I hear all the time, “tennis is an anaerobic sport.” I am going to make a bold statement and tell you that is not 100% accurate. I see players sprinting, doing change of direction drills and in general doing high intensity short interval workouts all the time for tennis-specific conditioning. A good number of these players are leaving some performance on the table because they are missing something VERY BIG, developing their aerobic system. In this post I want to shed some much needed light on the subject and explain why tennis should really be classified as an Alactic-Aerobic sport.
In order to set the table we have to get into talking about energy systems in general. The body has 3 energy systems and the role of each is to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which in essence is energy. To use an analogy, ATP is to the body as gasoline is to a car. Each system has unique properties and before we move on you have to understand a little more about the 2 anaerobic energy systems (alactic & lactic) along with the aerobic system. I summarized all 3 below.
Anaerobic Energy Systems
- The alactic or creatine phosphate system (ATP-PC) can produce ATP for 10-12 seconds max at a very rapid pace because it has the fewest chemical steps of all 3 energy systems. A stored phosphocreatine molecule is combined with an ADP molecule to produce ATP. This chemical reaction does not require any oxygen thus is anaerobic. The alactic system also has the greatest potential to produce ATP rapidly for power however the tradeoff is that it can only maintain the output for a very short duration before it runs completely out of phosphocreatine and ceases.
- The lactic system can produced ATP for somewhere in the range of 60-90 seconds. This process occurs by creating energy from glycogen (sugar stored in muscles) or blood glucose (sugar in the blood stream). In this entire process the by product lactate is produced, hence the name. This entire chemical process also occurs without the need for oxygen. Lactate builds up in the muscles and bloodstream and changes the pH balance up to a point where the brain shuts down lactic energy production. For years it was thought that lactic acid was the reason for fatigue but new research points to the disturbed pH balance as the reason.
Aerobic Energy System
- The aerobic energy system relies on oxygen to produce ATP and can do so for a very long time. This is the system that provides the vast majority of energy needed for our body to function on a daily basis. The tradeoff to being able to produce so much ATP for so long is that it comes at the expense of power. The aerobic energy system lacks power because it is dependent on oxygen and there are many chemical reactions that occur to produce the ATP. In other words it is slower at producing ATP compared to the alactic and lactic systems but once in motion it can produces tremendous amounts of ATP for hours on end.
Now that you understand a little about the 2 anaerobic and the aerobic energy systems let me explain how this all relates to tennis training. You see the body does not work in nice separate components, instead it works as one unit and everything is interrelated. This interrelationship between body systems could not be more true in the case of the 3 energy systems. You see the aerobic system plays an absolutely critical role in replenishing the 2 anaerobic systems. In the case of the lactic system the aerobic system oxidizes the lactate back into pyruvate and then converts it to Acetyl CoA which then gets fed into the aerobic energy system to produce more ATP. In essence the aerobic system clears the waste from lactic energy production and actually uses it to make aerobic energy. You will also remember that alactic energy production relies directly on the supply of phosphocreatine and it is the responsibility of the aerobic system to replenishes those stores as well.
At this point I hope you are seeing where I am going with this. If all tennis players do is train anaerobically they fail to develop the aerobic system and they are missing out BIG TIME. They will recover poorly between points and as developed as the anaerobic systems may be they cannot efficiently replenish phosphocreatine and or convert lactate into Acetyl CoA without the aerobic system. The development of the aerobic system is essential to the ability of the anaerobic systems to function at full capacity repeatedly. Finally, the anaerobic energy systems are not very adaptable with training, in fact a good deal of their capacity, especially the alactic system has to do with genetics. On the other hand, the aerobic system is incredibly adaptable and that is good news for those not born with genetically superior anaerobic energy systems and even better news for those who do have genetically superior anaerobic systems.
To wrap this all up tennis is a sport that relies heavily on alactic energy production. Points do not last very long and the intensity and power needed is great. The 25 or 90 seconds between points or during change overs relies heavily on the ability of the aerobic energy system to replace phosphocreatine stores. Hence tennis is not just an anaerobic sport, instead it really is an alactic-aerobic sport and needs to be trained as such.
Now I am not against running sprints and developing the anaerobic energy systems in tennis players. In fact I use methods to do so very often. The difference is I focus on anaerobic system development after I already know the player has a well developed aerobic system. And for these well conditioned athletes with an aerobic base I still focus on maintaining their aerobic systems. However for athletes who are not in good aerobic shape I focus first on getting them a good aerobic base before developing the anaerobic systems because they will definitely get more bang for their buck by doing so. By the way it is pretty easy to tell how aerobically conditioned someone is, assessment like resting heart rate, one-minute heart rate recovery, and the Coopers test work great.
If this post peaked your interest please feel free to use the buttons below to share and if you want to learn more I strongly recommend reading some work by Joel Jamison. His book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, is the best and most practical work I have ever found on conditioning.