March 1, 2018 by

The Setting

Once upon a time, the Spring of 1987 to be exact, I was 11 years old and was thrilled to have been hand picked for an elite tennis squad as part of a high net worth individual's personal goal to produce a British Wimbledon Champion (Jim Slater - ). Jim almost achieved his ambition, Tim Henman, one of those squad members, reached the Wimbledon semi finals four times and the squad also produced an Australian Open boys champion and a few other world ranked players.

It all started from an X Factor style audition process. The top 32 ranked boys in the UK across 5 different age groups were whittled down via a series of trials to one 9yr old, one 10yr old, two 11 year olds, two 12 and two 13s. I was one of the lucky 11 year olds. The eight of us were to embark on a journey to find a Wimbledon Champion amongst us and we were fully funded to attend an expensive all boys private school and an elite tennis training programme. At the end of the school day a minibus would come and pick us up from the school and take us to the David Lloyd Tennis Centre in Heston (near Heathrow airport) where we were coached for 2 hours each day by some of the best coaches in the UK. After the two hours tennis, we had either a 20 minute fitness session or a long distance run (2.5 miles) which was alternated.  Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays were the 'run' days and Tuesdays and Thursdays the 20mins fitness. It was then a shower, nutritional meal, then back on the bus back to school just in time for 'prep' where we ensured we got our homework done for the following day.

The whole routine of mixing boarding school education with coaching was like "Hogwarts for Tennis" and whilst the coaches were undoubtedly the best in the UK, less could be said for the expert fitness trainers - headed up by a former Royal Marine who apparently knew something about Sports Science of the '80s!! More to follow on that..

Fit or Fast??!!

Six months down the line, I developed a bit of a stigma as being "unfit". I was awful at the end of session long distance runs. I was always coming in second last, and Jamie Delgado (now the coach of Andy Murray) was the only person I could beat on these runs. The fitness trainers sent us out on these runs at the end of our two hour tennis session, so we were already tired before we even started jogging. I also had exercise enduced asthma, which wasn't diagnosed at the time and therefore I didn't have an inhaler. This asthma didn't come on all of the time, but when it did, and usually only during these long runs, it left me gasping for air.

The 20min fitness days weren't much fun either. The trainers would constantly ask me why I was so fast on a tennis court but pretty slow on many of the longer fitness drills. I didn't know the answer at the time, but it was because I was instinctively pacing myself, because had I used my explosive speed in the early part of any given drill, I'd be warn out for the latter part of the drill and perhaps the exercises to follow. I'd have then been sent on an extra 2 mile run as punishment "for not trying" had I looked like I wasn't trying!

The on court two hours per day were much more enjoyable. I was one of the fastest around the tennis court and also one of the strongest. I hit a forehand and serve as hard or harder than the older boys on the squad, and oddly, in long matches I didn't get tired. I could never really understand why my fitness seemed well suited to tennis, but that I was considered unfit because I was poor at the fitness sessions and runs.

Another 6 months passed and I'd turned into a physical wreck. I had developed Osgood Schlatters disease diagnosed as an impact and 'overuse' injury at a time when I was going through a growth spurt. The long distance runs (surely the cause of this) were now even more uncomfortable and the life scars of two bony lumps on my knees were here to stay.

Here's what Osgood Slatters disease is, and here's what it looks like:


All in all, it was pretty clear that my body wasn't suited to this type of fitness programme, but because a PT in the royal marines headed up the programme, he was obviously right on how we should be trained.

The University Years

Fast forward 7 years and my Pro tennis career didn't quite work out. I'd achieved a good level of success as a junior including representing my country, but I didn't improve from 15 years of age and to see all of the players I could beat easily catching me up and overtaking me sparked me to go down the education route where I embarked on an undergraduate course in BSc Exercise & Health at Staffordshire University (after a couple of years studying A Levels).

It was during this course that I realised that the fitness trainers on my former tennis squad had done us all a disservice.

