EverAthlete founder Dr. Matt Smith: Mastering Movement, Strength, Breath and Why the Pros are Pros
Dr. Matt Smith helps the pros reach the highest levels, whether they’re competing at Ironman, chasing gold at the Mountain Bike World Championships, running Western States, or playing in the NBA or NFL. But at his training center and clinic, EverAthlete, he’s just as dedicated to training someone for an epic bucket list hike or helping another build the solid foundation they need to prevent injury and keep doing a sport they love.
Before COVID, Matt had just opened the training facility of his dreams, the next phase of EverAthlete. That all quickly changed in March, and Matt pivoted immediately. He closed the training center doors and moved to a combination of in-person therapy, online training and instructional videos. He sat down with us to talk about it all — the impact strength training and form have on performance and longevity, the power of breathwork, and what he’s learned about mindset from pros like Kate Courtney.
The Start of EverAthlete
David Swain, Prokit: What did you have for breakfast?
Dr. Matt Smith: Every morning, I have a breakfast shake. We do a veggie box so the veggies vary, but usually what I put in my shake is either spinach, kale, or chard, and some broccoli. I try to get as many vegetables in, as possible. Today, I blended kale and broccoli, an apple, a handful of blueberries, and a scoop of the Primal Kitchen collagen protein. I’m allergic to dairy so I always go with either almond or coconut milk.
There’s always discussion around making sure athletes get enough protein. What’s your go-to?
I usually eat meat, nuts and seeds. Occasionally, I will have a clean whey isolate protein because I’m not as sensitive to that as I am to milk or cheese.
Tell us about your journey as an athlete moving into health and starting EverAthlete. Where did it all begin?
I grew up in the Bay Area and played baseball and football through high school. I decided to go to University of Redlands to play football, but tore my hamstring and had different injuries prior to my freshman season that caused me to fall out of organized sports.
There was always interest in becoming a chiropractor, mainly because of a mentor in high school. He was my anatomy and physiology teacher, and he was a bodybuilder and former chiropractor. He had a substantial impact on me, and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps.
After two years, I left Redlands and immediately started working towards getting into Palmer West, which is a local chiropractic college with a really good sports program. While I was finishing prerequisites, I got exposed to CrossFit and started competing and coaching at 19. When I started coaching, it became clear that a community that revolves around health and fitness was an essential part of the story of healthcare in my mind. It went beyond one-on-one, hands-on care. There was an importance to having that community that revolved around health principles.
As I was going through the doctorate program at Palmer West, I continued coaching and I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of strength and conditioning. I started to really dive deep into coaches like Mike Boyle, Greg Cook, Gary Gray, and Mark Verstegen. Also got exposed to the corporate world and started doing some work on-site at a few different companies while I figuring out what my identity would be after my work at Palmer West.
What became clear was that I wanted to develop a community that was based around health and fitness and combined with conservative healthcare, a blend of hands-on care and corrective exercise and rehab. Conservative health care, in my mind, encompasses non-surgical methods for maintaining the health of the body and overall movement system.
After Palmer West, I moved to Austin, Texas, and worked in a sports therapy clinic at a gym owned by Todd Wright. Todd is the strength and conditioning coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, but at the time he was with the University of Texas. I was there for a year and a half and got a lot of exposure to a high-level performance environment.
I came back to the Bay Area to start EverAthlete. It began as a sports therapy clinic. I focused on conservative care for athletes and active people, and I got the chance to work inside of a CrossFit gym. Then I ventured out and started a clinic in downtown Palo Alto. A couple years later, we started our performance training center, which we had to close down due to COVID. That was the beginning of combining consistent strength and conditioning for active people with holistic and conservative healthcare through passive modalities like soft tissue therapy, corrective exercises, and stretching. The combining of those two worlds was the eventual goal of EverAthlete.
How many years has the EverAthlete journey taken?
This is year six. For the first two years, it was pretty much just me doing hands-on therapy and corrective strategies for athletes. The last three and a half years have been getting more into the strength conditioning side of things from a structure perspective.
The Power of Strength and Form
Most people typically prioritize their sport, like running or cycling, over the strength, mobility and stretching work that goes into longevity. Tell us why strength training is important.
