Court Sprints. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of all squash players!
They are however one of the most traditional of all squash fitness training drills, and are widely employed by players of all levels. Has their importance and suitability been overestimated though?
In this week’s blog, Gary and Jess set themselves up on opposite sides of the court and debate the pros and cons of court sprints.
When Jess and I were discussing potential themes for this blog, I was surprised when the topic of court sprints came up as being one that we had differing views upon. I’m fortunate to have had around 15yrs of experience working with a great variety of squash players and coaches within the sport, and whilst I certainly haven’t found too many people who enjoy court sprints(!), I equally can’t recall encountering many (if any) coaches/players who were openly pessimistic or dismissive as to their benefits. This of course is not any kind of evidence of their effectiveness, but for a training method to be so ingrained and so widely utilised by players of all ages, abilities, and standards, suggests that there has to be some substance behind their popularity.
I personally think the first and most obvious benefit of court sprints that makes them ideal for the conditioning of the squash player of any level, is their simplicity.
They don’t require any special equipment or any particular technique, and for players that don’t have access to any kind of gym facility or S&C provision, they are a simple and effective way to maintain squash specific conditioning.
This element of specificity is also a key factor in itself.
Research shows that the more specific a training method, the better the crossover effects will be to the particular sport. While work on the treadmills/bikes/rowers etc. in the gym can be great for working on cardiovascular endurance in general, none of these modalities come close to truly replicating the fundamental actions of sprinting, lunging, and turning on court. Running high-intensity repeat lengths of the court is an integral part of the game of squash, and with simple tweaks to set volumes and recovery periods, different degrees of speed and/or endurance focus can be further emphasised within a single simple court sprint session.
Ghosting too is a very specific method of squash conditioning of course, but I see ghosting and court sprints as complementary, rather than an ‘either/or’ issue (many of my favourite on-court conditioning sessions combine them both). The basic bio-mechanics of the lunge and turn of a court sprint has little fundamental difference to the movement you would make when ghosting to a corner in any case, so I would question the idea that ghosting is somehow ‘lower impact’ than court sprints. Furthermore, I know a lot of coaches use specific rhythms and steady balanced footwork patterns within their court sprint prescriptions, so in many cases court sprints can be LESS physically taxing to the joints than a random uncontrolled ghosting set.
Another reason I like incorporating court sprints into a training regime, is the intangible mental toughness benefits I feel they bring.
Masters Champion Peter Gunter talks about this in his own Court Sprint video on the site, and I agree with him that this is a definite factor. The traditional 10 sets of 20 court sprints workout for example, is as much a mental exercise as a physical one – it requires real fortitude to dig in and push on when you’re only halfway through your 4th set and already feeling like you’re running through quicksand, and few other workouts can replicate that same specific feeling of being on court and having to physically push through the barrier to take the win in a tough five set match.
So in summary, whilst obviously not the be-all-and-end-all of squash conditioning, I think court sprints are a great training tool for any player – whether that be as part of a structured and appropriately periodised long-term training programme, or simply as a few sets of 10 or 20 every now and then as a bit of extra fitness training for those that haven’t the time to visit the gym or undertake anything else more structured. Court sprints are simple, efficient, specific, and versatile, and they effectively replicate many of the most crucial physical and mental elements of the game of squash. Of course, anybody that has any adverse physical joint/muscular reaction to them would be best served finding an alternative, but you could make this same point about just about any training method.
One of the many reasons I love working with Gary is that his training opinions are predominantly based on science, whereas mine are weighted heavily on experience. Therefore, when it comes to my opinion surrounding court sprints, my immediate reaction is unsupportive – however don’t expect a whole lot of science to be a part of this opinion.
Squash is a game of immense physicality that affects the entire body, yet especially taxing on the lower body.
No matter how smooth your movement is, pounding around the court In and out of a lunge position are inevitable actions. I often work with players on changing their footwork to smaller strides, rather than traditional long-stride movement, such as ghosting to the front of the court in 4 steps rather than 2-3. The purpose of this change is to increase the ease and ability to change direction quickly, but also to minimize over-taxation of the quad and glute muscle, which is helped by minimizing the amount of long stride movement. This theory is based only on experience – isn’t it obvious that a smaller stride with quicker footwork would result in less ‘pounding’ (aka increasing stress to the affected muscle groups and joints), thereby increasing stamina and reducing chance of injury? Sure, it takes some time to practice and increase speed of movement to the ball, but the long-term benefits are worth it in my opinion.
I apply this same thought process to court sprints.
I rarely ever have a player do court sprints, other than a regular physical test (i.e. beep test). I find this type of training unnecessary considering the amount of alternatives available. Why would you run the court, where you have to lunge and change direction every 6-10 steps which is extremely taxing on your joints, when you can re-create squash-specific movement in a safer and equally effective way?
I use many alternatives that mimic the cardiovascular benefits of court sprints – interval training on a bike, elliptical, or rowing machine (or even treadmill occasionally if the player has no knee problems – at least this takes out the lunge/change of direction), drop-lunge jumps with control to mimic the lunge in court sprints (again, if physically able), and as mentioned, occasional speed tests. The only time I incorporate court-sprints in training are when paired with movement (incl change of direction) – i.e. ghosting. And again, when ghosting, I require players to utilise a shorter, quicker step/stride in order to minimize joint/muscle stress.
My verdict? Lose court sprints. There are so many equally effective and safer alternatives.
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