Anyone for tennis? A Physio's guide to avoiding injury and improving performance

Updated: Apr 25

by Laura Oxley

It is that time of year again when we start wistfully thinking of spending the lengthening evenings indulging in a spot of friendly (or not so friendly) competition. Read on to find out how this centuries old sport benefits your health, not just your social life!

About 75 million people play tennis worldwide, representing people of just about every age imaginable. Rackets and balls are modified for younger children to slow the ball down and allow for longer reaction times and the development of technique. At the other end of the spectrum, people are still happily enjoying the sport into their 80's and beyond, such is the ability of the game to adapt to the player.

As a Physio, I appreciate the benefits that playing a sport like this bring. I even regularly indulge myself, testing the endless patience of my coaches with my ineptitude. But do I love playing, despite my shortcomings? Oh yes I do! So I can fully understand the desire of my tennis playing patients to keep the sport up throughout their lives. Happily, I am in the business of finding ways to keep my patients doing the very things that they enjoy, so we have a mutual goal.

What are the health benefits of tennis?

According to research released in 2019 by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, tennis benefits all aspects of our wellbeing:

  • Playing 2-3 times a week meets global exercise recommendations, whether you play singles or doubles

  • Tennis helps maintain a healthy heart. Players have the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease compared to other sports.

  • Playing tennis for 3 hours a week lowers heart disease risk by 56%!

  • Tennis strengthens leg muscles which maintains mobility and independence as we age.

  • Playing tennis regularly help keep bones stronger and healthier. It doesn't even matter what age you are when you start playing, you'll still benefit!

  • Tennis enhances the neural activity in your brain as it requires tactical thinking and alertness. Children who play regularly perform better in academic tasks at school.

  • The physical, mental, emotional and social challenges of tennis help players cope better with stress.

  • Playing tennis helps the development of hand-eye coordination, agility, balance, coordination and reaction time.

  • Tennis is a fun way to burn calories and lose weight. One hour of singles tennis can burn between 580 to 870 calories!

The role of physio in managing tennis injuries

So now we know how playing can enhance our lives, what can we do to help ourselves keeping playing?

At our physio clinics in Rugby, we often see tennis players come to us with muscle, tendon and joint pains. The ankles, knees and hips are all prone to acute injuries like torn ligaments, joint sprains and pulled muscles whilst the upper limbs tend to suffer from overuse injuries affecting wrists, elbows and shoulders. Like most sports injuries, many of these injuries are brought about by poor preparation or technique, and as a result the good news is they are generally avoidable and easily treated.

  • For example, the infamous tennis elbow is often caused by a faulty grip technique or the wrong grip size leading to the player overusing the forearm muscles.

  • Another example concerns shoulder injuries such as those affecting the rotator cuff. Shoulder pain in tennis players can often be tracked back to the player not driving through the legs sufficiently, perhaps due to an old knee injury, causing them to try to gain too much power from the arms themselves and straining the shoulder muscles.

  • Lastly, the wrong footwear for the playing surface can make sprained ankles more likely, and weakness of the ankle muscles combined with poor balance can make these issues frustratingly persistent.

The right physiotherapy advice and exercises can solve each and every one of these problems, if the right issues are identified and tackled.

Which exercises can help improve your tennis performance and reduce your risk of injury?

There are few exercises which will really benefit your health and your game:

A strong trunk is essential, helping to absorb impact forces from the ground, transferring the energy to the arms, and ultimately the racket. This is crucial as it helps us avoid having to generate too much power from the shoulder and arm itself, a leading cause of shoulder and elbow pain and injury amongst tennis players. And who doesn't want to unleash maximum power as they deliver their deadly crosscourt forehand?

Mat work exercises which target the whole core, and can benefit your tennis, include the plank and its variations, including plank with rotation, lifting opposite limbs, and side plank. You could also include bicycle kicks to strengthening the obliques, and reverse crunches for the lower abs.

However, I'm also in favour including more functional and sports specific exercises: a particular favourite is lunge with rotation. This will challenge your balance, oblique abdominal/hip strength, and coordination - add a medicine ball, kettle bell or resistance band to ramp up the difficulty.

Side lunges and squats are also useful - gaining more power from the legs means less risk of developing back and neck pain or overuse injuries to the shoulders . Don't forget reverse lunges too though - although fiendishly difficult, practising this skill will help you strengthen the posterior chain muscles, and improve your fitness: you will notice the difference when you are next scampering backwards chasing that lob!

And when you've put in the effort in the gym to prep your body for tennis, don't let yourself down by skipping the warm up when you get on the court! Start with some gentle net drills to get the heart and lungs going before working up to some baseline rallies, and don't forget to warm up your serve!

You might also enjoy and benefit from the Pilates classes on our youtube channel which will help you develop more core control, flexibility and balance:

One final point:

If you are struggling with an injury which is stopping you playing, please don't delay in getting help: resting and then returning to play without addressing the cause won't solve the problem, you will find your symptoms return with a vengeance when you resume!

Read our sports injuries page and make an appointment with us at Omnia for an expert assessment and let us help you get back to your sport quickly and safely, confident that you really are match fit. Why don't you use our online booking system?

Good luck and let me know what you think in the comments!

Laura x


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