If you’re a recreational athlete or a high-performance recreational athlete, especially from the endurance community, there’s a lot to be said for the longevity that strength training can give you. It’s one of the easiest ways to bring your body back to balance and build some resilience. There’s a lot of repetitive stress that goes into being a cyclist, an open water swimmer, or a long distance runner. You’re doing the same thing over and over.
If you’re executing a good strength program, a lot of your mobility work is built into the strength training. The idea behind building your body through strength training is to build balance back into the body, and take out some of the asymmetries that result in doing repetitive exercise. Bringing symmetry to the body and building resilience in the connective tissue, as well as building overall strength to take pressure off of your joints, is essential to longevity as an athlete.
You certainly don’t have to become a powerlifter or put on a ton of size. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions, that you have to start doing power lifts as strength training for your sport. That is certainly not what I would recommend, and not what I think endurance athletes of any level should be doing.
In strength training, you have an opportunity. Yes, we have limited time during the week and some people have limited resources, but if you’re executing a strength training program properly, you should be learning how to move well. Once you have this kinesthetic awareness, you can start loading those patterns and building some of the strength within the body to grow as an athlete.
For people who don’t have direct access to someone like you, how do they get started with designing the right strength and mobility plan?
I think the most important thing for people to grasp is that your plan is going to be different based on what your goal is. If you’re looking to do a 100-mile endurance race, the way you build strength into your routine is going to be different than if you’re doing a 5K, or if you’re a cyclist. To start, I like to do a very detailed assessment on how people move and what their movement capabilities are. That’ll be our foundation for addressing weaknesses in that chain or building on their strengths. I like to formulate a plan that does both those things at the same time.
The initial phase for any training program is a stability phase. That means working through core strength, stability work and getting connected to shapes. The foundation of that is categorizing movement. There are hinge patterns which are power cleans and deadlifts. There are squat and lunge patterns, pushing and pulling patterns, and rotational patterns. This phase of training is about understanding how to stabilize and create those movements. Can you connect your brain to your body to create those movements? Can you control them? Our second phase of training is strength. We start to load those movement patterns. The last phase is power. We’ll start building in more powerful movements and rep schemes.
Especially for endurance athletes, the foundation of your strength training program should be learning how to create shapes. If you can’t do the movement, you shouldn’t be adding weight. Many people make this mistake. If you can’t do a hinge pattern, meaning you can’t flex through your hips and flex your knees while keeping a neutral spine, you shouldn’t be doing heavy deadlifts. For masters athletes, I would say the most important thing you can do is spend time reconnecting to those patterns, executing them well, and then focusing on load.
In crowded group fitness classes, there’s not a lot of teaching form. Are you worried about this?
Many boutique gyms are focused on disconnecting you from your body. They’re capitalizing on the community factor and having a lot of people in a room, training really hard. The whole intent is to create this emotional experience, but not necessarily connect you to your body and the way that you move. In terms of longevity, this is not sustainable, and it can take away from what the purpose of training should be in your life. I’m a very firm believer in purpose-driven training. I think people should set goals and train for those goals.
A lot of people who are training at these HIIT places are not having an offseason and are not periodized. They’re working towards this linear progression of performance, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with long term health or long term joint health. I wonder if these gyms are expediting chronic injuries by not properly setting people up with training programs that will periodize and back them off of redlining all the time.
Now, there are different companies, like WHOOP, that are designed to give you more perspective and data on your stress levels. We should extrapolate that information into the way that we train. I think what’s most important for people to understand is that you should train for a specific thing, but after the event you take a rest period or offseason where you let your body down regulate from high stress. If you’re not doing that, you’re going to run into chronic injury, chronic fatigue, and inability to control stress.
One of the questions that’s come about from work I’ve done is, how do we create longevity, not only to life, but to high performance? I think the answer is having a structured approach to the training that you do and the fun that you have. That starts with intention. Once you define your intent, then you can start to structure your approach, whether you’re hiring a coach or looking for an online program.
There’s an explosion of information on training online now. It’s important for people to find what fits their goals. Don’t choose whatever workout you saw on Instagram today as your training plan. That’s not sustainable.
When Goals Change
What about when your goal is cancelled by a pandemic?
