In advance of Patriots QB Tom Brady’s 40th birthday, SI writer Greg Bishop went to the TB12 Sports Therapy Center to gain better insight on just how Brady remains at the very top of his game. He also provides a few annotations throughout the story—click on the highlights to read.
The assessment starts inside the Perseverance Room, atop the black-leather exam table where I’m sitting as David Merson frowns. He’s checking the symmetry of my ankles, hamstrings, glutes, hips and abdomen, digging his fingers into my sportswriter’s not-yet-a-dad-but-already-a-dad-bod physique, telling me to lift this leg and push that one. “The way your hip moves here signifies tightness, restriction and decreased muscle activation,” he says.
We’re inside the TB12 Sports Therapy Center, which is located in a strip mall in Foxborough, near a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Five Guys burger joint and a Menchie’s frozen yogurt spot. The window signs of those establishments do not yet torture me. This is Day 1—the first hours of the two weeks I spent trying to live like Tom Brady, which is why I’m in this room with Merson, who is a body coach. Soon he will be my body coach.
Brady famously has one too, in his business partner and confidant Alex Guerrero. Together they opened the center in 2013 and hired folks like Merson to handle the other elite athletes who rehab there. That and the schlubs, like yours truly, who venture in off the street. All told, they have about 2,000 clients. I’ve written several times about Brady and Guerrero’s process, what they call the TB12 Method. I’m here to better understand it.
“Oh, yeah, see?” Merson says, prodding into my abdomen likes he’s trying to extract an intestine while motioning to Guerrero, who nods and smiles—smiles!—as I wince.
“That’s from sitting at a desk all day,” Merson continues. “You drink a lot of coffee, huh?”
“Little dried out?” Guerrero asks.
Merson then hands over a water bottle adorned with the TB12 logo, which is ubiquitous around here. The water tastes like water, only a little saltier, because Merson added an electrolyte solution.
Then Merson goes to work, his hands moving up my body’s kinetic chain, massaging and twisting from ankle to core. Every time he finishes in one spot, the muscles there feel better instantly— looser, less restricted and a little tingly. “When you’re that good, it works that quickly,” he says.
Merson talks as I grimace through what he and Guerrero call “soft-tissue performance treatment,” designed to increase blood flow, improve tissue pliability and reduce tightness in muscles. “Knowing how hard Tom works and seeing what the effort is, I just don’t think it’s matched,” he says. “I know we’re going to outwork people.”
Speaking of, he adds, “We have some work to do.”
STILL DAY 1: We head next onto a small turf field that sits between eight therapy rooms, each with the most Tom Brady–esque name ever. The We-Got-This Room . . . the Grit Room. . . . We perform balance tests, steadying on one foot with both arms bent 90 degrees at the elbows. (I can’t do this on my left side; I fractured a pinkie toe one week earlier by snagging my foot on a doorway.) Merson finds both my alignment and stability lacking, especially when balancing on an unstable surface. “You’re not ready for that,” he says.
We move on to planks, then resistance-band exercises, which prove harder than they appear. Merson corrects my form for each drill and expresses surprise when he notices an increase in my heart rate. Dude is used to elite athletes, I tell myself.
He hands over another water bottle and explains the TB12 philosophy on hydration. They want to turn every drink into a sports drink, like Gatorade without the sugar. “We put electrolytes in everything,” Merson says. “They have trace minerals, which are what make up our muscle tissue, our nervous tissue.” He suggests I down 97 ounces of water a day. Additionally, for every ounce of soda, beer, coffee or carbonated beverage consumed, he recommends taking in an additional three ounces of electrolyte-laced water, and every ounce of hard alcohol should be replaced with six ounces of high-quality H20. That’s why, he says, many athletes choose not to drink.
