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Tennis Load Management for Dummies

aka ‘I perform bad, therefore I train harder: An accidental n=1 experiment in sub-optimal load management.’

By Nick Ilic — The Tennis Physio www.thetennisphysio.com

  • Load Management is a vital, often overlooked, injury prevention/reduction tool.
  • Overtraining is easy to do, hard to identify.
  • Athletes and their Coaches will not correlate poor performance with overtraining by themselves. Education and training in load management is key.
  • The drive to train harder due to poor performance is deeply ingrained in the beliefs of the Athlete, their parents and some coaches. Load management education will help the athlete identify overtraining before an overuse injury occurs.
  • Traditional ‘3up/1down’ mesocycles/months may not incorporate enough recovery.
  • A congested WTA and ATP event calendar may be contributing to player training overload, resulting in quantity but not quality from its players.

It was a great Winter of Tennis. The best I’ve ever played, performed and enjoyed, the first time I’ve trained and competed through a Winter season.

Winter Tennis League, not quite that bad….but still cold.

I had pushed myself harder than ever before in training and in league matches, with steadfast focus and drive. Calling upon every inch of my kinetic chain to generate ground reaction force repetitively in order to generate leg drive and transfer it through the many bodily segments on its way to a fast swinging racquet-head.

Can you have ‘too much focus’?

Balls with consistent top spin, easily directed to where I want them to go. Very few double faults. Results not relevant but early losses despite great performances, making them “enjoyable losses” and then a 2 month streak of wins in June/July. I was on top of the world and heading toward the league semi-final against an opponent, a former singles club champion, much fitter and younger than I.

I buckled in for a fight, noone had yet gone to 3 sets in this Winter league. The nights were too cold for that, the chilly air sucked out the motivation and energy of those on the backfoot after losing the first set, but my match was a Saturday 11am fixture and I wanted to give it my all in the glorious 8degC sunshine, I had been winning and performing well for 2 months and I was addicted to my high performance level and was highly confidant.

First set was a trade of blows, 4–4 and then he breaks me and holds serve, 4–6 in the first. I come out strong in the second, much like the first, we trade games up to 5–5 and then I cut loose. I hit harder and faster, he has less time to react, he drops them short, I put them away and win 7–5. It’s that elusive 3rd set that noone has yet seen. Demoralised by the 2nd set, I had him psychologically and he went down 6–1 in the 3rd and I finished a match which I have never played harder or longer (2hrs20mins) to win. I couldn’t walk down stairs for 2 days afterwards due to the DOMs (delayed onset muscle soreness) in my quads and hams.

The league final comes the week later. Motivated and pumped up, I train harder that week. Hitting as many balls as possible, because that’s what makes you better in Tennis.

The big day arrives, I arrive 15mins earlier for an extended warm-up. A packed crowed of 2–3 people who swap over to 2–3 other people during the match, watch on. I am ready, I have put in the hours and I have never felt more confidant.

It all falls to pieces. I am slow. I am weak. The ball goes in the net. The ball goes out the back. I am frustrated. I am angry. .. . but why angry? …. … Because… I’m not feeling tired, …strange…. 1st set: 1–6.

2nd set, I’m more alertand ready and have renewed energy, I’ve got this guy! Coaches watching on from behind the back fence, cheering for me, pumping me up. I nail a few shots, but the consistency is rubbish. More unforced errors than an ABS Online Census.

Balls go short from not using legs. Balls go out the back from lack of racquet head speed. I get pushed around and I make it to the wide balls, as again, I’m not puffed, I don’t feel tired, all I feel is angry and frustrated from not knowing what is going on with the errors. All over, 1–6, 1–6. Runner-up.

Thankfully, I didn’t have any ‘Baghdatis Moments’.

On the way home from the match, ego shattered, pride obliterated, my mind immediate switches to: FIX IT MODE. I will go back that afternoon and train, as I obviously need it, my performance was rubbish, I need to train more!

Fortunately, I summon up a modicum of common sense and instead opt for a practice match the next day.

The next day, piss poor performance yet again and many apologies offered to my training partner.


