'I Can't Do It All By Myself': An Inside Look at Darren Waller's Recovery Routine
By Liam McKeone
Most of the work that goes into the career of a professional athlete takes place behind the scenes. The audience sees the finished product on gameday and marvels at the effortless athletic heights they’re capable of reaching. We don’t see the hours and hours and hours of work they put in to ensure their body is ready to perform. Every day they strain against the boundaries of their physical limitations, pushing themselves to the brink to ensure they do not break down when their team needs them most.
That is only half the battle. The other is less fun but matters just as much, if not more – the recovery. There is no point in pushing your body to the brink if you don’t take care of it afterwards. Such a strategy will still build muscle mass but the body becomes fragile. Less sturdy. All athletes, at some point, have heard the saying, “the best ability is availability.” The workouts help the athlete get on the field. The recovery makes sure they stay on it.
But no plan is fool-proof. Even the most meticulous professionals who follow every trainer and doctor's order to a T can suffer an injury, whether it’s a torn ACL or a calf strain. For those who treat their bodies like finely-tuned machines, each bump and bruise changes everything about their routine.
The Big Lead was able to witness this firsthand when Icy Hot invited TBL out to Las Vegas to spend the day with Raiders tight end Darren Waller as he recovered from a hamstring injury ahead of the team’s Week 8 visit to New Orleans to play the Saints. It was a fascinating experience, one that hammered home how disciplined football players must be and one that revealed a lot about Waller himself. Most of all, it served as a reminder of just how damn hard it is to be a pro.
Football players are always injured to some degree. It is important to understand that. Waller spent his time this week rehabbing his hamstring, but there are always aches and pains. It’s simply part of the deal when you choose a sport as punishing as football as your profession. This, Waller explained, is largely where Icy Hot comes into play.
“Icy Hot’s big thing is rising up from pain, taking your recovery seriously,” Waller said, sitting atop a massage table at Optimize Physical Therapy and Performance . “I put so much stress on my body with practicing and working out, but I’ve learned that your recovery has to be at the same level or you’re not going to make it to the field. You’ll be banged-up, you’ll be wondering why I can’t get out there. Your recovery process has to be on-point.”
Waller first met Icy Hot representatives at an event for Shaquille O’Neal’s charity foundation last year. Shaq is, of course, the most famous of Icy Hot’s spokespeople in the athletics department and so it’s only natural he played a role in bringing Waller aboard. The Raiders tight end felt their interests aligned perfectly and proved his enthusiasm for the product by applying it in front of several reporters after his workouts.
For Waller, Icy Hot is ideal because it does what it’s supposed to better than any other alternative, in his eyes– help his body recover from the grueling workouts. Waller’s current preferred product is Icy Hot Pro, which helps manage his pain by combining two maximum-strength pain relievers called menthol and camphor; these relievers allow Waller’s body to ignore the aches and pains by stimulating other nerves. Waller will use the product nearly every day, finding it more effective than other available methods and a whole lot easier to manage than ice packs.
Even now, as Waller works to recover from a more serious ailment, Icy Hot is crucial to his recovery. Managing the hamstring pain is important and Waller still uses the product generously to do so. But in the bigger picture, while his workouts are focused on his injury, Waller is still pushing his body as hard as he can.
Waller’s Tuesday begins with hamstring-specific exercises at Optimize Physical Therapy and Performance, a short drive from Allegiant Stadium. Optimize is not officially affiliated with the Raiders, although many signed black jerseys adorn the walls; there are only so many team trainers to work with an entire roster of players, so Waller prefers to seek out more personalized treatment. Waller linked up with his trainer at Optimize, Dr. Zaki Afzal, through a mutual connection from Georgia (Waller’s home state) once the Raiders moved to Las Vegas.
The ground shakes as Waller hops from a sprinter’s stance and gets to full speed in a span of several feet on the floor covered with artificial turf. Dr. Afzal explains this workout is meant to increase Waller’s explosiveness and short-area acceleration, two areas that can be severely affected by a hamstring injury. The two continue in this vein as the workout stretches to nearly an hour. Shorter than usual, because all the workouts are designed to increase the strength of Waller’s hamstring and because they don’t want to push too hard. Even these shortened, lightened workouts are something to behold. It is remarkable to watch a 6-foot-6, 256-pound, muscle-bound man pirouette into a full-on box jump as his trainer puts his full weight against his hip.
