Underwater training with Laird Hamilton

Christian McCaffrey is the definition of a workaholic. Since being drafted in the first round in 2017, the All-Pro running back has been a versatile offensive threat for the Carolina Panthers. Playing every game of his first three years in the league, he became the fastest RB in NFL history to reach 3,000 rushing yards and 3,000 receiving yards. Now, after a few injury-hit seasons, McCaffrey is doing everything he can to regain his full potential as a franchise weapon.

“I like to work out and my brain is constantly trying to get me out on the court or in the weight room,” says McCaffrey. But growing as a career player has meant learning to take the day off and recharging the batteries when needed. “My workouts have always been intense and I’ve learned, the hard way in some cases, that your commitment to recovery has to be just as rigid.”

men’s diary sat down with McCaffrey to discuss those lessons learned, breaking league records and working underwater with Laird Hamilton.

Men’s Diary: Can you describe the type of energy you bring to your physical preparation and recovery for a football season?

Christian McCaffrey: I’m obsessed with my training and my recovery. It’s because I know it’s that 1% advantage or improvement that will make the difference in the end. It’s the edge that’s going to take what could have been an eight-yard run and turn it into a touchdown. I want to go the distance every time. Being someone who has struggled with injuries for the past two years, I have to do everything I can to get back as soon as possible. Of course, some of these setbacks could not be avoided. It’s football and it’s part of the dance. But it’s about tackling what you can and not leaving the rest to fate. I put myself in the best possible position to succeed, by staying on top of the technology I use.

What kind of technology do you use?

I will use Hyperice Hypervolt [massage gun] before the match just to make a small update, depending on the one I’m playing; they are all great. During play I will use it if I feel something rising or building in my muscles to help break it down. I have mine on the sidelines. The coaches hold it for me and no one else is allowed to touch it. I have those game days where I get 35-40 touches, and I know what my body looks like after a challenge like that. The pain is severe. Every little bit that’s going to get you back in shape for the next game is imperative. After a match, I will sit with the Normatec [compression sleeves] to really help my legs recover.

Can you tell us more about the physical assessment? What’s it like after the game as an NFL running back?

There are a few different levels. On Sunday, on the pitch, I feel invincible. I am the punisher. That’s how I’ve always approached games. I have a completely different personality when I step onto the pitch, and that’s part of the reason why I love the game so much. There’s so much adrenaline going through my body when I play, I don’t don’t really understand the toll my body took overnight. And, in some cases, over the next few days. There’s no denying that it’s an incredibly physical game, and it’s important to train hard to prepare for it.

Recovery is a bit different, however, as the circumstances of the games are never the same. The movement is always different whether you are jumping over someone or going through them. There’s also no way to predict where you’re going to be hit or how bad it’s going to be. There is no checklist of what you will maintain, so the recovery plan is constantly changing. It’s almost a job requirement to know all of the anatomy of the body – muscles, joints, tendons, and tissues. You must become a student of your own physical self. I had a lot of fun and satisfaction doing this job and learning every day. I wouldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I’ve really started to focus on what works for me and what doesn’t.

There are a lot of great career highlights on the internet. Do you have one that you are particularly proud of?

There are obviously a few I’m proud of. The one people talk about the most was in a game we played against Jacksonville. Everyone says I jumped over a guy. I started to then kind of knocked down a defensive player. I think the fact that it was the first disc in the game, and an exciting disc from the start, made it one that people liked to focus on. For me, it’s not just about the highlights, but also about those two- or three-yard runs that get us that much closer to the score, especially when it looks like you’re going to end up in the backfield or with nothing. Big plays happen, but only when you make that consistent effort throughout. That’s when you get those opportunities that you can take. And it also comes down to those plays that nobody sees at all, like pass protection where I can give our quarterback a few extra moments to get the ball where it needs to go.

You have set numerous franchise and league records. Do any of these stand out for you as accomplishments?

I don’t care what the players say. Everyone knows his stats. Getting that 1,000-1,000 feat, with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards was a big challenge for me. Joining a very small group of players that included Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig was pretty special. I idolized those guys coming up. But football is the greatest team sport in the world, and when it comes to statistics, no success is down to one person. There are a lot of great teammates, coaches and staff who help make something like this happen. It is therefore important that I share all these victories with the team.

What does your training look like off the pitch these days?

I really fell in love with the weight room, the track, and all kinds of training methods. Growing up I played three or more sports at all times, including football, basketball, baseball, and track and field, so I learned early on the importance of diversifying your training. I’m lucky to have great people around me. I’ve worked with a lot of great coaches over the years, including my high school track coach, Brian Kula, who was great growing up with. I spent a lot of time with him. I have about five or six guys that I work with when it comes to bodywork. I love working with different people all the time because it takes me out of any comfort zone and challenges me to practice new things. I want to keep learning and growing, testing new things with people like Willie Gault and Olympians like Gil Roberts. I find it quite simple. Do I want to go faster? Well, I should train with people who are faster than me. Do I want to lift bigger? I need to lift with people who lift more than me.

Something unexpected?

I keep my running isolated from the track or terrain. This is where I need to be comfortable for my sport. I’m going to incorporate some calisthenics into my routine just to address this full body movement. I want to be strong from all angles and be able to take different positions. I also do it through Pilates. I also enjoyed working out in the pool. I love it because I’m learning and training in a new way that also makes recovery easier. I just started working with Laird Hamilton. Laird and his wife, Gabby, are some of the best people I have ever met in my life. To be able to learn from someone like him and listen to someone who has had this kind of life experience is such a gift. It’s another example of being around people who are the best at what they do. And when I go there to practice in the pool, they kick my ass every time.


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Richard V. Johnson