Working it out

Blue Bomber Doug Brown trains year-round to stay in shape. Here's how he does it.

Blue Bomber Doug Brown trains year-round to stay in shape. Here's how he does it.
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Doug Brown's fitness program

Doug Brown's menu

Steroids offer no advantage

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2010

"These will make you throw up if you're not careful."

With those words, Doug Brown starts loading weights on a barbell for one of his exercises. Fifty pounds . . . 100 pounds . . . 150 . . . 200. At 225 pounds, he's ready.

Strapping a leather belt around his waist, the defensive tackle for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hoists the bar behind his shoulders. Slowly, Brown drops into a squat position and holds, grimacing, as his trainer counts to five.

After the first set of 10, Brown puts down the bar and breathes heavily as he walks his six-foot, eight frame around a local gym for a few moments' rest. He'll do two more repetitions of the pause squats, a killer exercise because you have to hold at the bottom and then have enough momentum to go back up.

With the football season around the corner, these training sessions are important for Brown. At 35 years of age, he is getting ready for his 10th Canadian Football League season and the 14th of his pro football career. That's a long time to be playing football.

But today's workout is not part of some quickie, pre-season effort to get into shape. Rather, it is part of a year-long program that Brown has adopted in order to keep his body in the best shape possible. It's also part of an approach to healthy living that Brown has embraced since he was a kid - long before he even thought about playing football.

And while his fitness program may be tailored to the needs of a professional athlete, Brown says the philosophy he lives and trains by contains important lessons for the average Joe or Joanne who just want to enhance their health and well-being.

"The biggest thing is always consistency," Brown says. "You see people at different times of the year, 'Oh it's summer, I've got to get into shape' or it's a New Year's resolution and stuff. The easiest way is just to be consistent."

"The second thing is to realize that there's no substitute for a work ethic. There's no quick fix to hard work. It's not easy. It's a lot easier to be out of shape and inactive as opposed to the other way. The way the world is right now in terms of the food we eat, you definitely have your work cut out for you, especially as you age and you try to stay on top of these things. It has to be a concerted effort. You need to understand the values and the benefits."

It's also important to remember that you can be fit without going to the gym. Brown's active lifestyle isn't limited to lifting weights.

After today's workout - one of five he does each week during the off-season - Brown drives a few blocks to the Bomber lockerroom for a shower. Next he's off to pick up his "baby" from daycare - that would be his four-legged baby, Samuel the Weimaraner.

He and his energetic year-and-a-half-old pup will head out for one of their daily walks or bike rides, which have effectively become another component of Brown's fitness program. "We'll either go to a dog park for an hour or I'll take him on my bike and we'll do anywhere from five to 10 kilometres," Brown says. "On the weekends when I'm not working out and he's not at daycare, I pretty much take him on the bike five or 10 kilometres, two or three times a day.

"He's definitely made me much more active and out in the community. I didn't pick a low-energy dog, I'll put it that way. He's very well-behaved if he's exercised, and he's an absolute nightmare if he's not."

During the season, Brown takes Sam out on the bike before and after practice, which ends up being a good way to get the kinks out of his legs, he says.

But working out in the gym and running Sam aren't Brown's only fitness activities.

He and Bombers centre Obby Khan also do kickboxing two nights a week in the offseason, and Brown takes in the occasional hot yoga session. "It's very applicable to football," Brown says of kickboxing, which he began last year as a way to add something new to his off-season training. "On the defensive line, we make our living using our hands. Kickboxing is very helpful increasing hand-eye co-ordination as it is a very technical sport, and the cardio component of boxing also crosses over very well to football."

On the weekends, he might also take in a game of squash. Good thing he has a hot tub to soak his weary muscles. "I feel so sloppy just sitting around and not exercising and getting that sweat and that euphoric feeling when you're done a workout," he says of his busy lifestyle.

It's a fitness routine that sets the bar extremely high for his fellow football players, or any athlete, for that matter. "I would describe it as amazing," says Khan. "I've been around this game for seven years professionally now, and I don't think I've seen someone train harder and more consistently than Doug. He has a determination not only to work out and play football, but to be the best at it. Two weeks after the season is over, he's back training."

While Brown, at 35, is getting up there in age - he jokes that he may not get the chance to play in the Bombers' new stadium, slated to open in 2012 - he says he doesn't feel like he's slowing down. He may feel a bit more soreness after a game, and may not physically recover as fast as he once did, but that's about it.

"To me, this season feels the same as 2001 when I first came to Winnipeg," he says. "I don't feel like my strength levels are any different or my speed levels are different. My conditioning is even better. If anything, a lot of stuff I'm doing now exceeds what I did before."

Brown's desire to excel - minus any performance- enhancing drugs - has paid off. Last year was the sixth time he was named a CFL all-star. He was runner-up for CFL defensive player of the year in 2008, won the league's most outstanding Canadian award in 2001, and was runner-up in 2006 and 2007.

His work ethic is rooted in his childhood. Born in New Westminster, B.C., Brown, his sister Cheryl, and their parents lived in Port Moody. His father, Eric, was an applications engineer for Imperial Oil and his mother, Elizabeth, a special-education teacher.

His parents weren't athletic, but he and Cheryl, who is two years older, played a variety of sports. Both were competitive swimmers, and he also played soccer, baseball, hockey and rugby. "I've always felt that by the time you find your calling and you become a professional (athlete), having experience in a diverse portfolio of sports you've dabbled in only helps," Brown says. "The different skill sets, the different muscles you train and the different things you learn from playing a wide spectrum of sports, I think it all just benefits you and enhances your athleticism in terms of what you bring to the game."