Amongst many other useful subjects, I was particularly interested in the physiology of exercise. I had a relatively poor VO2 max for somebody who had been an athlete (around 40-43), and the famous VO2 Max bike test was almost impossible to do on me because my naturally high resting heart rate was usually over the entry level before barely any weights were added to the bike. Despite this, my explosive qualities were still great and the various fitness tests involving anaerobic exercise put me top of the class. I could do 60 press ups in 30 seconds (with the validation markers under the chest) where most people couldn't do even 10 press ups in any time frame. I was also very sharp and quick in short sprint fitness exercises.

I'd now also learned about the importance of training zones and understood the various fitness tests and calculations for working out my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. I could tell just by looking at a heart rate monitor during training, whether I was about to switch to a different primary energy replenishing system and that i'd be training in the anaerobic zone simply by my heart rate hitting a given bpm that was worked out specifically for me. I knew that if I could reduce intensity of exercise to drop my heart rate into the aerobic training zone, then I felt like I could run forever (even despite me being a rubbish long distance runner). This science was so accurate that I knew that at a given heart rate, when maintained for a few minutes, my exercise enduced asthma would kick in, and therefore, I could use a ventilin inhaler prior to the exercise if I was going to be training in that zone (the higher end of the aerobic training zone).

I now understood about the different types of muscle fibres. Put simply:

Type 1 - Slow Twitch (red fibres) = super for building aerobic endurance and best suited to conditioning with low intensity exercise (those painful long distance runs)

Type 2a / Type 2b - Fast Twitch (white fibres) = super for explosiveness, speed and strength and best suited to conditioning with high intensity short exercise (sprinting around a tennis court). Interestingly, the Type 2a variety were oxidative fibres and very receptive to being conditioned for withstanding fatigue. Wait!!! Endurance without long distance running??!!!

I'd learned that we've all got different percentages of these red and white fibres, and it was clear for me that I had been genetically passed down a disproportinate amount of white ones compared to those red ones. I also learned that conditioning these slow twitch red fibres with long distance and other low intensity and slow moving workouts, would slow me down. To my shock, I also learned that high intensity short workouts with rest intervals would build endurance and speed simultaneouly by conditioning the white fibres.

The penny dropped soon into the degree course as to why my fitness was very well suited to a tennis court and why my endurance to cope with long tiring matches was also very good despite the fact I had a distinctly average VO2 max and was still poor (now even worse) at long distance running. Those white fibre hereos had the ability to withstand fatigue and get me moving quickly.

The subject of long distance running for explosive sports came up in many lectures and debates and EVERY single one of these debates referred to the underpinning science and how bad long distance running is for explosive sports and that how type 2a muscle fibres (oxidative fast twitch) fibres could be trained to be very fatigue resistant whilst still firing explosively. The subject of sports specific training came up many times and the capacity for enduring the required work for a given sporting activity. This led to a series of different projects and dissertations from my fellow Sports Science undergraduates arriving at a variety of innovative exercise programmes designed specifically for different sports. This was interesting stuff!

Present Day

Having played tennis at a relatively high level and having a degree in Exercise & Health science and matched to 20 years+ tennis coaching experience, I'm confident that my knowledge and personal experiences are well rounded for tennis training and coaching. I'm now working at the grass roots end of the coaching spectrum, but should I move back into elite player coaching, I will always train my players with appropriate exercises for the qualities required for tennis and I know that from doing this, those important aerobic and endurance elements will naturally come as part of that.

I've also learned that squad based training (for both fitness and tennis itself) is very limited in its effectiveness because the training requirements for one person to another can be very different. These differences can be broadly fit into a sport science theory of 'somatotyping' -

It is certainly the case that I wouldn't prescribe long distance running on hard roads to any kid going through a growth spurt, in fact, I wouldn't prescribe long distance running at all. If anybody challenges me on why, I just show them my extremely nobbly knees and forward them to other useful sports science articles. Here are a couple of examples of those:

So, all in all, I do have some actual and metophorical scars from some pretty shoddy exercise programmes of the past, but the biggest thing I've learned from all of these years of training and studying, is that fitness isn't defined on how well you can run a long distance run, it's how well you can perform the physical demands of the task at hand. If you want to get fitter for tennis, play lots of tennis and do exercises that replicate the demands of tennis.