By Mark Kovacs, PhD, FACSM, CSCS*D, MTPS
iTPA Executive Director
The 2015 US Open has seen a number of players struggle with cramps this year. Many years at the US Open players struggle when they compete in New York in the hot and humid conditions. In general the hottest, most difficult days in New York have temperatures between 85-95°F and 45-60% humidity. This temperature and humidity is not dissimilar to many parts of the US throughout the entire summer period. Therefore, why do some of the best players in the world struggle so mightily to combat the conditions? Also, what can the regular tennis player do to help avoid the dreaded exercise associated muscle cramps? I have been fortunate to have been around cramping research and researchers for more than 15 years. I have worked in three different thermal physiology labs under some of the smartest minds in the fields of heat, humidity, temperature regulation and cramping in athletes. These labs are designed to study everything including blood, sweat, urine, saliva and everything in between. Many questions about cramping have been answered, and some questions still remain. Cramping is a multi-faceted problem and many different types of cramps occur in athletes. Fatigue cramps can occur in hot and cold conditions. Heat related cramps are different, night time cramps are different again and eccentric exercise (think of doing 100 calf raises in a row) cramping differs as well. Also, some athletes are more cramp-prone than other athletes. As a result, solving the cramping problem requires a personalized solution from a highly trained individual who understands the many causes of cramping and appropriate solutions to prepare the athlete and prevent cramping. With the right training and appropriate monitoring and education, limiting and completely avoiding cramping is possible. Below are some initial areas that should be part of a training program to limit the chance of experiencing exercise associated muscle cramps during tennis play.
1) Poor and/or incorrect conditioning
This is usually the most common cause. Many well-meaning athletes are just not training the correct way to prepare for the conditions. This includes training specifically for tennis. As a result many athletes are being put through tough workouts, but these general workouts are not actually training the athlete to be fully prepared for the demands of matches. Remember that tennis is all about quick explosive movements over short periods of time in specific movement pattern, with short recovery periods (<25 seconds). Many times the tennis player will not train specifically for the demands of tennis, which can cause the athlete to be ill prepared (even though a lot of hard work and sweat has been put into training). The old adage train smart is a lot better than just training hard – if hard training is not smart.
Most of the top players are doing better with nutrition and understanding the needs of the elite tennis athlete. However, many players (especially young players) are still not taking care of individual nutrition well. Tennis specific nutrition is highly individual and each player has a different physiology and needs a different composition of nutrients based on their unique biology, training habits, game style and energy needs. Remember that everyone burns different amount of fats and carbohydrates throughout the day and especially during training and competition. How nutrients are used by the body are somewhat different as well; nutrients are used differently. Many individuals may have deficiencies in different areas that may need adjustments.
3) Hydration & Electrolytes
An athlete’s hydration is always talked about when it comes to cramping. Although hydration is an important aspect of the equation it is usually not the sole answer to stop cramping alone. Most elite tennis players are aware of the hydration needs, and generally most do a good job of taking care of the hydration appropriately. The challenge is that the human body can only replace between 1.5-1.8 liters of fluid per hour comfortably. However, tennis athletes (especially male athletes) can sweat up to 3 liters per hour. Therefore, the balance of hydration is always somewhat of a challenge, and it is very important that the athletes come onto the court well-hydrated. The major electrolyte lost in sweat is sodium, and many tennis players are not supplementing with enough sodium in the days leading up to matches. On-court hydration, although important, is usually not the answer. Only so much can safely and effectively be consumed during matches, so the pre-match routines and day before and week before match routines are very important. Other electrolytes that can play a role are potassium (although at a much lower extent), magnesium and calcium. There is one caution that players need to be aware of before and after tennis matches. Many well-meaning players may try to overdrink. Overdrinking is a concern, especially if the fluid is just water. The problem is that once an athlete sweats out a lot of fluid (sodium rich fluid) and then replaces the lost sweat just with water, the electrolyte content of the blood becomes diluted which can result in significant health consequences. This is sometimes termed water intoxication, or the more medical term of “hyponatremia.”
4) Neuromuscular Fatigue
The neuromuscular theory of exercise related muscle cramping suggests that muscle overload and neuromuscular fatigue cause an imbalance between excitatory impulses from muscle proprioceptors that control length and tension in muscles. These tend to occur when the muscle is contracting in an already-shortened position. This is very common (the shortened position) when tennis players move. Therefore, the nervous system plays a significant role and working on better strategies of relaxation of the nervous system may help to reduce the likelihood of muscle cramps. This is likely the explanation for much of the muscle cramping that occurs when fluid levels are appropriate and sometimes when cramping occurs in colder conditions. Good methods to train this in preparation is to incorporate high velocity speed and power movements including plyometric and high velocity power movements to train the body to handle these movements in varying conditions.
5) Lack of Emotional Control
Developing strategies to cope with hot and humid conditions is very important for elite athletes in all sports. Having well defined between point and changeover routines is very important to conserve energy and control/manage energy levels appropriately. Athletes that are highly emotional, talkative or generally burn a lot of excessive energy may result in more problems just due to more calories being burned each minute which requires more energy, etc.
Check out more information about cramping, nutrition, hydration and appropriate training for tennis players in either the Tennis Performance Trainer (TPT) certification program (www.itpa-tennis.org/tpt.html ) or the Certified Tennis Performance Specialist (CTPS) program through the International Tennis Performance Association (iTPA).