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Healthy dose of prevention helps Lions avert injury bug

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Golden Tate

Allen Park — With the start of the NFL season just a few weeks away, many players are shaking off their summer habits and getting back to the regular routine of their in-season diets and workout regimens, preparing for the rigorous regular season.

For most, though, the preparation isn’t just starting; it’s a continuation of a perpetual program or treatments, massages, nutrition and injury prevention to keep themselves in the right physical and mental shape to get ready for the season.

In keeping with the old coaching maxim, the best kind of ability is availability.

While Lions team trainers and medical personnel do their best to try to keep players ready during training camp and into the season, the onus also is on the players during the offseason to do their part.

That includes adhering to team-recommended dietary restrictions or workout plans after the season ends in January, through organized team activities in the summer, before reporting back to training camp in July.

“It’s on the individual, on what they feel is best for their body,” Lions offensive tackle Cornelius Lucas said.

“I try to keep it as close as possible to what we do here: a good mixture of running, conditioning, lifting, stretching and medical stuff to keep my body healthy.”

It’s a constant worry for NFL teams, trying to keep players on the field and off the injured list. The Lions were without starting left tackle Taylor Decker (shoulder) and tight end Eric Ebron (hamstring) for the first week of training camp and running back Theo Riddick (wrist) was in a non-contact jersey.

Missing time in training camp can extend to missed time in the regular season and lead to players having sluggish performances, as they re-acclimate to game speed without the benefit of workouts in August.

Coach Jim Caldwell and his staff create a training camp schedule to ensure players are adequately prepared for the season, but balance rest and pace to prevent injuries. It’s not a touch not lost on the players, who can ramp up to their optimum level by preseason.

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“We’re more valuable on the field, so you have to take care of guys,” receiver Golden Tate said. “We’ve been blessed not to have one of those (big-time) injuries in training camp — and hopefully, we can keep that up.”

For many young players, there’s a fallacy of invincibility, a belief that they won’t get injured. That leads to a lesser focus on prevention and year-round maintenance, a valuable lesson that they learn in their later years.

“You’re so young at that point and naïve to a lot of things, that you don’t think you need Icy Hot before a game — and now five years in, that’s all I use,” Riddick said. “It’s just little things like that to go out and have movements that stress some of the joints you’re going to be using during that time.

“I learned that from (DeAndre) Levy and getting a nice smooth sweat before the game, as opposed to staying out there and going from hot tub to cold tub and being stagnant. Just little nuances like that that I’ve learned have gotten me to where I am.”

Tricks of the trade

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, entering his third season with the Lions and 12th overall, insists that much of the knowledge about maintaining his body came from listening to veterans such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce during his first few years with the Baltimore Ravens.

Ngata’s regimen includes hydrotherapy, cryotherapy, massages, needling and trips to the chiropractor, all which he attributes to his sustained career. He had some maintenance issues his first few years, but it wasn’t until a few years later the impact started to sink in.

“It was probably my fourth year, when I started feeling things; I started too late,” said Ngata, 33. “I try to tell young guys to start now and get in that routine of hydrating and taking care of your body. It doesn’t matter how much it costs — massages, doctors or whatever you think is going to make your body feel good, just pay it.”

Aside from regular body maintenance, some on-field routines can benefit performance directly. When Riddick was a rookie, he got some sage advice from Lions great Calvin Johnson about pregame preparation, which he still uses.

Theo Riddick

“I used to go out and warm up for 45 minutes, but I found out I used tire out in the game,” Riddick said. “I condensed it to 20 minutes and I get the same performance without the fatigue. It’s little things you work on and being a rookie, I had time to see what works for me.”

Johnson helped many of the Lions’ younger players, even Lucas, who is 6-foot-9, 330 pounds.

“Calvin once told me to get rid of knee pain, it’s not your actual knee — you have to stretch your quad and your hamstring and make sure you do abduction,” Lucas said. “Coming out of college or high school, you don’t know that stuff. The longer you (talk to veterans), the more you learn about your body.”

Tight end Darren Fells, in his fourth season in the NFL, didn’t have to go far to learn, picking up the essentials from his brother, Daniel, who had an eight-year NFL career. As a former basketball player, Darren switched his focus but got most of his knowledge base from trainers.

“I’ve actually learned a lot from listening to personal trainers and physical trainers, learning the special things about your body,” Darren Fells said. “I’ve had a lot of hip issues and in the past, lower-back issues. They say those two correlate, so if you have tight hips, that leads to lower-back issues and vice-versa. Learning different things about your body, you can figure out that more than likely, it doesn’t originate where you’re having problems; it’s usually somewhere else.”

Fells said since switching to football, he has an enhanced interest in nutrition and physical health and does plenty of outside reading, adding to what he gets from team personnel.

Tate has gotten smarter about his body maintenance as well in his eighth season, ramping up his efforts as he learned more in the past few years. He said things came easily for him at Notre Dame but once he got to the NFL, he learned that he had to do more to stay in shape and prepare his body for the longer seasons.

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“Once I got to Year 5, that’s when (it hit me),” Tate said. “I used to be able to go play a game in college and not be sore and probably could get up and play another game if I wanted to — my preparation didn’t have to be much.

“I could show up and play in college and after I got to the NFL, I learned there’s more to the game: you have to eat healthy, get massages and physical therapy, even when you’re not injured.”

The right body fuel

Tate said the Lions staff gives players guidelines in the offseason on what foods to eat and ones to avoid. The next step is on the players to stick to that plan and stay in shape.

“It comes down to how important it is to you,” he said. “Performing as you get older, you need to find ways to be healthier. For me, I pay huge attention to what I put in my body because I want to feel the best I possibly can when I come out here.”

For Riddick, it became much more than just watching out for certain foods. With some urging from his girlfriend, he decided to cut out meat — and he’s feeling the impact already.

“I turned vegan over the summer. I’ve noticed a difference just with my energy level. I’m not a junk-food type of eater,” Riddick said. “I’m like a smoothie guy; I do a lot of fruit and throw my kale and all my protein in there and that’s how I get everything.”

Riddick also watched and listened intently to former Lions running backs Reggie Bush and Justin Forsett, who were diligent workers. But taking time off from the constant workouts is a personal choice, one that Riddick doesn’t like, unlike many players who give their bodies a rest after the season.

“I might lighten up a lot of things for a week, but I don’t like taking any time off, especially for your vascular system — that shuts down after two days,” he said. “You don’t want that to happen, after you’ve done so much hard work.

“I’ve been there when I did have a week off or I had an injury and it limited my ability to run on a certain week. I’ve seen it and felt it.”

He sticks to a regular routine of three-hour massages on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and a personal trainer to help with stretching three times a week. He also learned about sessions in a hyperbaric chamber from Ngata.

Despite the best efforts of the players and training staff, there will be unforeseen injuries, but proper diet, fitness and injury prevention can help keep the numbers down.

Where it all starts to pay off is the season opener on Sept. 10.

“An athlete is an athlete. Keeping your body healthy is all the same,” Lucas said. “Keeping the body healthy is pretty much the same: eating healthy, sleeping right and hydrating.

“It works. It’s a long season and sometimes how many games and reps you take, all of them can’t be full speed all the time. You have to have to save that for when the games comes.”