The Conditioning Test Adrian Peterson Can't Afford to Fail

One secret behind the 33-year-old running back's superhuman fitness? A brutal drill that forces him to hold his breath between periods of intense exercise.

Adrian Peterson can't breathe.

A relentless pressure grows inside his chest.

His heartbeat, once a dull thud, now reverberates through his skull and smashes his temples.


Adrian Peterson can't breathe.

A relentless pressure grows inside his chest.

His heartbeat, once a dull thud, now reverberates through his skull and smashes his temples.

Each passing second takes him deeper into the darkness.

Yet Peterson is calm.

This is not the first time he's suffered.

He knows that fighting will only make it worse, and that there's only one man who can call off the demons closing in on him.

Just a few more seconds.

The pressure is deafening.

Every cell in Peterson's body tells him to lash out, but his mind resists.

Stay calm, he tells himself. Stay calm.

A voice pierces through the fog.


Peterson bursts above the surface, his lungs snatching for air.

James Cooper, or "Coop," as AP calls him, watches as one of the fittest athletes in NFL history chases his breath.

"Not bad. Not bad," Cooper says. He's been Peterson's personal trainer since 2008 and he prides himself on finding ways to help the star running back find new summits of his potential. That's why Peterson's in the pool right now, and Cooper's got a stopwatch in his hand.

The drill, a brainchild of Cooper's, is designed to build mental toughness and help Peterson control his breathing amidst extreme cardiovascular strain. It starts with Peterson swimming as fast as he can for 30 seconds. Then, a 30-second break. As anyone who's performed high-intensity interval training will tell you, 30 seconds of max effort exercise is more than enough to send your heart rate into overdrive. During the break, Peterson focuses on calming his breathing and lowering his heart rate as much as possible. Once the 30-second break has expired, Peterson must submerge himself underwater. The intervals he spends submerged increase over the session, beginning at 15 seconds and working up to 30. When you just swam like your life depended on it, 30 seconds in an airless void feels like an eternity.

"Your heart rate is going to be blasting through the roof," Cooper says. "The self-control is you only have 30 seconds to gather everything. You've got to gather your thoughts, because you're tired, you're fatigued. You have to gather your heart rate and get it under control and tell your body it's OK. Then the most uncomfortable part of all—you almost have to smother yourself. You're trying to breath, and now you're allowing your body to stop breathing and surrounding yourself in a body of water. You'll feel this combustion happening, and you almost want to lash out and get your breath. But you're telling yourself 'No, I can do this, I can do this.' You have to fight from within."

Not only does the drill build extraordinary mental toughness, but the ability to quickly harness his breathing while winded has a big benefit for AP. The NFL play clock is 40 seconds long. In a hurry-up offense, the amount of time between plays may be less than a quarter of that. The quicker Peterson can catch his breath, and the better he can keep his brain clear during grueling circumstances, the more prepared he'll be on game day. "How quick can you adapt to something? How quick can you adapt to something that hurts, that's painful?" Cooper says.

It's not a drill young athletes should attempt, but the 33-year-old Peterson has now pushed well beyond what most humans are capable of. At O Athletik, the training facility he and Cooper co-own in Houston, Texas, he regularly bests NFL wide receivers in sprints and then out-lifts linemen in the weight room. The workouts have evolved over the past 10 years, but the goal is always to build a body and a mind that can not only handle whatever the game throws at AP, but allow him to thrive in spite of it. So when Peterson calls the pool drill a "tough workout," you know it means something.

"It's mental and it's physical and it takes a lot of willpower and determination. But it pushes you. It teaches you to be calm and relax under pressure," Peterson says. "When you think about holding your breath underwater, it's an uncomfortable situation to be in. It puts you in a vulnerable position. How do you respond to it? (It's about) locking in, taking a deep breath, and just accepting the challenge."

Peterson knows something about accepting a challenge. During Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season, he became just the 10th player since 1970 to total 25 or more rushing attempts in a game at age 33 or older. "I want to be the greatest running back to ever play the game," Peterson says. "That's driving me."

He's on his way. AP recently became just the seventh player in NFL history to total over 12,000 rushing yards and 100 rushing touchdowns in his career. The other six are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now, Cooper and Peterson are revealing some of the most powerful exercises and drills inside their training arsenal to help you realize your own greatness within. While Peterson is a physical marvel, many of the exercises and drills include intelligent progressions to help athletes of all ages and skill levels improve safely. Greatness Within includes:

  • The strength training that makes AP such a nightmare to tackle
  • The speed training that helps him dust defenders
  • The agility training that helps him turn a sliver of daylight into six points
  • Plus hill training, sand training, and motivational advice from the seven-time Pro Bowl selection