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Many runners cite the lack of hand-eye coordination as one of the reasons they get into running. That certainly does not describe Danielle Lao, a professional tennis player, Hoka ambassador, and author of The Invaluable Experience, a book about her student athlete journey.
Lao, 32, has had an illustrious tennis career so far: two-time U.S. Open main draw qualifier, team captain of University of Southern California’s women’s tennis team, and two-time NCAA All-American. But perhaps most impressive of all, Lao played in the Wimbledon main draw during the pandemic, in 2021.
“I have never felt such pure joy on the tennis court,” says Lao about playing Wimbledon. “It was most definitely worth the wait and still worth talking about over a year later.”
During her rise to tennis stardom, Lao also discovered running. In 2015, Lao’s boyfriend Nam was training for his first Ironman race. He had been running with Dog Haus Running Club, a weekly social run club in Pasadena, California, and had invited Lao to join the weekly run. Lao initially turned the offer down.
“I’m a tennis player, and we only run sprints to train for explosiveness,” says Lao. Her boyfriend then invited her to join the happy hour after the run. Lao fell in love with the group and also a part of the running route with hills. “I became a bit obsessed with running this Arbor Street hill and wanted to be the fastest runner.” The competitive nature of Lao’s drove her to come back for more.
Tennis and Running: A Unique Pairing
The differences between running and tennis were apparent to Lao right away. “Tennis is such an individual sport,” she says. “When you’re playing tournaments, it’s always me against you. It’s cut-throat; there’s no such thing as “we all win.” Running gives me such a community right away; people always root for each other.”
Once Lao fell in love with the community aspect of running. During the pandemic, she still saw running as a way to keep up with her aerobic fitness, to make her a better tennis player. She would actively avoid trail running for fear of twisting her ankle, and she never ran in the rain. “Running has been secondary to my tennis,” she says, “though I’ve developed such better movement patterns from running in the past few years.”
When Lao became more serious about running, she signed up for her first ever half marathon—the San Francisco Half Marathon—in April. At the time, Lao was also considering another transition in life. She was still playing well in tournaments, but the relentless competition and travel took its toll.
“I realized I started to play [tennis] for the wrong reasons—not letting my family down, not disappointing my coach—rather than playing for me,” she says. “I felt disconnected from the sport.”
She started coaching other tennis players and discovered she was getting more joy from others’ games than her own. “High-level competition brings a certain amount of stress to you. Playing on the world level, against other highly ranked tennis players—they’re all major stressors,” says Lao’s tennis coach Roger Smith. “Danielle is a perfectionist. Her running is helping her relax and reevaluate her relationship with tennis.”
This summer, Lao took on a new coaching role with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA). She is coaching the summer collegiate team, which consists of top national college tennis players, in Lakewood, California.
In Lao’s pivot from a world-class tennis athlete to coach and now avid runner, here are five critical lessons she’s picked up along the way about embracing the running life.
1. Manage “Total” Stress Load
As a tennis player and runner, Lao is intentional about time on her feet. “An hour on the court equals one to one-and-a-half miles.” These days, Lao thinks about the total training load for herself and her athletes, including time running, time walking, time on the court, and time in the gym. “All these hours should count,” she says. “As a runner and a tennis coach now, I am mindful of how everything adds up.”
For Lao herself, she has been keeping weekly mileage around 30 miles, while coaching other tennis players. She also puts in three to four gym sessions per week, to keep up her strength.
“Good posture is important for a tennis player. I have to keep up with my upper body strength,” says Lao. Monday is typically Lao’s long run day; to prepare for the San Francisco Half Marathon, she ran 10-13 miles. “I know most runners get their long runs in on the weekend, but Monday is the day with the most flexibility for me.”
2. Embrace Community (Like, Seriously)
“The community aspect is the biggest difference between tennis and running,” says Lao. Though she’s always had lots of friends and served as team captain for the USC Women’s Tennis team, Lao acknowledged that the tennis world has a lot to learn from the running world.
“Having always trained as an individual athlete, I now realized how isolating it was,” she says. “In the running world, everything becomes better when you’re with your group. I truly embrace my support group, from my boyfriend Nam to my closest friend circle, my tennis friends, to my Dog Haus Running Club.”
Lao’s advice is to embrace your own circle, while reciprocating and investing in relationships. Create your own running community if you don’t already have one. Her partnership with Hoka was a great example. Julia Green, social media coordinator for global brand communications at Hoka, mentioned how great Lao had been building community in her own way by integrating the running and the tennis world.
“I got to know Danielle when I was working at Picky Bars [Lao’s portrait is included on the Mint Condition bar]. Danielle is such a connector and wonderful advocate. She brings her tennis friends to our shoe demos and group runs. Her excitement about spreading the love of running has been infectious and inspiring.”
3. Each Day Serves a Different Purpose
The training of a professional tennis player often gets repetitive and precise: train today as if you’re playing in a match.
More thoughtful coaches follow a more natural progression, from mastering the fundamentals to preparing for competition. “In running, I have learned to build in micro-cycles: hills days, threshold runs, and easy running days,” she says. “I’m taking this idea to tennis coaching, too. Each day will serve a different purpose. We’ll train for strength, explosive power, in addition to the fundamentals. Hopefully on the day of the competition, a tennis player will put everything together for a perfect match, just like a runner brings their speed and endurance together for a perfectly-executed race.”
4. Recovery Actively
As a tennis player, Lao acknowledged it was very challenging to go easy on recovery days. “I was either going fast every day, because we tennis players are great sprinters, or I was resting on the couch hardly moving at all,” she says. “There were no days in the middle.”
With her half-marathon build-up, Lao has been learning about active recovery. “Easy recovery runs are a thing I had to learn and practice. You can play tennis intensely for two weeks without much recovery, but you can’t do that for running.”
Navigating the vast space between track workouts, race-specific pace, and easy recovery pace has been a conscious effort for Lao. She also mentioned the importance of foam-rolling.
“This is something I’m trying to get better at. As a tennis player, you actually want tight muscles; you can’t lose that pop when you hit the ball. You have to be able to turn with tight control of your muscles. But with running, I have to incorporate foam-rolling and stretching to ensure I’m moving from the catabolic state to the anabolic state.”
These days, active recovery also means having the occasional beer as a fun reward. “In the past, when I was lifting so much and had to be very stringent about my macros,” she says. “I had to take in 150 to 200 grams of protein on my lifting days. Everything I ate was incredibly planned. Now, I’m a lot more relaxed about my nutrition. This is not to say I gave up on eating healthy. I give myself more room to have a little fun, like drinking a cold beer on a hot summer day.”
5. Cultivate a Gratitude Mindset
“In the past, running was a chore. It was a thing to check off. Ever since I made the transition to the mindset of ‘I get to do this; this is my me time,’ I’ve discovered the profound joy in this forward movement alone.” Lao is a huge proponent of practicing a gratitude mindset.
“In any capacity in life, whether it’s sports, or a job, or any craft, if you lean into the right intention and right effort; the hard things become opportunities you actually seek.”