From a professional athlete perspective, if your season has been canceled, you still have the opportunity to go through full cycles of periodized training. You have an opportunity to really dive into performance in a way that you haven’t before. Take cycling, for example. The Mountain Biking World Cup schedule has been totally thrown off, but that’s allowed certain athletes to get extra cycles of training in and see how they peak through those cycles. This opportunity has never been provided before because usually they’re in mid-season and doing strength maintenance and just trying to get ready for each competition.
For recreational athletes, it’s so different for every person. There’s a ton of diversity in race choices. If you had a race planned and it was canceled, my recommendation has been to choose a follow-up date and structure your plan towards that, or just keep doing what you like doing. For the people I’m working with, we are going through 12 weeks cycles the same way that we would be for an offseason training program.
Have you found that 12 weeks is the right period of time to commit to a goal and a training structure?
Not necessarily. It’s very dependent on the sport and the goal. Some of the more strength-based athletes that I’m working with have found that getting eight to 12 solid weeks of mini-strength cycles has been really helpful because it allows for recovery time between separate bouts of building.
How has COVID changed what you’re doing with Everathlete?
It’s changed quite a bit. Last year, we had just moved into a brand new facility in Mountain View. It was the dream facility I had been envisioning for 10 years. It was an awesome training space with a large strength and conditioning area, and a recovery, yoga mobility area. We had a clinic inside and also had an outdoor training space with a sauna and ice baths. The facility was the next phase of EverAthlete. When COVID hit in March, that all changed.
When we first signed our lease in Mountain View, one of the contingencies of the lease that I had my landlord put in was if the city of Mountain View or the county of Santa Clara ever interfered with our business for any reason, we could buy out of our lease for a certain amount of money. If you’re out there and you own a gym, or if you’re signing a lease for anything, this is a life saving clause. So when COVID hit in March, I immediately contacted my landlord and got out of the lease.
My goal became shifting as many of the things that we’ve done in-person to a virtual format through EverAthletePerformance.com. We’re also starting to launch different programs and video series for athletes, different sports, and for our GPP, general fitness program. We’re now doing in-person therapy at our clinic in Palo Alto, but pretty much everything about my day-to-day has changed.
It’s been an interesting shift. It has been super challenging, but for the first time in six years, I’ve had some time to think creatively. COVID provided me with this opportunity to rethink the way things are delivered and executed. In many ways, it’s been reinvigorating for me.
Now that people have moved online, are you able to maintain a community that’s connected to health goals?
The community side of things has certainly been the trickiest component of everything. The rules about getting together have changed constantly. It’s been my obsession, trying to figure out how the community part is going to work. We’re going to start doing some virtual events. In October, we’re going to shift our format to an online training platform where people can communicate with each other and log their results. I think that that will be helpful, but what will be most helpful is when we can get together again and do a race. Until then, I think the most effective thing is just personally connecting with people that you have in your circle.
Yoga, Breathwork, and Trusting Research
What’s your opinion on yoga and where it fits into strength and mobility?
I think yoga helps a lot of people. It’s a generalized form of movement though, so it’s not universally good for everyone. If you have a labrum tear in your left hip or lower back issues, for example, there will be things in a yoga class that you won’t be able to do. It’s good for general movement and mobility. Kate Courtney loves it and I certainly have no issue with that. I think yoga is actually a pretty good structured program, but it certainly depends on the person.
Do you think it’s important to warm up before and cool down after a big workout?
With the mounting degree of conflicting evidence on strength and conditioning, the best thing to do is to explore and experiment with yourself. Generally speaking, from my perspective, a warm-up is optimal. I usually take people through some dynamic stretching, some core activation, and neurological prepping. I think it’s important to prime the body, get blood flow in your tissue, and get your neuromuscular system turned on to the movement that you’re executing that day. Your warm-up informs you about the state of your body, as well. It’s an opportunity for you to get information about what could potentially go wrong in your training that day.
I also think that cool-downs are extremely important, not only for tissue health, but more so for stress control. We live stressful lives, and training is a stressor. Training ramps up the sympathetic nervous system. If you’re not able to get back into a parasympathetic state, through things like stretching or breathwork, you’re missing a big piece of being able to control your nervous system and furthermore, being able to recover fast.