Brown was actually focused on rugby in high school, making the B.C. under-17 and under-19 teams and Canada's under-19 squad. It wasn't until his senior year in high school that his buddies coaxed him to come out for the football team, telling him they were going to win a provincial championship, which they did.

While Cheryl turned down a full scholarship to swim at Burnaby's Simon Fraser University to focus on getting an honours degree in criminology, Brown wanted to find a way to pay for his post-secondary education. There were no scholarships for rugby at that time so he accepted a half-scholarship to play football at SFU. It turned into a full scholarship and the catalyst for his pro career.

He redshirted his first year (practised but didn't play, so it didn't count toward his years of eligibility), didn't play in his second year and only played sporadically in his third.

In an effort to improve his skills, he practised with the Coquitlam Track Club. Coach Percy Perry broke down the fundamentals and components of running and Brown soon saw results. "It was tremendous," he says. "I probably went three times a week doing speed work and running with all these track people and learning the proper way to be most proficient in your running. I think that's been my strength . . . I guess for my height and weight, I've always been able to run fairly well."

His fastest time in the 40-yard sprint was 4.86 seconds in his senior year, a pretty good dash for someone weighing about 280 pounds. He had started his university career around 215 pounds, adding muscle and "good weight" along the way with training and a healthy diet.

It was in his fourth and fifth years with the football team when Brown started to get noticed. While he had played defensive end and tight end in high school, he was moved to the defensive tackle position.

At the time, SFU competed in the U.S.- based National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics rather than the Canadian university loop. Brown was named a first-team all-Conference all-star in his junior and senior years. In his senior year in 1996, he earned NAIA all-American honours and was the College Football Association's defensive player of the year.

National Football League scouts started making trips to SFU - rare at the time - to test him, and he eventually became the first SFU player to make an NFL roster. He signed with the Buffalo Bills in 1997 and spent that season on the practice roster.

"I was overwhelmed," says Brown, who also has a degree in geography from SFU. "From a football standpoint, I pretty much had to learn (the game) all over again. My fundamentals were all skewed and my footwork was wrong. I'm not casting a stone at SFU staff, it's just another scale and level of preparedness. I could hold my own with strength, and my speed was fine, but my technique was horrible."

He admits he was a bit "embarrassed" going up against the starters, but it was also motivating and his coaches were willing to develop his skills. An hour before each of the two-a-day practices during that first training camp, he'd go out on the field and work on his fundamentals. In his hotel room, he'd practise his stance, his hand placement, his steps and his co-ordination.

He ended up moving to the Washington Redskins for the 1998 and 1999 seasons, playing 10 games in each year. He broke his foot during the 2000 training camp when he caught it awkwardly running on the grass and spent the season rehabbing it before being released. Although he went to a Redskins' mini camp in 2001, by the time they called him to sign a contract he had already inked a deal to play for the Blue Bombers.

Brown says he has no regrets about ending up north of the border, and views his time in the NFL as an education for becoming a better player through hard work. He always took part in the NFL clubs' offseason workout programs, but wondered why the stars weren't around. He later found out they were working out elsewhere with personal trainers who were pushing the envelope with innovative programs. As a result, he has spent the last five years doing the same, working with a trainer.

"The greatest thing about working with Jeff is he understands the CFL game," Brown says. "I think the biggest thing people at my position don't recognize is how much of playing defensive line in the CFL is about conditioning. There are so many guys who are bigger than me, but they don't have the same conditioning.

"You want to strive to have the skill and the ability to stay active in the fourth quarter. You want to be able to throw the same moves and play with the same energy in the fourth quarter as you do in the first."

There's little doubt he's able to do that.

"His fitness is incomparable to other interior defensive linemen," Khan says. "During practice when we get some free time, Doug is running shuttles in the corner of the field. And it shows in games. Big defensive linemen always get tired as the game goes on and that's what we offensive linemen look forward to. But not Doug - he gets stronger as the game goes on. And I know for a fact offensive linemen throughout the CFL hate playing against Doug because of that reason."

How long Brown continues playing is anyone's guess. He figures there are four ways a career ends: a player retires on their own terms; someone beats them out; they get injured; or they become complacent. "The lucky guys, the smart guys, are the ones who retire on their own terms," he says. "I'm in a year-by-year evaluation. The minute I feel I'm not doing myself or this team any service by my participation, then it's time to go."

Or if he suffers a serious injury.

"I've always told myself: first serious injury I have, I'm done," he says. "It's not going to be worth it for me to inhibit or hamper the rest of my life because of something I'm doing short-term. Luckily, I haven't come to that crossroads." Indeed, life after the game can be difficult for football players. Much has been written about the health problems of former CFL linemen once they hit their 50s and 60s.

But Brown's lifestyle and training should help him avoid the long-term toll that the game has taken on other players. In fact, Brown says he may even feel better once his career ends because he'll drop some of his 290 pounds and ease his joints and muscles. Whatever happens, he's thankful he's been able to earn a living playing a game he absolutely loves.

"When it all comes together, it's like a beautiful performing orchestra," he says. "It probably looks like carnage and violence and chaos to most people, but when things happen the way they should offensively and defensively on a team, it's a symphony of violence. There's no other sport I've played that's as satisfying when things are going well."

One thing that won't change post-career is his need to live a healthy lifestyle.

"It's addictive," he says. "I haven't just been working out since I became a professional athlete. I started in junior high school, mainly out of my insecurity of being so tall and so slender, you could say. It'll definitely change and it'll be adjusted, but you have a certain way that you run your life."

Judy Owen is a Winnipeg writer.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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