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NFL players using MMA training to prepare for season

Wind sprints and hill climbing is old school. Several NFL players are now training using mixed martial arts to prepare for what will certainly be a grueling season.

Updated: October 19, 2007, 6:37 PM ET
By Ben Houser | Special to ESPN.com

NFL players have always trained to get an edge. Jerry Rice's workout routine included running five miles uphill, coupled with wind sprints, six days a week during the offseason. LaDainian Tomlinson put in a 25-yard dirt hill in his backyard so he could train three days a week doing sprints to better prepare himself mentally and physically for the upcoming season.

Most players have an offseason training regimen to prepare themselves for the grueling training camp and ensuing season. And some players prepare for the punishing NFL by battling with some of the toughest fighters in the world, in arguably the fastest-growing sport, mixed martial arts.

San Diego Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, for instance, has trained numerous times over the past couple years with UFC light heavyweight Chuck Liddell. Neal, who knows Liddell through their days as wrestlers in college, helps Liddell train for fights, specifically getting low to help Liddell with stronger opponents. Neal also claims the training helps him as well with balance and body control that translate well to the football field.

Neal is not alone in turning to MMA for training. Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins trained using mixed martial arts and even kicker David Akers trains in various martial arts regiments during the offseason. Tiki Barber, the former New York Giants running back, reportedly trained using MMA before he posted one of his best seasons. Defensive players have gotten started with MMA, too, including Miami Dolphins safety Donovin Darius. Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman, who already trains using boxing, says he wants to train using MMA.

Jared Allen, a defensive end with the Kansas City Chiefs, trained at Arizona Combat Sports in the offseason. "The cardio that fighters go through is just intense," Allen said. "This offseason I didn't do any running. I did all my intense cardio at Arizona Combat Sports. When I went off to minicamp in the spring, we were running wind sprints one day and I had more gas than I knew what to do with. The cardio level of these fighters is so intense because their life depends on them not being tired." Allen says he lost 25 pounds training MMA this summer and has toned up in the process.

Although current NFL players use MMA purely for training and do not fight competitively, former Washington Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook made the transition to fighting in 2005 when he defeated another former NFL player, Jarrod Bunch, in a King of the Cage event.

The greatest advantage for current NFL players to gain from MMA is the cardio training. "What happens is the adrenaline is different here than it is on the field," claimed Westbook. "It will teach them how to understand how not to get tired, how to relax, how to breathe. It's a different cardio. Once NFL players come in the gym and see how tired they get, they want to keep doing it. When they go back to football, those four quarters are nothing."

Allen says training with Trevor Lally, an experienced MMA fighter, has put him in the best shape of his life. Lally has fought in numerous MMA factions, including AMC, UFCF and King of the Cage. His professional record is 14-2, and he trained Westbrook in his MMA debut. Lally says any NFL player will benefit because "when you step in that cage, you are by yourself, and if you haven't put in the time, you can't blame anybody else. That style of training and attitude is huge for any other athlete. The confidence alone in that, knowing that you put in the time, whether here or the football field, is huge."

Lally also trained Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks over the summer. At 6-8, 340 pounds, Starks is a large man to handle. He says he started training because his older brother operated a martial arts school and ended up helping out his sibling. He would try different moves and positions, and became a fan of the sport. "To be a successful lineman in my position, you have to have great technique in order to go against guys who are faster and potentially stronger guys," said Lally. "You have to have good technique, and that's the same with mixed martial arts. You have to have flawless technique. It doesn't matter how big you are, it matters how much of a technical fighter you are. Fearlessness and toughness are truly the basic principles."

Starks trained for only a few days with Lally and believes he will benefit most from the hand-striking and learning the delicate balance.

After four games this season, the Chiefs' Allen had six sacks and two forced fumbles. Allen is hoping his training with Lally in Arizona will evolve into a career year on the football field. Predicted Allen, "I'll let you know how much better I am at the end of the year when I'm in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl."

Ben Houser is a feature producer for "Outside the Lines."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.

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