: Racquet Tech Publishing.
  2. Kovacs, M.S., Tennis physiology: training the competitive athlete. Sports Medicine, 2007. 37(3): p. 1-11.
  3. Chandler, T.J., Work/rest intervals in world class tennis. Tennis Pro, 1991. 3: p. 4.
  4. Deutsch, E., S.L. Deutsch, and P.S. Douglas, Exercise training for competitive tennis. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 1988. 7(2): p. 417-27.
  5. Ellliott, B., B. Dawson, and F. Pyke, The energetics of singles tennis. Journal of Human Movement Studies, 1985. 11: p. 11-20.
  6. König, D., et al., Cardiovascular, metabolic, and hormonal parameters in professional tennis players. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2001. 33(4): p. 654-658.
  7. Richers, T.A., Time-motion analysis of the energy systems in elite and competitive singles tennis. Journal of Human Movement Studies, 1995. 28: p. 73-86.
  8. Kovacs, M.S., Applied physiology of tennis performance. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2006. 40(5): p. 381-386.
  9. Kovacs, M.S., et al. Time analysis of work/rest intervals in men’s professional tennis. Southeastern American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting. 2004. Atlanta, GA.
  10. Kovacs, M.S., A comparison of work/rest intervals in men’s professional tennis. Medicine and Science in Tennis, 2004. 9(3): p. 10-11.
  11. Bergeron, M.F., et al., Tennis: a physiological profile during match play. International journal of sports medicine, 1991. 12(5): p. 474-479.
  12. Kovacs, M.S., A new approach to training tennis endurance. International Tennis Federation Coaching and Sports Science Review, 2006. 38(2-3): p. 2006.
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