“My body wasn’t built to run more than 20 seconds,” Barber says. “The first 4–5 miler when I was training was killer.”
Yet that hasn’t stopped the 41-year-old from reinventing himself following a successful NFL career where Barber, who retired in 2006, is one of three players in league history with 10,000-plus rushing yards and 5,000-plus receiving yards. He recently spoke of his transition from football player to distance runner at the New York Road Runners RUNCENTER in New York City.
Barber didn’t always have aspirations to be a marathon runner after his time in the NFL. He and wife Traci are friends with New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and wife Amber. The Sabathias were hosting a Memorial Day party in 2014 and were looking for ways to expand their PitCCh In Foundation. Before they knew it, Tiki and Traci were preparing to run the New York City Marathon in November.
“Being an athlete, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’ ” Barber says. “A few months later I find myself in the midst of training to run a marathon; something I never thought I’d do because of the wear and tear on my body from the NFL. Could I even run that far because I’ve never been a distance runner?”
Barber, who was a sprinter and jumper in high school and played football at the University of Virginia, ran the 2014 NYC Marathon—his first-ever marathon—in five hours, 14 minutes, 37 seconds.
“It was unsuccessful [time-wise], but it was an accomplishment,” he says.
The training and race then gave Barber an itch he couldn’t scratch. He was hooked. Barber has run the NYC Marathon three times—most recently completing it in four hours, 28 minutes, 26 seconds in 2016—and countless other half marathons and marathons around the country. He plans to run the Jerusalem Marathon on March 17.
Barber currently runs four times a week. He also does yoga twice a week to calm his body and mind. He has also seen his body, built for power, speed and the physicality of the NFL, transform from 208 pounds to a leaner 184. Barber doesn’t lift the same way he did during his playing days—the focus is on less weight and more reps, rather than maxing out with the heaviest weight.
The biggest initial challenge was his mental state and motivation. Since football is a team sport, Barber talks of relying on your teammates to help pick you up if you make a mistake or to help you achieve a goal—whether it’s a touchdown, a victory or, ultimately, the Super Bowl. Running, on the other hand, is all about the individual. There is no fullback to help you burst through the line. No quarterback to hit you with the perfect pass out of the backfield. No coaches or teammates on the sideline. Just you, your body, and your mind.
“It’s a challenge against yourself,” Barber says. “Running is harder because your mind says ‘no’ so often, but it’s on you to motivate and push yourself.”
Tiki Barber: There’s something to music, but it’s always been distracting to me. I’d listen to jazz—calming music—and right before I went out I’d listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody”; that was my song. I listened to that song and I’d read the newspaper before games because I needed to chill. I was already prepared and studied enough that I just wanted to relax and not think; I wanted to be able to react and trust myself and trust my training. I’ve tried listening to music when I run, but my splits were erratic because I’d speed up or slow down depending on the song.
TB: I would advise to read up as much as you can, then don’t listen to it. Get the knowledge so you’re aware of what’s happening to yourself, like why after two hours your body is feeling different—well it’s because your glycogen is running out and you have to find a way to replenish it. You have to find a way to understand what’s happening to your body so you can get your own feel, and it’s different for each person. Sometimes you read something and say, “That’s what I want to do,” but it might not work for you. So read everything, then customize it to yourself and how you feel.
TB: I don’t think I’ll ever do an ultramarathon [any marathon longer than 26.2 miles]. I want to run in unique places and ultimately get to four hours. I don’t know how long it will take me to get there. I’m 41, so I’m not young anymore.
TB: Guys who have long legs are good runners I think. I’m short and I’m built to sprint. Maybe [wide receiver] Ron Dixon. To be honest, not a lot of them. Amani was one of those guys who can run forever and he was like that when he was playing. Maybe Ike [Hilliard], too.
TB: [Defensive tackle] Keith Hamilton. He walked slow, so I can’t imagine him running.
TB: After I ran the second one I said, “You should do this,” but because he played 16 years in the NFL the ligaments in his knees are just bad. He’s just beat up. One of the reasons I retired is because I wanted to be active until I was 60, so I got out of the game while I was still healthy.