Fancy water in hand, we go back to the Perseverance Room, where my body coach sits at a laptop and goes over my diet. He finds my regimen, which consists of things like turkey sandwiches and fruit shakes, to be lacking in protein. He says I take in too much sugar (Brady mostly abstains), way too much dairy (he doesn’t eat any) and far too many carbs (another no-no). Merson describes some of the foods I’d consider relatively healthy (strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers) as pro-inflammatory. He says they’ll increase the inflammation in my body for up to 72 hours.
Merson sends me on my way, promising to review my diet options with Guerrero. He also gives me a compression sleeve to wear over my foot at night; he says it will speed the healing in my toe. Then he suggests I eat fish for dinner. I hand him what’s left of my coffee as I walk out. Later that night I order a sashimi platter and edamame from the sushi spot across the street from my hotel. I put electrolytes in the water. I tug on my compression sleeve as I go to bed.
I sleep as well as I have in months.
DAY 2: To be honest, I’m skeptical. Some of what Guerrero and Brady preach is common sense. But other things—the recovery pajamas, the whole don’t-eat-tomatoes thing—seem a little over the top. And yet, when I wake up and remove my sleeve, my toe is half as swollen as before. I audibly gasp.
Following Merson’s instructions, I eat eggs—just eggs, plus electrolyte water—for breakfast. I go back to TB12 later that afternoon and sit in the lobby, waiting for my body coach. A TV airs Fox News, and copies of Sports Illustrated are scattered on tables. I update Merson on my progress, the gains that have been more immediate than expected.
He asks what I’ve learned so far, and I cite the number of choices one has to make to live like Brady. “Holistic” is a word he uses, and that’s exactly how it feels. These choices have to be made consistently, day after day, week after cheeseburgerless week.
Merson and I head back to the turf to try out a vibrating foam roller that eases muscle soreness, improving blood flow where needed. For me that means putting the roller under my feet, calves, hamstrings, back and shoulders—everywhere, basically. Those muscles feel better right away. There are three settings, ranging from something like “smooth massage” to “jackhammer mode.” We try the lightest one.
Next we move on to brain games, which Brady does every day on a laptop or on his iPad. They work like this: Three balls appear; they start to move around, and then more balls are introduced; you have to point out the original balls. Another game: Twelve birds flash on the screen, one with dark wings, and you have to click on the quadrant of the screen where the dark-winged bird was located when the birds disappear. Brady cycles through 29 games that train attention, memory, brain speed, navigation, people skills and intelligence.
“This is your coffee!” Merson says, a little too enthusiastically.
The session ends. I eat a salad with chicken for lunch and a grilled bass, to-go, from a nearby restaurant for dinner. Then I sign up for the brain games online and yank on my compression sleeve. It feels a bit like I’ve joined a cult, the possibilities spread wide.
I am Tom Brady.
DAY 3: Guerrero meets me in the lobby in the afternoon, and we retreat to the Competition Room. The wall showed a basketball player throwing down a reverse dunk, next to a quote from Michael Jordan: Some people want it to happen. Some wish it would happen. Others make it happen. Sounds cliché, my skeptical sportswriter brain says. I want to connect my experience to Brady’s everyday routine. We start with muscle pliability, all that soft-tissue work, which Guerrero describes as “the core of our message” and “the foundation of any athlete.” He says this is the first thing he worked on with Brady back when the QB was in his 20s and constantly in pain from football.
In the 13 years since they met, Guerrero and Brady evolved their program until it became their way of life. They changed Brady’s diet. They replaced weight training with resistance bands. A few years ago they added the cognitive training. “Most athletes are really good at taking care of their bodies,” Guerrero says, “but they never look at taking care of their brains. They get annual physicals, blood tests; they check everything except their brains.” Guerrero says Brady ranks in the 99th percentile on every one of those games now.