Are there breathwork techniques you recommend for both during and after performance?
There is a ton of interesting research on breath and performance, CO2 tolerance, and oxygen delivery to tissues. Again, the research can be conflicting, so self exploration is far and away the best thing that you can do. I’ve learned from a lot of different people and different resources. I started with Wim Hof, which is awesome exposure to the power that breath can have over you, physiologically. It’s been repeatedly shown that breathwork can have a substantial impact on the regulation of your nervous system. If you’re an endurance athlete, being able to control your physiological state and your nervous system is very valuable. It can also help you optimize your usage of oxygen for your tissues. There are specific forms of breathwork where you can actually start to build your efficiency of the air that you bring in, which equates to good oxygenation of your tissues.
There’s a huge focus on downregulation breathwork, which is basically using breathwork to get yourself into a more mellow and parasympathetic state for recovery. I think that that is probably the best place to start for anyone because of how stressed we are all the time. Do something as simple as six seconds of breath in, six seconds of breath out, five minutes before you go to bed. Throughout the day, try to breathe through your nose as much as possible. This has been well-researched to be a huge parasympathetic stimulus. The third thing anyone can do is breathe out a little bit longer than breathing in.
ShiftAdapt is a company that has done a lot of interesting stuff on breathwork. The Buteyko clinic, out of the UK, has also done great research. There’s a book called The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick McKeown, and another called Breath by James Nestor. He wrote a book called Deep which is an awesome book on free diving and the physiological effects of being in water.
Here’s Matt pushing himself out of his comfort zone and overcoming a fear of the water. It’s now the place that gives him peace.
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Stress. It can break you or completely re-shape your vision of what you’re capable of. I started surfing because I was terrified of the ocean for years following a near-drowning incident. When I started, I would rent a surfboard, paddle out, have a panic attack for a couple of hours and come back in when I felt in control. Now, there are few places that give me peace like the ocean and at the bottom of the pool. If you can stay locked in, you can learn a lot from stress and adapt and evolve. I can honestly say, the victories I’ve had in my life over stress and fear have completely changed who i am in a very positive way. The process could not have been less comfortable. Thank you to @deependfitness for your help along this journey!
The longer you are in this industry, how much do you trust the research? Have your assumptions changed?
I certainly don’t think that my methods are the end-all be-all for performance. I’ve tried to adapt the way that I do things based on successes and failures. My answers to your questions could certainly change in the next year, or the next two hours. There is a vast amount of things you can do to improve performance, whether it’s breathwork, nutrition, training or recovery. These are worlds of infinite options. I think it’s so important to always be trying and failing, and continually evolving what works.There are no finite answers in the world of performance, or really, human health. Continually being open to learning more is by far the best approach to health and wellness, and performance overall.
How much do you focus on an athlete’s nutrition and how much of an effect do you see it having?
Historically, I haven’t done a ton of nutrition consulting and mainly focus on movement. If I’m working with a more elite person, my first recommendation is for them to work with a professional in the nutrition world. If I’m working with a recreational athlete who wants simple nutrition pointers to improve their performance, I think it’s really simple to clean up your diet. Eliminate processed foods for the most part, eliminate sugar, minimize alcohol, eat a variety of organic fruits and vegetables. Getting enough protein is huge as well. I come at it from a very basic standpoint and leave the rest to the professionals.
Check your Mindset
What’s the big difference between how the pros approach their goals and training compared to the recreational athletes? How much of pros’ successes are genetic versus the way they approach the entire mind/body practice of their sport?
I think there’s a genetic component that separates elite level athletes from recreational athletes, but you have to put in the work. The work is defining goals, sticking to the plan, continually refining that process, and always looking for ways to improve that process. That’s what happens on the professional side of things.
You’ve coached Division I athletes. How many were specialized at 13-years-old versus playing multiple sports? Where do you see youth sports right now? Are we focused on the right things?
A lot of the Division I athletes that I’ve worked with did specialize pretty early on. I’ve worked with a lot of swimmers, and swimmers tend to specialize early. Personally, I’ve read a lot of research that connects specialization with early onset repetitive stress injuries. I’m going to try to get my kids playing as many sports as possible and keep that going for as long as possible.
