The old saying goes “you can’t beat father time” but LeBron James durability and play last season has left many questioning this age-old rationalization.
In his 15th season, LeBron played all 82 games for the first time in his career, averaged a league-high 36.9 MPG, and shouldered arguably his biggest role yet — playing with essentially two totally different rosters.
At the end of the third year, Lebron will be 36 years old and 18 seasons in. With 99% of players, I’d be worried. Not with Lebron. His mindset, methodology, and commitment is unlike any I’ve seen before.
You might be wondering, how exactly does an athlete spend that much on their body? Well, that’s what I’m here to explain.
Through my unique lens as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I’ve witnessed first-hand how the human body can break-down while playing sports, and the lengths athletes will go to in order to prevent that from happening. In the following piece, I delve deeper into the mindset, methods, and techniques LeBron uses in his constant pursuit of health and recovery, to answer some big questions about how he prepares. Questions like:
What mentality underlies LeBron’s commitment and dedication to durability?
During the off-season, how does LeBron create his physical and mental foundation?
Once the season begins, how does LeBron maintain that physical and mental foundation?
What overlying factors and structure are integral to Lebron’s recovery?
What truly sets Lebron apart from his professional athlete peers?
I. LeBron’s underlying mentality
There’s one word that sums up LeBron’s mentality when it comes to his health and wellness: PREVENTION.
Most injuries — not including acute, impact injuries like having someone run into your knee, falling a certain way, or getting hit — build up over time until reaching a boiling point (a threshold). Once that threshold is met and spills over, the damage is done.
Think of your mind and body like a car. If you don’t consistently take care of your car and ignore the little rattles and squeals (guilty as charged), eventually you might end up at the mechanic with a blown gasket, timing belt, etc — something far more severe than if we had just changed the dang oil in the first place.
Taking the necessary steps to prevent that boiling point or gasket from exploding is going to save you a lot of grief in the end. In other words, proactive prevention.
LeBron embodies that mentality — he just finished his 15th season and had played over 50,000 minutes entering the 2017–18 season. For reference, that’s 2000 more minutes than MJ played in his entire career.
These minutes include EIGHT STRAIGHT high-intensity, high-pressure playoff runs to the Finals and multiple Olympic games as well. Through it all, he’s been more durable and played at a higher level than players with far less mileage.
This durability is a testament to his unwavering commitment to proactive mental and physical health, and understanding of the long-term picture. An understanding that “what I’m doing today to care of my mind and body may not pay off for years to come but it will, eventually”.
In the following sections, which I’ve split into off-season and in-season, I get into the specifics of how LeBron has taken care of himself mentally and physically.
So here we go:
II. The Off-Season
A. Micro (tissue level — muscle, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, etc)
During the off-season — where he doesn’t have to deal with the grind and exertion of NBA games, the constant travel, and hectic schedule — LeBron’s goal is to build a foundation of mental and physical strength, incrase performance, and create a buffer against injury.
The overall theme is BUILD. Build strength, build resilience, build the foundation.
However, before LeBron can build, the first task is allowing his mind and body to recover from the brutal season and playoffs — taking time off to let his body recover:
Additionally, he spends more and more time with his kids during the summer:
Once he’s ready to resume training, it’s all about muscular strength, power, and mobility. He’s training twice a day, 5 days a week.
LeBron’s lifting regiment focuses on lower repetitions, higher weight exercises to increase his strength, power, explosiveness, and overall performance capacity. He makes sure to layer in variable routines that challenge his body — a key to generating new muscle.
Additionally, he focuses on activities that work his major stabilizing muscles, like the legendary “core”. He accomplishes this with core specific activities that destabilize his center of gravity and force his core muscles to engage. Here’s an example:
He also takes Pilates classes to improve his functional core strength and mobility. Core strength has become a focus of LeBron’s since he began having lower back problems in the 2015 season.
The core works together with the lower back to control movement and it sets the foundation for the rest of your body.
There’s a saying in the physical therapy world — “proximal stability for distal mobility”. In other words, a stable base (the low back and core) unlocks better movement of the extremities. Therefore, having a stable foundation is critical for LeBron.
Not that we’ve covered his joint and tissue, let’s move onto systemic factors…
B. Meso (systemic factors)
1 — Bio-Mechanics
Bio-mechanics refer to how the body moves and operates. For example, the way you run or land is influenced bybio-mechanical properties.
After dealing with back trouble over a 10-month span in 2015, LeBron hired Donnie Raimon — a former Navy seal who specializes in biomechanics.
In the off-season, LeBron works on any bio-mechanical deficits he may have. I’m not privy to his specific training plan but lets go through a hypothetical to illustrate the point.
Let’s say LeBron and his team notice that he’s landing with excess knee valgus (the knee dropping inwards) which can increase the risk of knee pain and knee injury. Here’s what it looks like:
His medical team would first identify the underlying cause(s).
It may be some muscular weakness or poor muscle activation (meaning the muscle isn’t firing when it needs to), or it could be related to neuro-muscular control (how the muscle unconsciously responds during a movement).
After that, the team would implement a plan to address those root causes. That’s a hypothetical example but hopefully it gets the general point across.
2 — Proprioceptive and Vestibular systems
Both of these systems provide feedback and awareness to the brain about where your body is in space. They are responsible for optimizing movement via anticipatory and micro-adjustments of body positioning, muscular activation ,and so on.
LeBron trains these system with balance and adding multiple layers to his workouts. For example, look at this photo and keep the caption in mind:
“Core and mind stability”. These layered activities require increased mental focus and feedback and challenge the proprioceptive and vestibular systems.
3 – Cardiorespiratory system
The cardiorespiratory system is comprised of the heart, blood vessels (arteries and veins), the blood that is carried throughout the body (nearly 5 liters worth), and the lungs.
All together, it’s responsible for transporting oxygen, nutrients, hormones, and getting rid of cellular waste products. It’s been called the “hardest working organ of the body”.
LeBron optimizes his cardiorespiratory system with 2 different training methods:
The first focuses on longer duration, lower intensity cardio — like spin and versaclimbing classes. This creates two types of adaptations in the body:
Peripheral — these adaptations increase the efficiency of blood vessels and muscle tissue. The blood vessels are able to deliver more blood and oxygen while taking away more waste products, while the quality of the muscle tissue increases. This results in a higher work capacity for less energy required.
Respiratory — these adaptations increase the efficiency of the lungs. They can take in more oxygen with less work.
The second type of training method focsues on shorter duration, high intensity cardio— like sprints, short distance rowing, and circuit training. This leads to “central” adaptations in the body:
Central — these adaptations increase the efficiency the heart. The heart can pump more blood while not working as hard.
The last, but certainly not least, benefit of training the cardiorespiratory system is boosting the “aerobic threshold”. Aerobic means “requiring oxygen”.
Aerobic energy is the most efficient way that your body produces energy. It is trained via longer duration, low intensity cardio.
Once the body crosses over the aerobic threshold, into the “anaerobic system” — or “without oxygen” system — the body is producing energy much less efficiently. This system also creates negative by-products such as lactic acid. Lactic acid can — indirectly — have an unfavorable effect on LeBron’s muscle contraction and therefore performance.
Here’s a graph to visualize the aerobic and anaerobic systems as they relate to lactate concentration and intensity of activity: