The expectation after the Fremantle captain underwent a microdiscectomy to alleviate pressure in his lumbar spine was that he would be running within a fortnight and playing in “around” six weeks.
That timeline would have him ready to go by about round 8, but he is treating his latest setback with an abundance of caution and is prepared to be out longer.
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“If I can be really frank here, which gets me in trouble a lot, I’m planning on playing one game at this stage at some point this year,” Fyfe told News Corp.
“That’s going to be a win, and then from there, it’s hopefully two and three and 15. But I’ve just got to get my focus around getting back and playing a game, whenever that is.”
The Dockers’ medical staff have already reached out to their Hawks counterparts, and Fyfe may speak directly to Gunston about his experience.
Gunston had back surgery in December 2020 after dealing with a bulging disc for several seasons and made a short-lived return in round 7 last year but didn’t play again before a further operation.
There was no one incident that triggered Fyfe’s back problem but rather the accumulation of an intensive pre-season program designed to quickly get him up to speed after a second bout of shoulder surgery.
The 202-gamer initially had a right shoulder reconstruction in July last year following a series of dislocations but had further surgery in October when scans revealed a bone crack.
Fyfe, 30, also contracted a bacterial infection from the second operation and required intravenous antibiotics, with the back issue just the latest in a horror run for the superstar midfielder.
“It was on the back of probably the hardest training period of my career; a sustained eight-week period of intense gym and intense training on the track, plus intense upper body (work) for my right shoulder,” he said.
“I was putting a heap of weight on and getting strength back and trying to get conditioning in my legs, which is what we had to do to try and get ready.
“We were trying to get ready in a timely manner. We didn’t have to play in round 1 but wanted to get ready early enough and I got there basically – I got to a stage where I put my hand up for a pre-season game.
“But then we decided to wait a bit and the back just developed. There was no incident. I just had a leaky disc, which sort of found its way to a nerve, and my glutes started to shut down and my calf started to shut down.”
Neither epidurals nor anti-inflammatories fixed the problem, leaving surgery as Fyfe’s sole option.
“The only next course of action was to have this microdiscectomy, where I am probably going to be out for six to eight (weeks),” he said.
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“But I know Jack Gunston had something similar and it cost him 20 weeks out.”
How driven Docker became one of the AFL’s greats
Nat Fyfe admits he’s paid a price for his fanatical pursuit of excellence.
Almost every facet of his life is devoted to becoming the AFL’s best footballer, from his diet, to recovery and sleep, a disciplined routine and even keeping himself accountable with how hard he works.
At age 30, the Fremantle captain can no longer train like he once did and must be smarter to get the same athletic reward but remains every bit as driven.
“What can kill you, the longer you go, is sort of that incremental creep of lowering the intensity of your preparation, in the way that you train,” Fyfe told News Corp.
“But more than that, you need to keep your hour-to-hour mindset at the optimal, so that as you move from space to space, you are operating as close to your peak as often as you can.
“You pay a heavy price for that. I nap every day and meditate a lot. I spend a lot of time in solitude and isolation, which is part of my personality profile, anyway.”
Those sacrifices have delivered in spades: Two Brownlow medals, a Grand Final appearance, the Dockers’ captaincy, three best and fairest awards, three All-Australian nods and International Rules selection.
Fyfe’s been the game’s consensus No. 1 player at various stages, too, but a series of injuries in the past year mean Fremantle’s been robbed of its game-breaker on too many occasions.
But you won’t find him complaining about his lot.
“The ‘How tough?’ question lends itself to being hard done by, which is not accurate for me,” Fyfe said.
“I’ve had a career where I’ve been able to achieve a lot, be exposed to a lot of opportunities and played 200 games, so I don’t feel hard done by.
“I just feel like I’m going through a period of my career where I’m taking a few hits and it’s my turn at the bottom, so to speak.
“But through that, I take great hope in the knowledge that I’m as motivated as ever. I’ll keep preparing as well as I can and my turn will come again.”
Fyfe’s other motivation is knowing he has produced some of his best football after fighting back from major setbacks.
His brutal track record of injuries, including what he was doing leading up to them, has also taught him plenty.
“The one thing I think I’ve come to a realisation that I can’t do, is going to a game sort of safe, half-prepared and hoping that I don’t get injured,” Fyfe said.
“Preparing not to get injured rather than preparing to play as well as I can (is not the best philosophy), because that’s not only not motivating but I tend to get hurt, anyway.
“The last couple of years I’ve gone away from some of my strength (work) … and have sort of focused on protecting my soft tissues and through that process I’ve now dislocated a shoulder and blew a back out.
“So you protect one thing and something else pops up. All you can do, from what I’ve learned, is prepare as well as you can to play as well as you can, within reason.
“I can’t afford to start trying to prepare myself for longevity, or trying to just hang on for as many games as I can, because that will see my career end quicker than injuries would.”
Fyfe continues to explore ways to get physically better, including doing pilates three times a week for strength and flexibility purposes.
He has an ice bath and spa in his backyard for contrast bath therapy, wears recovery boots and even has a stimulator machine where he lays down at night and currently targets his right shoulder and glutes.
That dedication is why Fyfe was the ideal candidate to become wellness technology brand Therabody’s newest athlete ambassador, following the AFL extending its partnership with the company.
“The real gold comes from discipline to a ritualised life,” he said.
“So what you eat, what you do day-to-day, what time you get out of bed, what your first hour looks like and how you present and prepare yourself to work each day – no matter what challenges and adversities you’re going through, particularly as a leader.
“That is where the core of my prep has centred on and has got the best results for me.”
Collingwood skipper Scott Pendlebury and Port Adelaide star Travis Boak are two rivals Fyfe, whose six-year megadeal expires next season, admires greatly.
He recently pored over a News Corp article from February, where Pendlebury offered insights into his legendary longevity and durability.
Like Fyfe, Pendlebury guards the secrets to his success closely but is willing to peel back the curtain on rare occasions.
The Docker read how the Magpies great puts magnesium in his home pool to aid muscle recovery and rushed off to the club’s high performance boss Phil Merriman to see if that could work for him, too.
They opted against it after doing some research – what works for one person isn’t always right for the next – but he loves keeping track of how other athletes “at the absolute pinnacle” get the most out of themselves.
“I know he’s an obsessive preparer,” Fyfe said of Pendlebury.
“He always returns early (for pre-season), does more hours than anyone else and his body is super consistent, which is the thing that I don’t have. I am up and down like a rollercoaster, because I get hurt so much.
“So we’re a bit different in the way we go about our preparation, but it’s sort of that consistency in obsession, which is the bit that motivates me.”