Frigid hikes, digging ice caves, climbing mountains: How Colts' Jonathan Taylor prepared for the season

WESTFIELD, Ind. -- Camping was something Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor had never experienced in the first 21-plus years of his life.

Not while growing up on the East Coast.

Not while staring at the University of Wisconsin.

But Taylor -- months removed from a rookie season in which he rushed for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns -- decided he wanted his first camping experience.

This wasn’t a camping trip that included warm summer temperatures, sitting around a campfire roasting s'mores or jumping in a lake to stay cool.

It was the opposite.

Taylor took part in a cold, three-day camping trip organized by Under Armour through the Washington mountains of the Tahoma State Forest Park in April. New England quarterback Cam Newton, ultra-runners Kelly Wolf and Cody Reed and lacrosse player Alex Aust were also part of the experience.

Camping in the mountains in the Pacific Northwest in April didn't include spring-like weather. The temperature was below freezing during the trip, as they climbed mountains with backpacks on while wearing snow shoes and using poles to help keep their balance.

The goal was to help Taylor become mentally and physically stronger to help him endure the long NFL season from July through at least January.

“I had never been camping before, but to do it my first time in such conditions,” he said. “You have to be a little off, but what better way to challenge and push yourself in the offseason. You’re working hard in the offseason, working out every single day, you’re eating right, you’re doing everything right to prepare for the season, and every now and then it’s good to have a nice change. It was difficult.”

For as challenging as it was physically for Taylor, the mental challenge was nearly as tough. He learned survival techniques; from administering first aid in extreme weather conditions to digging an ice cave to protect himself from the frigid wind if ever stuck in that kind of environment and having limited hours of sleep.

Taylor follows a strict diet, where he typically meal preps early in the week so that he can stay on track. He was constantly burning calories climbing through the snow. While doing so, he wasn’t always able to keep fueling his body with proteins, because he had to ration out his food.

“I was stuck eating freeze-dried food, which I have to say, was pretty good,” Taylor said. “I don’t know if it was because we were out in the mountains and it was all you had and it was delicious.

"Biggest thing was being able to ration those things out. You had your book bag, had your snowshoes, had your poles, you had everything you need in your book bag. You’re trying to calculate everything. For me, I burn a lot of calories, especially hiking up and down the mountain. Mentally, I had to lock in to push through to the next checkpoint and then you’ll have a snack break. It was tough.”

Just as if he’s trying to shake off a 300-pound defensive lineman, Taylor didn’t quit during the experience that tested him in every aspect, even though he felt like he was in incredible shape.

You might think there isn't a correlation between camping in cold weather and playing a football game. Taylor doesn’t see it that way. He equated the tough moments, like pulling his sled and his body being fatigued, to the fourth quarter of a game against a good defense that pounds on him throughout.

“Our main goal was to take Jonathan out of his comfort zone by removing the control he typically has over his workout conditions, meal planning and sleep schedule, and push him to thrive in the most extreme, sub-zero conditions,” Under Armour vice president of Human Performance, Science and Research Paul Winsper said. “My team and I look forward to seeing how the mental and physical benefits of Jonathan's offseason cold-weather training pays off on the field this year.”

Taylor wasn’t supposed to rush for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie last season. He was supposed to split carries, with Marlon Mack as the Colts’ primary back. But Taylor, who was selected in the second round of the 2020 draft, was thrust into the starting role when Mack tore his right Achilles tendon in Week 1 against Jacksonville.

Things seemed so promising for Taylor in his first start, when he rushed for 101 yards on 26 carries in Week 2 against Minnesota. But then the challenges came. Taylor quickly learned he was no longer running through or around a Rutgers in the Big Ten. The running lanes were smaller, the corners weren’t so easy to turn and yards were hard to come by.

Taylor went through a seven-game stretch when he averaged less than 44 yards a game, and he started losing snaps to Nyheim Hines. But Taylor ended the season in a flurry by rushing for 741 yards, including a franchise-record 253 yards against Jacksonville in Week 17.

Taylor wants to carry on that Badger tradition at running back that includes Ron Dayne, Michael Bennett, Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon II.

“It gave you something to strive for," Taylor said. "Seeing those guys before you, and see how they kept the standard or raised the standard, and it made you go out there every day to raise the bar as well.”

Taylor is just the second Colts running back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since 2007. There is a chance he won't surpass the 1,169 yards in 2021. It's not that he isn't capable -- it's the depth the Colts have in the backfield and coach Frank Reich's desire to keep fresh legs on the field to wear opponents down.

Mack re-signed with the team and has his explosiveness back from his torn Achilles, Hines is too good not to have on the field, and there's also Jordan Wilkins.

Even with the depth in the backfield, there's one thing that has been certain so far in training camp: Taylor is the No. 1 running back for the Colts.

"I tell ya, he’s a special guy," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. " You don’t want to put too much on a young back and those sort of things, but Jonathan, if he dreams about a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket at night, he’s having the right dream, because there’s reality there and a lot has to happen. ... You can’t put any limits on what he can do. He’s got it all. He has the power, he has the speed, he’s a special, special player.

"We knew that when we were picking him, and he hasn’t disappointed us. To say he could be Offensive Player of the Year, those are the type of things you don’t shy away from because he has that kind of potential, but he has to go out and do it in his second year."