Running Back Christian McCaffrey’s Comeback Plan Includes Underwater Training à la Laird Hamilton

Man underwater wearing goggles and holding dumbbells
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Christian McCaffrey is the definition of a workhorse. 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 single 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, coming off a few injury-slowed seasons, McCaffrey is doing everything he can to return to full capacity as a weapon for the franchise.

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

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

Men’s Journal: Can you describe what kind of energy you bring to your physical preparation and recovery for a football season?

Christian McCaffrey: I’m obsessive when it comes to my training and recovery. That’s because I know it’s that one percent edge or improvement that’s ultimately going to make the difference in the end. That’s the edge that’s going to take what might have been been an eight-yard run and turning it into a touchdown. I want to go the distance every time. Being someone who’s struggled with injuries over the last two years, I need to do everything I can to get back as quickly as possible. Of course, some of those setbacks have not been preventable. This is football and it’s part of the dance. But it’s about addressing what you can and not leaving the rest up to fate. I’m putting myself in the best position I can to succeed—staying on the cutting edge when it comes to the technology I’m using.

What kind of tech are you using?

I’ll use Hyperice Hypervolt [massage gun] before the game just to get a little tune-up, whichever one I have kicking around; they are all great. During the game, I’ll use it if I feel something coming up or building in my muscles to help break it up. I have my own on the sidelines. The trainers hold it for me and nobody else is allowed to touch it. I’ve got those game days where I’m getting 35 to 40 touches, and I know what my body feels like after a gauntlet like that. The soreness is serious. Every little element that’s going to have you back in shape for the next play is imperative. Following a game I’ll sit down with the Normatec [compression sleeves] on to really help my legs recover.

Can you speak more about the physical toll? What does it feel like post-game as an NFL running back?

There are a few different levels to it. On Sundays, on the field, I feel invincible. I’m the punisher. That’s the way I’ve always gone into games. I have a complete different personality when I step onto the field, and that’s part of the reason why I love the game so much. There’s so much adrenaline pumping into my body when I play, I don’t really understand the toll my body has taken until the next day. And, in some cases, over the course of the next few days. There’s no denying it’s an incredibly physical game, and it’s important to train hard to prepare yourself for it.

Recovery is a little different, though, because the circumstances of the games are never the same. The movement is always different, whether you’re leaping over someone or running through them. There’s also no way to anticipate where you’re going to get hit from or how serious it’s going to be. There’s no check list on what you’re going to sustain, so the recovery plan is constantly changing. It’s almost a job requirement to know the entire anatomy of the body—the muscles, joints, tendons, and tissue. You have to become a student of your own physical self. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from doing that work and learning every day. I wouldn’t call myself an expert just yet, but I’ve really started to zone in on what works for me and what doesn’t.

There are a lot of great highlight reels from your career on the Internet. Do you have one you’re particularly proud of?

There are obviously a few I’m proud of. The one people bring up the most was during a game we played against Jacksonville. Everyone says I jumped over a guy. I started to and then kind of flipped over a defensive player. I think the fact that it was the first drive of the game, and an exciting drive from the beginning, made it one that people like to focus on. For me it’s not just about the highlights though, it’s also about those two- or three-yard runs that get us that much closer to scoring, especially when it looks like you’re going to end up in the backfield or with nothing. The big plays come, but only when you’re putting in that consistent effort throughout. That’s when you get those opportunities that you can seize. And it also comes down to those plays nobody sees at all, like a pass protection pick up where I’m able to afford our quarterback a few more moments to get the ball where it needs to go.

You’ve set a lot of franchise and league records. Do any of those stand out to you as accomplishments?

I don’t care what any players says. Everyone knows their stats. Getting that 1,000-1,000 accomplishment, with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving was a big one 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 biggest team sport in the world, and when it comes to stats no accomplishment is because of just one person. There are a lot great teammates, coaches, and staff that go into achieving something like that. So it’s important that I share all of those victories with the team.

What’s your training look like off the field these days?

I’ve really fallen in love with the weight room, the track, and all kinds of training methods. Growing up, I played three or more sports at any time including football, basketball, baseball, and track, so I learned early on the importance of diversifying your training. I’m lucky that I 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’s been great to grow with. I’ve spent a lot of time with him. I have about five or six guys I work with when it comes to body work. I like working with different people all the time, because it takes me out of any comfort zone and challenges me to train on new things. I want to continue to learn and grow, testing out new elements with people like Willie Gault and Olympians like Gil Roberts. I find it pretty simple. Do I want to get faster? Well I should be training with people who are faster than me. Do I want to lift bigger? I need to be lifting with people who lift more than me.

Anything unexpected?

I keep my running isolated to the track or the field. That’s where I need to be comfortable for my sport. I’ll work a little gymnastics into my routine just to address that full body movement. I want to be strong at all angles and be able to get into different positions. I also do that through Pilates. I’ve been enjoying training in the pool as well. I love it because I’m learning and working out 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’ve ever met in my life. Being able to learn from someone like him and listen to a person that has had that kind of life experience is such a gift. That’s another example of getting to be around people who are the best at what they do. And when I go over there to train in the pool, they kick my ass every single time.

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