Vivian Grisogono

Stiffness after tennis

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Causes and prevention of stiffness after playing tennis.
Q: What are the possible explanations for stiffness or aches the following day after a tennis practice? I know that a build up of lactic acid can cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but what I was wondering is how stiffness is caused when the session is not that high intensity-wise. 

I know that training with a cold can cause aches the next few days, also playing/ doing an exercise or sport when you have not done it for a while?
And of course one can stiffen up through getting cold after a game or match or sitting through a long car journey without showering, changing or stretching.

Does stiffness after exercise show that the muscles are not strong enough? I’ve just started playing again after a lay-off, and I get stiff mainly in the right shoulder and gluteals.

I’m worried that a stiff muscle is more likely to get damaged. What’s the best way to prevent stiffness?
Male, 24 UK
A: 1. Activity which is unusual for muscles inevitably causes a certain amount of stiffness. This is worse if the person is untrained and unfit.
2. It’s true that if your muscles are specially tight or stiff, they are more likely to be injured by further intensive exercise, as they will function inefficiently.
3. The state of your immune system plays a part in muscle tightness, as you say. If you are fatigued, run-down, or suffering from infection or virus, you are more likely to feel stiff, even from minor exercise.
4. Dehydration is often a factor, especially if the immune system is impaired.
5. Body balance is vital, to ensure efficiency of movement and a good distribution of effort.
6. Weakness in eccentric muscle work is a very big factor in both DOMS and the kind of stiffness which follows unusual exercise. This is especially true in relation to the front-thigh muscles and gluteals.
7. A tennis player needs muscle strength, power and flexibility. If any of these elements is deficient, there will be more strain on the muscles and joints used for playing, and therefore more likelihood of after-stiffness, also of injury.
8. Stretching all muscle groups well after exercise may help to reduce after-stiffness.
9. Showering and changing as soon as possible after high-intensity exercise helps to stimulate the circulation. It removes the sweat metabolites from the skin, and prevents skin cooling and muscle chilling.
10. Inadequate diet may well play a part, as muscle work is less efficient if nutrition is poor.

You’re right to identify various different factors as possible contributors to stiffness after exercise. So don’t just think that specific muscle groups which are stiff after tennis are "too weak". Practising more can create more stiffness, if your immune system is run-down. More practice doesn't necessarily prevent post-match stiffness, as you can't simulate all the conditions of a really hard match in practice. It's also the case that if you do too much tennis practice, you can get stale, and therefore you get tired more easily during matches.
To prevent post-exercise stiffness, you have to examine all possible factors, and determine which are the primary ones.

To prevent stiffness, therefore:
1. you should have disciplined habits for winding down after hard exercise, besides preparing properly beforehand
2. you should warm down well after exercising hard, in particular stretching all the major muscle groups
3. you should always be well hydrated , and make sure you take in enough salt
4. you should be healthy
5. you should train to be generally fit , and fit for tennis
6. you should train for body balance, to prevent injury
7. you should focus especially on eccentric muscle work for the major muscle groups
8. whenever your muscles feel stiff or tight, you should stretch them very gently, within comfortable limits
9. you should rest or train only lightly until all the muscle stiffness has disappeared
10. you should eat consistently and healthily