I sat down with the affable Michael Russell this past weekend at the USTA National Tennis Center. We spoke about how he keeps his body in shape, as well as ways he keeps his mind sharp during match play.
Justin diFeliciantonio: Today tennis is a very physical game, and clearly you’re a very fit guy. Do you take any supplements? What are you ingesting on-court to keep yourself in optimal shape?
Michael Russell: Definitely. On court, I drink a combination of a little bit of protein, vitamins, some amino acids. It’s high carbohydrates, not high sugar—about 60 grams of carbs, but only about five grams of sugar. It’s more sustainable sugar. So it doesn’t make you feel that high-low, like your typical sports drink that’s over the counter. If it’s humid, I also take electrolyte pills with sodium, potassium, and magnesium to prevent cramping.
JD: Do you massage regularly?
MR: I definitely will go for a massage for recovery and injury prevention. Also, I have all these tools in my room that I’ll massage with. I know that sounds a little weird—
JD: Like self massage? …Automassage?
MR: Yeah, doesn’t come across sounding great. [Laughing]. But I travel with a lot of rollers, massage sticks, trigger-point balls, which work with your body weight, along with gravity. And you can actually get deeper than if you have someone else doing it. Because I’m pretty muscular, the tools can really help get in the spots where the masseuses have trouble—the hip, lower back, IT bands. It’s very difficult for a massage therapist to get in there effectively, unless they use their elbow and really try to apply all their body weight.
JD: And you feel a noticeable difference?
MR: Yeah. I’ve been traveling with this stuff for eight years, and for sure it’s helped me to play on tour for so long. I use it everyday, religiously—usually in the evening for an hour. It’s the same if I were to stay here [on site] to get a massage. It’s just, I know how deep I can make it. Obviously, there’s a lot of great massage therapists. But every week, you’re at a different tournament, and there’ll be a different people working. If you don’t have your own physio[therapist] with you, you’re at the mercy of what’s available. I mean, if there’s four people waiting, I could wait three hours to get a massage.
JD: So you don’t travel with a physio. Do you travel with a coach?
MR: No, I don’t. My wife Lilly has traveled with me the last two years, and she’s helped me out a lot. She’s learned a lot just being around the tournaments for some many weeks in a row. She can kind of pick up little tips here or there for my game, what I’m doing wrong. So she’ll make, like, suggestions and stuff.
JD: She plays tennis?
MR: No [smiles], no. She has a fitness background. Tennis background, no. I’ve told her what to look for in my game when I’m playing. Certain things that I’m not doing, and she’ll kind of see it and remind me to do those correctly.
JD: Does she help you with your fitness?
MR: She’ll help me stretch a lot of times, and she can do some massage work as well. A lot of the fitness I do on my own, but sometimes we talk about it as well; she used to compete with the body-building type fitness. So she’s very knowledgeable about the weights.
JD: That’s always something I’m wondering: Will you hit the gym during a tournament?
MR: No, not much at all. Really, the only thing I’ll do are some preventative exercises, mainly for rotator cuff and scapular stabilization, because tennis is so one-arm dominant. It’s basically how to make sure to balance out your body. So the majority of the tournament week is stretching, massage, some light preventative exercises with exercise bands.
JD: But the week before the tournament you’ll lift weights?
MR: Yeah, the week before I’ll lift weights. It won’t be heavy. It’ll be light, faster rep, more explosive-type movements. Tennis is so physical nowadays. It’s changed so much since I first started, in ’98. I feel like every five years, the game is more advanced—bigger, stronger, faster. And the training has changed a lot. When I first started, you’d lift heavy weights, you’d do three sets of 10, typical exercises—lat row, back, shoulders. But now it’s progressed to multi-directional, multi-muscle exercises with fast, explosive movements, focusing on eccentric activity.
JD: Eccentric activity?
MR: Yeah. So if you were doing a biceps curl, when you curl up is the concentric part, and when you go down is the eccentric. The eccentric part is the most important, because that’s how your muscles absorb force. It’s still important to train concentrically, but training eccentrically is what allows you to be quicker, faster, less injury-prone, and really improve. The eccentric has a lot to do with putting on muscle mass as well—if you go heavy—since that’s what breaks down the [muscle] fibers the most. Another example: When you bend your knee, going down is eccentric and coming up is concentric. And it’s a lot easier to come up than it is to go down in a squat.
JD: Are you using an interesting training gadget these days to prepare?
MR: I do have some, like, footwork-type gadgets. I have a rubber ball that has different knobs on it. You toss it up, and it bounces every which direction, and you have to catch it without knowing where it’s going. I also have some bands that I’ll put around my ankles to train side-step shuffles. And when you take them off, you go really fast side-to-side. Tips as far as seeing the ball: I’ve heard about online, eye-training websites. I haven’t used it before, but it’d be interesting to see if it helps.
JD: How about your mental game? Do you work on it?
MR: Mental game stuff, I haven’t, I should. Over the years, I’ve read a few books on the topic. I haven’t worked with anyone, probably could’ve, sometimes. [Laughing.]
JD: Any books that stand out?
MR: It sounds kind of trite, but I read Anthony Robbins’ book. He used to speak a lot for these self-help books, like, be-a-better-person type books.
JD: What’s his message?
MR: It’s about using mental imagery to change habits, break habits. Let’s say you’re trying to stop biting your fingernails. You want to create the image of biting your fingernails, so you do this 10 times. Then you create the image of yourself not biting your nails. And every time you want to put your hand close to your mouth, you envision yourself pulling it away. You take that image and break the other image with it. It sounds crazy. [Laughing] I was reading it, and was like, “Yeah, whatever.” But I kept reading, and I tried it, and I literally stopped biting my fingernails for six months. And of course, I stopped reading the book and stopped doing the imagery and went back to biting my fingernails. But it really did work. It was pretty cool.
JD: Do you do any visual imagery during your matches? Before your matches?
MR: I do. Sometimes subconsciously, but I’m well aware of it. Before I walk to the line to serve, I envision where I’m going to serve, how I’m going to take that first ball that’s coming back, where I’m going to hit it. At nighttime, before I go to sleep, I usually spend five minutes thinking about the match the next day, envisioning how I’m going to react, how I’m going to feel on the court, that type of thing. It doesn’t always work, but it helps a little bit, I think.
JD: What do you mean envisioning where you serve—do you actually see yourself hitting it in a certain spot? From the outside, or from your own perspective?
MR: From my own perspective. So let’s say I go get the towel. I’m toweling off. In my mind, I’m seeing myself serving out wide and taking the next ball with my backhand crosscourt. I picture the guy running, like stretching, and I’m gonna come in and—doesn’t always happen like that, but that’s what I’d like to do. But then I go up to the line, and I try to serve wide.
JD: But you’re saying from first person.
MR: Yeah, not from like spectator mode. That’s not as good. But it’s kind of a fine line. Visualization, I know people don’t like to call it that, but it’s almost like day dreaming. It really is.
JD: And you say, before you go to bed, you don’t just envision yourself playing well, you think of how you’re going to feel?
MR: Yeah, just how I’m moving. I envision myself really moving quickly to each ball and being aggressive.
JD: Oh, but not like, a general sensation of confidence. I wonder: Is that something you could actually visualize?
MR: I don’t know. I guess you could. You could envision yourself walking around with your chest out. [Laughing]. Being confident, knowing that you’re going to play well. Seems unusual, but I guess you could.