It’s not just about performance. When I fell out of football, I went through a tremendous identity crisis. When I stopped doing traditional American sports, I really didn’t know about other sports. I didn’t have the confidence or the mental ability to try those things because I chose my sports early in life and didn’t dive into other things. Over the past 10 years, I’ve had huge personal growth from playing different sports, learning new skills, and just being a novice in different areas of sport. It’s been so beneficial for me, and that’s exactly what I want for my kids. If there’s a sport that loves them and they love it back then moving to a higher performance in that sport is a path that we could take.
Exposure to different athletic endeavors is really important for kids. The motor control and general athleticism that’s developed by doing a variation of activities is very important not only physically, but also cognitively. Also, it’s good to give kids options so that when they stop playing “x” sport at 21 years old or 14 years old, they can still be a lifelong athlete. There’s a really small percentage of athletes who make it to the next level, whether it’s collegiate or professional. For those who don’t make it, you’ve got to have other options.
What do you think are the best ways to manage stress or avoid burnout?
Constantly check in with yourself to make sure that you really enjoy what you’re doing, whether you’re an elite level athlete or a recreational athlete. Having a connection to what brings you joy and what fuels your passion is a pivotal piece to avoiding burnout. There are going to be challenges and failures, that’s all part of the deal. But within those, you have to continually check in to make sure that that you are doing what you want to do.
Beyond that, I think being able to downregulate is key. You need to control and downregulate your nervous system and build in frequent times when you check your overall state of stress. There are so many different ways to do that now. Aside from technology and data points, checking in through breathwork and taking time to only focus on your body is extremely powerful. What are your stress levels? What brings you joy? Whether you’re in business or you’re an athlete, I think that’s a really important piece to the burnout story.
Having a team around you that keeps you accountable and looks out for a downward trajectory of your mental, emotional, or physical state is very important, as well. On the data-driven side of things, there’s WHOOP, the Garmin recovery state, and all these different tools we can use to know what our heart rate is and what our SpO2 is, etc. Being aware of these things is a part of checking in with yourself and avoiding burnout in the long term.
Do you use WHOOP?
I’m waiting to get my WHOOP, and I’m actually pretty excited to use it. Right now, I have a Garmin. I don’t take the data that it gives me as an exact standpoint of where I am, but I’ll use it for heart rate variability.
I also will use a test on my own called the CO2 tolerance test, which is basically a breath test that tests how well you handle an environment of high CO2. That is indicative of your state of stress and your ability to train really hard. That’s something that I’ll do often. Generally speaking, I have a pretty structured approach to sleep and breathwork, and those two things inform me a lot about my stress level and overall biostatistics. Frankly, throughout COVID, I have not been on point, but I think there’s a whole other element of not getting too lost in the data.
So what do we need to know to be as fast as Kate Courtney?
I’ll give you a window into why @katecourtney is so elite and such a champion. I’ve worked with her since she was an amateur, and my role with her has evolved quite a bit. Currently, she has a full team around her, including a strength coach, a physical therapist, and a massage therapist. There is someone for every bucket. As she’s progressed as an athlete, she’s continually looked to refine the people on her team. The role that I’ve kind of taken on with her in the last year is making sure that she is honed in on all of her strength exercises. Not all strength movements are created equal. If I had 47 people in here doing a squat pattern, we probably have 47 different examples of what a squat would be. Some would be good, some would be bad.
Kate has taken the standpoint that her strength and conditioning program is truly an injury prevention program, as well as a performance enhancement program. We’ve made sure that her movement patterns are really good. She’s continually refining those movement patterns and she’s constantly learning.
I think it’s challenging for endurance athletes because they are not part of a system. For example, basketball or football athletes are part of programs where they have an entire athletic training staff around them. They have PTs, chiropractors, massage therapists, and coaches. The system is already built, with no effort from the athletes. The big thing about Kate is that she continually strives to get help. She has built a team that she trusts and continues to refine the process.
While Matt is quick to point out that these workouts are just a sample of what he’d incorporate into a training plan, here are a few examples of strength and mobility techniques he and Kate Courtney use.
Where can people find you?