I wrote recently about the dangers of playing sports like tennis in hot weather. Doing it is much more difficult than watching it. I remember during the 2009 Australian Open that announcers were commenting on record temperatures over 100 degrees—it reached 111 one day. I had trouble in Miami, where I grew up, when I visited last year and played in just 87 humid degrees. How do players survive it for hours?

Isner and Roddick—2007

I heard that John Isner trained for this year’s Wimbledon by practicing heavily at Saddlebrook Resort in Florida’s mid-day heat. He spent up to 3 ½ hours a day on strength training and endurance. He also drinks coconut milk. By the way, he is 6’9″ and weighs 250 pounds. You can get some sense of his size in these pictures.

John Isner

So I looked up his specially designed training program and found this story by Joey Johnston of the Tampa Tribune:

… Before Wimbledon began, Craig Boynton, Isner’s coach, told the player he was strong enough to play for 10 hours. It was meant as confidence-building inspiration. But he wasn’t far off the mark.

“We develop programs for a lot of different players – some of them follow the plan and others don’t as well as they should,” said Jason Riley, Saddlebrook’s director of sports performance, who serves as Isner’s strength and conditioning coach, along with Kyle Morgan.

“John is meticulous about it. He implements the plan. He really takes care of his body. Coming out of college, it’s just speculation, but I’m not sure if his body would’ve held up. Physically and mentally, I’m not sure if he could’ve withstood a match like that.”

The essentials:

Diet: Riley is a big proponent of coconut water, which mimics electrolytes. He stresses food that provides sustained energy, such as fish, chicken, brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole wheat pasta and “a ton of vegetables.”

“When you go 70-68 in the fifth set, there’s going to be a lot of inflammation in your body,” Riley said. “The more antioxidants and vegetables you put in there, the better off you’re going to be.”
Does Isner ever stray from his diet, perhaps getting spotted as a fast-food drive-thru?

“I’m sure he does – but not very often,” Riley said with a smile. “You’ve got to know the times you can do those things – and the times you can’t do those things. He’s in a good place with his body now and he doesn’t want to mess that up. That could mean gaining weight or losing weight.”

Strength and conditioning: Isner alternates between the weight room and exercises to aid his movement and agility. There are standard workouts for prehab (injury prevention) and the core.
Each day, he alternates between the lower body and upper body, usually spending 90 minutes on each muscle group.

A typical lower-body workout might include:

Box jumps – A plyometric routine, two sets of three repetitions, that has Isner jumping onto a 24-inch-high box off one leg.

Chainsquat dumbbells – Elevated on a box, Isner squats down, working on his range and motion, while lifting a dumbbell that hangs between his legs on a chain. Four sets of five repetitions.

Lateral lunge with dumbbell – Exercise designed to strength the groin, aductors and glutes.

Sideboard leg curls – Works on balance, stability and strengthening the hamstring muscles.

Mental conditioning: Boynton said Isner’s willpower was the chief reason why his player was able to outlast Mahut. “He was kind of beached when it was 35-all in the fifth set, but he was able to dig down deep and pull out some more strength,” Boynton said. “It was just incredible because Mahut didn’t look like he was tired at all.”

Part of Isner’s stamina was due to the physical component, Riley said.
But the rest?

“In all sports, but particularly tennis, the mental aspect is critical,” Riley said. “He’s out there wondering if it’s ever going to end. He’s trying to be the last man standing.

“He’s got the will to win, no question. He works his butt off for us and gets his body ready. He’s like a gym rat. But he takes it to the next level with his mentality. He has a great belief in what he’s doing out there, and that makes for a foundation that’s not going to crumble.”