Speaking of the diet, Guerrero says straight-faced, “It’s not that restrictive.” He says Brady enjoys pizza and takes his children out for ice cream—not just his infamous avocado-based version. Every once in a while they’ll eat cheeseburgers. (Really? When? “Probably March or April . . . definitely in the off-season,” he says. They would never, ever, ever eat a cheeseburger in-season.) As for the sleeve I’ve been wearing on my foot, Guerrero says it’s made from the same material used in Under Armour’s TB12 recovery sleepwear that writers so often poke fun at. “We get mocked all the time,” Guerrero says, “because we are really progressive that way.”
Here’s how Guerrero explains the technology, which he calls a kind of infrared therapy: Far infrared is a type of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum, and some claim it (vaguely) benefits the human body. If a sleeve—or some sports jammies—contains some far infrared–emitting ceramics in the fabric, the body’s natural heat reflects that energy back into the skin.
Regardless, when Brady absorbed a forceful hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor last fall, he suffered a deep bruise, and Guerrero says, “I put the sleeve on his quad and then wrapped an ACE bandage around it to keep it there. Then he played every week and didn’t miss a game.
“When he got tackled by Ndamukong Suh,” Guerrero continues, “it was nasty, but he had that sleeve on. His ankle was huge, purple, swollen, and we worked it. He didn’t even miss practice.”
DAY 5: Back home in Washington now, it’s time to order some TB12 merch. It takes only a few clicks to learn that living like Brady is not cheap. A jar of protein powder: $54. A 50ml bottle of electrolytes: $15. Twelve protein bars, made with ingredients like raw almonds, lemon juice powder, coconut oil and Himalayan pink salt: $50. Throw in a set of resistance bands ($154) and a vibrating foam roller ($200), and a basic TB12 starter kit costs upward of $400.
DAY 7: The bruising on my toe has disappeared, as has most of the swelling. When I step on the scale, it blinks back 182—I’ve lost 12 pounds. My caffeine consumption is limited to one shot of espresso each morning. Drinking the recommended amount of water is annoying, necessitating many bathroom breaks, but the diet proves manageable: eggs in the morning, chicken salad for lunch, and fish and vegetables for dinner. The impact is immediate. I sleep better and feel more rested; I no longer require three cups of coffee to power through a day. I remain skeptical, but less so.
DAY 8: It’s July 4—but no hot dogs for me. No strawberries, either. When I splurge on a couple beers, I lap up cups of water in between.
DAY 10: My toe heals enough for my less-than-triumphant- return to the gym. I ride the stationary bike for 45 minutes. I no longer wear a walking boot. I’m crushing the brain games.
It feels as if I’m starting to become addicted to this routine. I eat a chicken salad at a baseball game and wave goodbye to soda. I ask annoying questions of restaurant waiters about the ingredients in their sauces.
DAY 14: I weigh in at 178 pounds. I replace the batteries in the scale; it’s not broken. I’m down four more.
I’m a walking advertisement for TB12, which is a little awkward given my status as a journalist. But it’s working. I extol the virtues of electrolytes to strangers, tell friends about the diet and add “brain exercises” to my to-do list every morning. I progress to the second level with the vibrating fitness roller. I even consider buying some recovery-pajamas . . . but decide against it.
DAY 21: Everything hurts. My feet scream, my legs ache. The folks at TB12 are responsible for this, and that's a good thing.
I spent Friday and Saturday in a Ragnar Relay, one of those road races that lasts more than 36 hours and covers roughly 200 miles. My team ran from Blaine, Wash., up near the Canadian border, to Langley, which is 35 miles north of Seattle. Without having run since I hurt my toe—and having slept 12 hours combined the entire week before while covering the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor press tour—I was responsible for three legs and 15.8 miles. I drank the electrolyte water and stuffed my foot into the compression sleeve between runs and not only did I finish but I averaged under 10 minutes per mile for my portion, without training or any stretch of sleep longer than two hours. My last leg was seven miles, more than half of it uphill, and I'm convinced I would not have finished if I had not lost the weight, followed the program or gone to TB12. Consider me a well-hydrated convert.