When he looked in the mirror, Adrian Peterson knew something was terribly wrong.
His eyes, his mouth, every part of his face was swollen. His throat itched, and he labored to breathe. Eric Sugarman, the Vikings’ trainer, could hear the struggle in Peterson’s voice as the running back spoke to him on his cell phone.
“I think I’m having a reaction,” Peterson said.
People thought the Vikings’ July 2012 training camp at Minnesota State University in Mankato would be difficult for Peterson. Only eight months had passed since he had torn the ACL and MCL in his left knee and had undergone reconstructive surgery to repair them.
While his teammates practiced plays and formations, Peterson battled through punishing field workouts involving heavy ropes, dumbbells and sprints, under the guidance of Vikings strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy.
The training was tough, tougher than the months of rehab leading up to camp. But Peterson had expected the challenge, just as surely as he expected to be back on the field and ready to play in time for the season opener.
No one anticipated that a simple thing like lunch might put his life in danger.
Anaphylaxis is a severe, full-body allergic reaction. It causes the body to release histamine and other substances that inflame tissue and can tighten one’s airways. The condition is life threatening, and although it can be triggered by a number of allergens, including insect bites and certain foods, a reaction can also occur for no obvious reason.
Often, people who experience a reaction may not even be aware that they were allergic to the food that caused it. And even if they are, caretakers may not be. A 2005 study in Pediatrics found that when a student suffers a food reaction in school, there’s a one in four chance that the staff will be unaware of any prior history of severe allergies. Sometimes a person will experience a reaction to a food they’ve eaten many times before. This is what happened to Peterson.
“After practice, we took a break for lunch. I had a couple of bowls of gumbo,” Peterson says. “I’d eaten seafood my entire life—I was 27 at the time—and suddenly, BAM! I’m allergic to shrimp and scallops.”
In his dorm room at Minnesota State, Peterson dropped the phone and stumbled out the door. “The one thing I knew I couldn’t do was panic,” he says. Out in the hallway, Sugarman and Vikings team doctor Joel Boyd were running toward him. They guided Peterson back into his dorm room, sat him down, and handed him a plastic tube. Sugarman instructed Peterson to lift the tube and drive it into his right thigh. When he did, Peterson first felt a pinprick, then “immediate relief,” he says.
The device Peterson used was an EpiPen, which injects epinephrine (a hormone also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. The injection causes an increase in blood flow throughout the body, which can offer temporary relief from an anaphylactic reaction. But because epinephrine has a short half-life and can wear off quickly, anyone who needs an EpiPen should head to a hospital immediately. That’s exactly what Peterson did.
“I’d never experienced something like that,” he says.
Blood tests later showed that Peterson is, in fact, allergic to shrimp, lobster and scallops. All three are forms of shellfish, which is one of the leading causes of food allergies. Peterson says that since that incident, he has avoided those foods and experienced no reactions. But he always carries an EpiPen with him, just in case.
“I don’t feel weak at all [since the incident]; I still feel strong,” Peterson says. “Allergies can make you nervous, but you can still live your normal life with them.”
You probably know what happened after that July day last year. Adrian Peterson returned to his team, resumed working out, started the season and ultimately turned in one of the best performances in history by an NFL running back. He rushed for 2,097 yards—just eight shy of the all-time record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984. Peterson carried the ball 348 times, averaging an astonishing 6 yards per carry. Hampered by the injury? Just the opposite. Peterson was even better after it.
But you might not know about the unconventional ways and means Peterson used to build himself back to top form—a list that includes (but isn’t limited to) video games, insanely heavy Squats, and ice cream.
In a video on Vikings.com, Sugarman said, “The Wii Fit is really good for rehab. One of the things he needed to improve was balance and the ability to fire all of those little muscles. Wii Fit is a fun way to do that.”
Peterson used a skiing game to work on his balance and stability. As his rehab progressed, he performed Single-Leg Presses, Curls and Extensions, which allowed him to regain strength in each of his legs at a pace they could handle. If you need proof of how well the approach worked (other than his MVP-caliber performance last season), look no further than the squat workout he performs on the day after a game.
Peterson says, “On a Monday I’ll put 315 pounds on the bar, do a set, and then go up to 405 and do another set of 10. If I’m feeling good, I’ll do a set at 465. I hear it from Coach Kanavy almost every time: ‘Adrian, you might not want to lift that heavy.’ But I feel it flushes my legs.”
His upper-body workout challenges his explosiveness and balance, like Med Ball Chest Tosses and Push-Ups on a Swiss Ball (actually two Swiss Balls; see his full workout on STACK.com). Peterson uses those moves, along with “a lot of Pull-Ups,” to chisel a torso, back and arms that can handle 20-plus carries per game.
“It’s a matter of combining talent with hard work,” Peterson says. “I knew at a young age that I was blessed with tremendous talent, and I wanted to take advantage of it. I wasn’t willing to go just off my talent alone. I always wanted to push myself to be better.”
The Diesel Diet
According to Adrian Peterson, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day—unless it’s dessert. He says, “I try to wake up and eat a good breakfast each day. I love oatmeal and feel that it gives me lot of energy—enough to carry me through lunch.” His other go-to morning meal is a hearty plate of pancakes, sausages and turkey bacon. During the day, he’ll eat tilapia, salmon, steak—plenty of high-quality protein sources. But his after-dinner diet choice might be the envy of most metabolic mortals. “I actually have to eat ice cream and brownies sometimes, because my body fat percentage is so low,” Peterson says, adding that a recent checkup placed the figure at 4.3 percent. “I shed a ton of fat easily, and when you don’t have a lot of fat on your body, it’s easier to get muscle pulls and the like.” Ice cream for better performance? If only we could all be so lucky.
Peterson is now a spokesman for EpiPen, aiming to raise awareness about Anaphlaxis. You can learn more at 25yearsofepipen.com.