There are jokes and camaraderie, signs of a positive long-term working relationship, but both men are all business most of the time. This is work for Waller, after all.
After the workouts, Waller receives a massage from one of Optimize’s massage therapists, George Michaels. Massages are key to recovery for any athlete. They encourage blood to flow freely throughout the body and quicken the recovery process. Michaels explains his goal is to “flush” out any kind of nitrogenous waste and lactic acid from Waller’s body and ensure he recovers as quickly as possible.
“People look at massage therapy and have this perception that it’s only a spa mentality, it’s more of a relaxation thing,” Michaels says. “My job is to increase movement options, get that recovery window back down to a shorter window so he can get back in the game. I do the soft tissue side, the muscular and skeletal injury stuff, getting him flushed out between games. Making sure those muscles aren’t sore.”
The physical workouts and recovery are important, but they aren’t all that goes into the life of a football player. There is a mental aspect, too. For this, Waller goes to IMR Float for sensory deprivation and contrast therapy.
“Floating” as it is known, is IMR’s speciality and Waller loves it. The concept is simple enough– you float in a small tub filled with salt water, shrouded in complete darkness. You cannot hear, see, or feel anything. The goal, as described by IMR, is to provide “a therapeutic experience that allows the body to heal and the mind to recharge with renewed perspective and energy.” Waller says he floats regularly to work on his mental health and release himself from the daily worries, both those typical of a professional athlete and the kind we all deal with in different ways.
“The weight of the day-to-day, the weight of me mentally, my physical weight, I can kind of detach from those things for a little while,” Waller explains. “It allows me to just be in my mind, be present, be in that space, and whatever comes to mind, comes to mind. Whatever I visualize. It’s a great space for that. Away from the noise, away from the expectations and the distractions I face and have to maneuver on a day-to-day basis.”
Contrast therapy, on the other hand, is a battle within himself. IMR has a room dedicated to it, appropriately labeled Fire & Ice. Waller spends time in a sauna before going into an ice bath, where he’ll do basic exercises for a few minutes. Then he does it again. And again. And again.
Sounds easy in theory. In practice, it’s a brutal test of mental fortitude. The sauna is usually set to somewhere between 160 and 180 degrees. The ice bath, 49 degrees. The sauna is so hot it literally hurts to breathe as the scalding air singes the nostrils. The bath, so cold it feels like a million ice picks delving deep into the bones until the whole body becomes numb, then begins to shake. It stretches both physical and mental endurance to the breaking point. For Waller, plunging relieves inflammation and alleviates pain. It stimulates his nervous system and improves cognition while alleviating mental stress.
All of it, the whole process, is engineered to ensure Waller is in top form come gameday.
Waller takes joy in it. It’s clear from his cheerful demeanor afterwards as he wolfs down a meal from one of his go-to lunch spots in Vegas, Foodie Fit, to reload his body with all the carbs he burned off throughout the day. It is remarkable, really; the physical and mental stress he put himself through on a standard Tuesday would knock a normal person out for a week. Yet he remains energetic and present after five hours of pushing himself as far as he can go.
It wasn’t always like this, Waller tells The Big Lead.
“I saw it as a means to an end before, but now I really enjoy the process,” he says. “Before I got sober and came out of rehab, I was never really taking care of myself physically or mentally or anything. I became more open-minded, like, okay, I’m really committed to taking care of myself and how I go about doing that. These recovery methods are definitely ways for me to expound on that, in terms of what I want to do and what works for me.
"I enjoy just being present in it. I found a friend in Zaki and George, being able to work together like that and have a relationship is awesome. Being able to be present and see the effect it has on my mental health, my overall anxiety on a day-to-day basis, being able to float and do the Fire & Ice room, those are things I really enjoy. I don’t feel like I have to do those things, it’s more like I need to do those things. I can help my body and my mind at the same time.”
The relationships Waller mentions are key to his success. Whether it’s his camaraderie with Zaki and George or his connection with Icy Hot, Waller knows he can’t do it alone. Not just in regards to rehabbing his hamstring. Waller emphasizes that the strong foundation he’s built is what gets him through the day-to-day grind of being an athlete.
“You gotta have a good community of people. I don’t think I could do all these things and take care of myself and check these boxes the way I know I can without those guys. It turns into friendship and laughter and wanting to be around each other as well as wanting to get the work done. I need people like that around me. I can’t do it all by myself.”