I play tennis on hard courts usually 1 - 3 times per week. Several times a year there are weekend tournaments or other competitive weekend events that I like to participate in. Typically, by the end of the one of these weekends my calves and/or knees are so sore I have a lot of trouble reacting to the ball. It goes away after a few days though and doesn't bother me on daily basis. Is this normal? Are there exercises I can do to prepare myself better for these weekends?
Since you work so much longer and harder than usual at tournaments, it's not surprising that you're feeling some soreness (see this Wikipedia article on delayed onset muscle soreness for more info), but I can think of a couple things that might help your calves and knees hold out a little better:
Warm up properly. Warming up increases blood flow to the muscles, which makes your muscles less likely to fatigue; increases the temperature of your muscles, making them more elastic and less likely to get injured; and increases production of synovial fluid in the joints, which helps with lubrication and shock absorption. Warming up isn't just stretching, and in fact, static stretching (long holds) aren't generally recommended as part of a warm-up (You Tube: The Truth). This recent review on warming-up suggests that "a warm-up to minimize impairments and enhance performance should be composed of a submaximal intensity aerobic activity followed by large amplitude dynamic stretching and then completed with sport-specific dynamic activities." So, for example, you could start with a 5 to 10 minute jog, followed the dynamic stretches explained in The Truth (linked above). Here are some more dynamic stretches to specifically target the lower leg (drawing the alphabet works wonders for me). You should also include some tennis-specific drills, focusing not only on the upper body, but also on footwork.
Stretch after exercise. Tight lower leg muscles can cause all sorts of problems, including foot pain, shin splints, and knee problems, so it's important to keep them limber. This is the lower leg stretching routine I use, and you can find some other lower leg stretches on ExRx (right column). Tight quads, hamstrings, and IT bands may contribute knee pain as well, so you should stretch these too.
Strengthen weak muscles. This is a good program for building strength and flexibility in your lower leg muscles. Doing the ones that are a challenge for you as part of your regular training may help solve your problems (try the full 3 sets of 10 to figure out if it's a challenge for you or not; sometimes the intensity takes a few reps to set in). My husband does a subset of these exercises after he runs (with a more challenging variation on the heel raise), and it has eradicated the pain he used to get during/after running.
Make sure you have appropriate shoes. Shoes without proper support or padding for your sport make your lower leg muscles and knees work a lot harder than they have to in order to stabilize the joints and absorb impact.
I had these experiences, these are quite normal for anyone who is playing for long. I guess you can reduce the stress on them by following methods:
Stretch before beginning any activity(walking, running, playing tennis, gym, etc) it warms up the muscles and they will be ready to take the load/stress.
Stretching should be done very slowly, even though they consume some time, you should always stretch.
Very important you should be keep stretching in between the activity, this relaxes the muscle group and the muscle.
Stretch at end of the session, I know this would be boring and people would tend to skip this, but it is very important for your progress and safety.
2. Do some weight training for legs
There are many exercises, like squats, half squats, sitted leg extension, donkey calf rise, reverse curls, etc which will strengthen your legs.
3. After the session
Give yourself a hot water(water should be hot enough and not very hot) treatment, place your feet in hot water tub with little salt(common salt) added to it, for sometime. This would easy the soreness.
4. Take rest
This is very very very important, this is the time when muscles recover the max. Increases strength of your muscle and muscle group.
5. Wear proper attire
You should be wearing proper dress like, shock absorbing shoe, socks(cotton sports socks), etc
6. Proper technique
You should constantly update your knowledge about the techniques used from internet, magazine, articles, talking with people who are good at it, keeping reading about the activity and keep seeing the pros. You should be able get proper techniques from them.
7. Perfect practice.
Practice not just practice but perfect practice, with the proper techniques you learn, practice them, you'll become stronger and perfect.
For rec athletes, this is one of the harder problems. You see this with marathoners, softball players, pretty much anybody who regularly does rec sports.
The way I frame this to my clients is, "Ok, we've been lifting 100 lbs the last few weeks. Tomorrow, we're going to lift 200 lbs. Sound like a good idea?"
Of course, the answer to that is no. Yet this is the biggest and most common mistake rec athletes make.
If you're interested in running a marathon, and you've only been running 10 miles, running 26.2 is going to hurt. If you're a softball player, and you've been playing one game a night, per week, but championship week you have to play two games back to back, you're going to feel it the week after that. You've, overnight, doubled your work load. In any scenario, this is a recipe for pain. (Imagine you've been regularly working four hour shifts, an eight hour, double shift, out of nowhere is rough. Even just mentally.)
Name the sport / activity, tennis in your case, and the same rule applies.
What you want to do, and this is why rec sports can be so hard, is gently build up your stress tolerance. There are various ways to do this. I have an equation I use, where the primary variables in your situation would be how fast you're going, how long and days per week.
The biggest change you're going through on those weekend days is you're e.g. tripling the duration of a day of tennis.
Ideally, you'd go into that weekend and say, the previous eight weekends, have built up to that amount.
For instance, say you typically play an hour at a time. A couple months before a weekend competition, you could add 15 minutes per week to that hour at a time. After eight weeks, you're now pretty damn accustomed to that much tennis.
Of course, this is not always practical due to the rec athlete's time constraints.
Back to the variables I gave, you might find you can't play tennis for e.g. two+ hours at a time, but a month out, you can build up to playing 4-5 times per week rather than 1-3. Or you can try to play faster in each hour you play.
There are a few ways to attack it, but the idea is you need to build the level of stress up, gradually, so a given weekend tournament isn't such a drastic change from what you've been doing.