The former offensive lineman credits swimming with helping him lose nearly 60 pounds after retiring from the NFL
Joe Thomas needed a new way to maintain his cardiovascular fitness.
A decade of collisions in NFL trenches was beginning to take its toll on one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history, but because of severe knee problems, the then-Cleveland Browns star was unable to practice or run consistently. Sure, he could take painkillers to get through games, but he wouldn’t be able to compete effectively if he couldn’t sustain the same fitness level as his peers.
“I was stuck in this conundrum where I needed to get into shape, but my joints couldn’t handle getting into shape,” Thomas says. “I can’t practice and can’t run, so what do I do?”
Perhaps it was serendipity that around the same time, the Browns installed a lap pool as part of a renovation of the team facility in Berea, Ohio. Thomas decided to take the plunge, wholeheartedly motivated even though he knew it might be a personal struggle.
“If you put me in a pool, I will beat an anvil to the bottom 100 out of 100 times,” Thomas says with a laugh.
The 6-foot-6 Thomas is only halfway kidding. He weighed 312 pounds during his NFL career and has uncommonly dense bones, as he learned from an X-ray body scan.
“Our nutritionist in Cleveland said I’m twice as dense as the densest athlete she’s ever seen in her life,” says Thomas, who made 10 consecutive Pro Bowls with the Browns and likely will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he becomes eligible. “Basically, that means I’m a giant cannonball.”
Thomas swam recreationally as a youth in his native Wisconsin, although he wasn’t a competitive swimmer. He started slowly in his return to the water. After swimming a single 25-meter length in the Browns’ pool, he needed a breather. After five lengths, he was gassed. But he persisted, and by the time he embarked on his 10th professional season in September 2016, he had worked up to 10 lengths per workout, swimming almost every day. It was the perfect amount of cardio to complement his weightlifting regimen and stay in football shape through the entire season.
Thomas even created what was affectionally dubbed the First Annual O-Line Joe Thomas Natatorium Swimming Championship, in which several members of the Browns’ offensive line competed in 25-meter freestyle races during preseason camp in August 2017. Thomas lost the championship race against Spencer Drango, now with the Los Angeles Chargers.
The 2017 season, however, would be Thomas’s last. He tore his left triceps that October and underwent season-ending surgery. To that point in his career, he had been on the field for every one of the Browns’ 10,363 offensive plays since Week 1 of his rookie season, believed to be an NFL record, although the league doesn’t officially keep track of such a mark. Injuries, particularly to his knees, led Thomas to announce his retirement in March 2018.
With his playing career over, he soon began transforming his body from offensive tackle to extremely fit 34-year-old. Swimming has been a key piece of his workout regimen, along with yoga, bicycling, and weightlifting. He has slimmed down to 255 pounds, improved his cardiovascular health, and greatly reduced the burden on his joints.
“Swimming has been really big for me, because after 11 years in the NFL, I’m unable to run,” says Thomas, who has undergone five knee surgeries. “When I do run, even for short periods, I have a lot of joint pain—especially in my knee, my back, and my hip. So I basically can’t run. I needed to find a way to burn calories, get cardio, and try to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”
Thomas, whose family moved back to Wisconsin last summer, began swimming at a Madison-area pool with his brother-in-law, who’s an avid triathlete. Thomas was impressed with how quickly he built endurance and shed pounds he no longer needed.
“By the end of the summer, I was up to 30 to 40 laps and was able to go five or 10 laps without stopping, which would’ve been unheard of four or five months before that,” he says. “I was losing a bunch of weight and feeling great in the process.”
While Thomas was increasing his swimming distance, he was drastically cutting back on calories. As a player, he had to do everything he could to keep weight on through the rigors of the NFL season. He consumed at least 5,000 calories daily, beginning with a typical breakfast of oatmeal or yogurt with berries, flax seed, eggs, bacon, and a protein shake. Lunch might be a burger and fries or a carbohydrate load of pastas and breads. Dinner often included another heavy dose of pasta—“Because it’s such an easy way to steal a bunch of calories,” Thomas says—and a dessert. A bedtime snack would consist of a pint or so of ice cream, followed by a sleeve of Thin Mints with a whole milk chaser. Finally, he would top off the tank with a protein shake.
“If I didn’t do that before bed, I just couldn’t keep the weight on,” Thomas says. “As much as you work in the NFL with practice and lifting and stuff, I just had to have all those calories to keep the weight on. It was a daily battle.”
These days, Thomas mostly sticks to a diet low in carbohydrates, focusing on lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. He allows himself to eat what he wants on special occasions or have a couple of beers with friends on the weekend, knowing he will return to his diet and workout routine on Monday without fail.
Like many swimmers, Thomas prefers outdoor workouts whenever possible. He swims at a high school pool a couple of times each week in the winter but says he would love to ramp up to four times per week. He swims freestyle for the most part, as wear and tear on his shoulders over the course of his career has limited mobility in his arms, which makes the other strokes difficult.
When he’s not working out, Thomas stays busy with myriad family responsibilities and professional endeavors. He and his wife, Annie, have four young children (three boys and a girl), including a toddler. He’s joining the NFL Network as an analyst for “Thursday Night Football” this season and serves as a team ambassador for the Browns. He also records a popular podcast, “The ThomaHawk Show,” with former teammate Andrew Hawkins, and he’s a partner in the Mission BBQ restaurant chain.
It’s a lifestyle and schedule that’s a lot easier to manage at 255 pounds than at 300-plus, and Thomas expects to be active in the pool for years to come.
“For me, swimming is something that hopefully I can do until late in life,” he says. “Continuing to be active and moving is, in my opinion, the best way to fight arthritis and old age and stiffness. And all those things tend to creep up a little bit sooner for a guy that played 11 years in the NFL.”
- Human Interest