Fortunately, as a physiotherapist working in sports who has his own account on a Load Monitoring system* (along with my athletes, of course) I:

  1. Remembered I’m a physiotherapist working in sports who has his own account on a Load Monitoring system….(*facepalm*).

2. Reviewed my training load over the Winter.

I use Athlete Monitoring: http://www.athletemonitoring.com/

Initially it was peaks and troughs, low and medium load weeks with a high every 3rd/4th week, but the previous 4 weeks leading up to the final of the league, I had trained and competed at a high training load the entire time, just out of sheer enjoyment for the game and the way I was performing. There was also a significant increase in chronic workload between June and July (see below). It turns out, when it comes to our body, you can have too much of a good thing.

If I continued that acute load into another week, for my age and fitness level* I would have likely developed one of the many overload injuries that I’ve suffered in the past and have seen and treated in the clinic. The early signs were already starting, skin breakdown/blisters under the ball of my foot.

*Check out this nifty injury likelihood calculator from SportsCover: http://www.sportscover.com/calculator.asp #MotivationToGetFitter


‘Load Management’ is a hot ticket item in Sports Physiotherapy at the moment. It’s the first thing that should be addressed by physiotherapists when treating athletes (at all levels, in all sports), and it’s often forgotten. Overtraining is something easily achieved by athletes, and when left to their own devices, motivated and driven athletes will tend to overcook rather than undercook themselves.

There’s been some great research recently on load management in sport, and I’ll wave the Aussie flag and give kudos and high-5’s to Tim Gabbett for his work on load management in Rugby League players.

Load Management revolves around some simple concepts:

  • Training Units or “arbitrary units” are minutes X RPE (rating of perceived exertion #/10). Eg: 100mins of an activity which was 5/10 hard = 500 Training Units.
  • An ‘acute load’ is your weekly training units.
  • A ‘chronic load’ is the weekly average of 4 weeks of training units.
  • It is not recommended that your acute load exceeds 130% of your chronic load for too long (overtraining)as you are likely to sustain an overuse injury.
  • It is not recommended that your acute load is less than 80% of your chronic load, as you will ‘unload’, drop your chronic load, are likely to sustain an overuse injury on return when you reapply a high acute load on a low chronic load. This is why athletes are provided with a fortnightly program over the Christmas break each year. Incidence of overload injuries is particularly prevalent in January/February.
  • It is recommended that you not only alternate high/med/low training sessions, but also high/med/low weekly loads. (My tennis guys and gals currently use low/med/low/high with great results on performance.)
  • The goal is to reach a high chronic workload over time, and then to drop off the acute workload the week before high performance is desired. An athlete who has developed a high chronic workload has built durability and resilience.
  • This ‘load management’ concept can be used on any sport or physical activity in order to help prevent overuse/overload injuries. It’s an advancement from the old ‘10% increase in weekly load’ recommendation which has since turned out to probably still be too much on our bodies. Interestingly, as a “pube-physio” or a physiotherapist who sees many public servants (including in Parliament House), I believe the load management concept is also applicable to an office workers workload and I see ‘overtraining’ injuries all the time.
  • Recovery data includes items such as: stress, soreness, health, sleep quality, sleep quantity etc.
  • Subjective measures (mood, perceived stress) are better than objective measures (blood markers, heart rate, oxygen consumption, heart rate response) in measuring acute and chronic training load.
  • A prolonged reduction in scores in items such as sleep quality/quantity and stress is a strong indicator for an acute injury, particularly neuromuscular injuries such as a hamstring strain.
  • By altering and recommended a set RPE or duration, Coaches can adjust their daily training schedule based on the recovery scores submitted each morning by the athlete in order ensure they are not going to over-train them whilst they are fatigued.
  • Load management is used in elite sports, particularly with GPS technology. An example is the monitoring of high speed running in footballers in order to manage/reduce the incidence of hamstring and other muscular injuries (eg: how many meters run over 5m/s in a game/week).

The key point, and the genesis of this piece is:

As an athlete, at any level, even if you know about ‘load management’, even if you don’t yet have an ‘injury’, and… believe it or not: even if you’re a physiotherapist who deals with load management and overload injuries every day, you may not notice the chronic overload coming on and you won’t pay attention to it. Your focus will be on your poor performance, and if you don’t have an injury yet holding you back, your reaction will be to train harder, and the injury will come shortly thereafter. Even if you are performing well, there is logic in thinking “I’ve been playing well these last few weeks, I need to maintain this level of training to stay at this level”.

Therefore, here I come to the most important point, which has spurred me to write this entire piece out of a feeling of self-disgust that I missed my own excessive chronic training load:

There is strong psychological, physiological and social motivation in athletes to train more in order to improve on poor performances, or if performing well, to maintain or increase current training volume.

It is therefore up to the coach, the physio and the medical team to monitor the load of their athlete(s). We must remember not just the ‘bio’ (what hurts) but the ‘psycho’ (how they feel) & ‘social’ (who else is involved) aspects of the athlete sitting there in front of us in the clinic when explaining to them why we recommend they pull back on their training load despite them feeling good and not being injured currently. This is very nicely termed the ‘biopsychosocial’ model, and it applies across all areas of healthcare.

It’s not easy, it takes strength and courage to reduce the training load of an athlete particularly when they are on top of their game and performing well. Remember the 4 P’s, planning prevents poor performance, or as a Navy Petty Officer once said to me as a young solider “the 7 P’s: prior planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance”.

Even elite cyclists get their load management wrong.

If we (physios/coaches/sports docs) educate the coaches and the players about load monitoring and plan out low/med/high weeks so they land in the right places around tournaments, competitions, travel, holidays etc. If we stress compliance with the planned load and compliance with the regular reporting of training load and recovery data by the athlete, then there will be very little surprises down the track and Sports Medicine will take one step closer towards that elusive goal of ‘injury prevention’.

But for now, I’m happy with ‘injury reduction’. I still need to make coin, after all.


**2017 update** Perhaps a more recent scenario in load management has been the 2017 performance of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Murray and Djokovic spent 2016 playing every event possible in the ATP calendar in order to either get to number 1 (Murray) or hold onto the number 1 ranking (Djokovic). It became so hectic that following his gold medal win at the Rio Olympics, Murray chartered a private jet to leave Rio and get to Cincinnati to keep playing otherwise he would not have been able to finish the year as number 1. Then they had 4 weeks off in what has been termed an ‘off-season’ between the ATP World Finals and the start of the “2017 season” at Abu Dhabi (errm… at the end of December 2016).

Additionally, Murray and Djokovic play a baseline game where they pound their opponent into submission which often involves a longer average rally length than, say for example, the serve/volley strategy.

You may see what I’m hypothesising here, indeed drawing a very long bow, but worth exploring:

· Murray and Djokovic were victim of the congested 2016 ATP calendar. They overloaded.

· Federer, due to rehabilitation throughout the back half of 2016, had opportunity to increase his chronic load gradually following injury. He also deploys the serve/volley strategy, which results in a shorter average point length than the traditional base-line grinders. Plus, he is just pure genius, of course.

It seems that the ATP and WTA event calendar has an extra event every year, expecting more matches out of its playres. It’s now a regular occurrence for esteemed players in their 30s to pick which tournaments they will play in on the tour to be at their best for those tournaments. Eg: Federer working towards Wimbledon and skipping lead-up clay tournaments before Roland Garos 2017, Del Potro cherry picking events he plays in, Serena Williams also has skipped a couple of events this year without giving reason… which we have later learnt is probably due to her pregnancy (Best Wishes Serena!!).

Perhaps it is worth exploring the congested tournament schedule and whether the ATP and WTA wants quality or quantity from its players.


For information on how you can get stated with Load Monitoring, visit www.thetennisphysio.com or email nick@thetennisphysio.com .


To catch up on some of the latest Load Management goss, I recommend the following open-access articles:

  • Gabbett, T. J. (2016). The training — injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder?. British journal of sports medicine,50(5), 273–280.
  • Blanch, P., & Gabbett, T. J. (2016). Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely? The acute: chronic workload ratio permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury. British journal of sports medicine, 50(8), 471–475.
  • Gabbett, T. J., Hulin, B. T., Blanch, P., & Whiteley, R. (2016). High training workloads alone do not cause sports injuries: how you get there is the real issue. British journal of sports medicine, 50(8), 444–445.
  • Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P. B. (2015). Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2015.
Orchard J. Who is to blame for all the football injuries? Br J Sports Med 2012; June 20,guest blog. http://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2012/06/20/who-is-to-blame-for-all-thefootball-injuries/
From: ‘Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely — The acute-chronic workload permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury’ by Blanch & Gabbett, published in BJSM on December 2015
From ‘High training workloads alone do not cause sports injuries: how you get there is the real issue’ — Gabbett, Hulin, Blanch, Whiteley. Br J Sports Med, Published online January 21, 2016
From: ‘Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely — The acute-chronic workload permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury’ by Blanch & Gabbett, published in BJSM on December 2015