James Harden got his first taste of the international game at the 2012 Olympics as a reserve player for Team USA. The Americans won the gold with stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony leading the way. None of those three will be playing this year at the FIBA World Cup in Spain, and Harden will be counted on to provide scoring and leadership for the U.S.

Harden said his experience in 2012 and again now in preparation for the World Cup has helped him to become a better player in the NBA.

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LeBron James has slimmed down. So have fellow superstars Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant must be smiling.

That's because Bryant, 35, has been preaching the virtues of weight loss for years, since he was around the age of James (29), Anthony (30) and Wade (32). Tony Manfred of Business Insider notes that when Bryant was James' age in the summer of 2007, he dropped 20 pounds and ended up having one of the best statistical seasons of his career. In 2007-08 Bryant started all 82 games, led the Lakers to the Finals and was named the NBA's MVP.

That summer Bryant was teammates with James, Anthony and Wade on the 2008 Olympic squad that won the gold medal. Perhaps the young trio took notice of Bryant's weight loss.

Last season Bryant tried to persuade then-teammate Pau Gasol to drop pounds as he transitioned into his mid-30s.

"I told [Gasol] I thought the thing that really helped me out, I dropped some weight," Bryant said in December 2013. "I told him he should probably measure it himself, see if that's something he needs to do himself. As we get older, our metabolism slows, we quietly become a little heavy."

Research shows that NBA players experience a significant drop in performance at 30, and that may be even more exaggerated for guys like James and Anthony, who have been in the league since they were teenagers.

It's no secret that NBA players look to slim down after they hit 30, and Tim Duncan and Ray Allen are two examples of veterans who have lost weight and also been able to maintain a high level of play into their third decade. But now that James, Anthony and Wade are all watching their weight, it appears that slimming down has never been more popular.

"Especially later on, as you get up in years, it's less wear and tear on your body," Hall of Famer Reggie Miller recently told TMZ. "So actually it's pretty smart. You saw what happened to LeBron in the Finals -- the cramping. I guarantee you he won't have those issues now that he's lost the weight."

Not every superstar needs to cut pounds, however, and reigning MVP Kevin Durant (who has sometimes been called the "Slim Reaper" for his slight frame) may not want to lose weight when he hits 30 years old in 2018.

(H/T to Business Insider)

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Antonio Brown had a breakthrough season in 2013 with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns to earn second team NFL All-Pro. He just doesn't want to talk it about much. Not when the time could be put to better use training for the 2014 season. Check out of the work Brown spent at the gym working on his explosiveness, among other things:

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In Akron, Ohio, they are all witnesses. That is, witnesses to LeBron James' stardom and Ida Keeling's inspiration.

Keeling, a 99-year-old great-great-grandmother who lives independently in a New York City studio apartment, turned heads at the Gay Games in Akron on Tuesday. At 4-6 and 83 pounds, size is not on Keeling's size. But physical realities did not stop her from accomplishing her task: Running the 100-meter dash.

"I'm running from old age and arthritis," Keeling told the Akron Beacon Journal.

Keeling finished her heat at the Lee R. Jackson Track and Field Complex in 59.80 seconds, last in the competition. The time is more than 50 seconds slower than Usain Bolt's 2009 men's world record of 9.58 seconds and 49 seconds shy of Florence Griffith's 1988 record of 10.49 .

However, Keeling officially set the record in the 95-99-year-old age group. According to her daughter and coach, Shelley Keeling, a 63-year-old real estate investor, there were no records of anyone in the 95-99 age group completing an internationally certified 100-meter race. That means Ida holds the world record.

Shelley also coach track at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx. She was originally slated to run with Ida in the 400 meters, but as puddles bogged down on the track, Shelley opted to pull the mother and daughter from that race.

Keeling started running at age 67 to cope with the loss of two sons, killed within three years of each other due to drug-related homicides. Shelley pushed her mother to start running and Ida has not looked back.

“I was so depressed, and my daughter wanted to take me on a mini run," Keeling said. "After it was finished, I felt relaxed and relieved."

Keeling is closing in on triple-digits in age, but she is still an avid fan of exercise and eating healthy. She plans on running the 100-meters again in 2015, this time going for a record in the age 100-104 division.

"Eat for nutrition, not for taste. Do what you need to do, not what you want to do and don't leave out your daily exercise. Love yourself," b>she says.

In a world of excuses, Ida Keeling has every reason not to put herself through strenuous sprinting. She has a dark personal past, a naturally tiny body, arthritis concerns and old age to worry about. But Keeling keeps on running.

"We aren't here to break the record,” Shelley says. “We’re here to set it."

Ida Keeling is not running from anything anymore. She is running for herself and others.

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Reed Johnson wasn’t ready.

The veteran outfielder had just begun to stretch when he learned he would be pinch-hitting for Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija to lead off the sixth inning of a game against the Brewers in May 2012. He grabbed a bat and walked to the plate cold.

Looking for any way to get loose, Johnson lunged at Marco Estrada’s 1-0 pitch in the dirt and missed. But the next offering zipped right down the middle, and Johnson clubbed it over the left-field wall.

Now a key member of the Marlins’ bench, Johnson remembers that at-bat not for its success -- he knows he got lucky -- but as an example of what not to do.

“If I’d have used that preparation to guide me for the rest of my career, I’d probably be in big trouble right now," he said.

The nature of hitting is to prepare tirelessly and fail frequently. Even if a fat pitch can help reverse those cruel dynamics on occasion, pinch-hitting more often magnifies them, all that preparation funneled into one chance.

"You're like, 'God, I hit like a thousand balls and I go out there, strike out, and my day's over,'" Johnson said.

Johnson has made the second-most pinch-hitting appearances of any active player and posted numbers nearly identical to his career stats. This, too, bucks a persistent overall trend. In 2013, for example, while the league as a whole batted .253 with a .318 on-base percentage and .396 slugging percentage, pinch-hitters posted a line of .217/.292/.336. A similar divide exists this season.

The job demands a lot. Pinch-hitters must ready themselves physically and mentally for an at-bat that could come at any moment -- or never. Not all hitters are capable. Not all are fully willing. Those who are both might seize an opportunity to extend or expand a career.

For Matt Stairs, the turning point came when he moved to the National League in 2001, joining the Cubs. By the time his career ended in ‘11, he had racked up nearly 500 regular-season pinch-hit appearances and set a still-standing record of 23 pinch home runs, not including his memorable blast for the Phillies in the 2008 NL Championship Series.

“The day I knew I wasn’t gonna play every day, I accepted it and wanted to do it and I looked forward to doing it,” said Stairs, now a Phillies television broadcaster. “I wanted to be that guy that could come in and be that game-changer in the eighth or the ninth inning.”

That’s the attitude Rangers hitting coach Dave Magadan now preaches after a 16-year career he bolstered with a .382 OBP in 421 pinch-hit appearances.

“I think the guys that struggle with it are the guys that fight it," Magadan said. "They don't see it as an opportunity to go 1-for-1. They see it as an opportunity to go 0-for-1."

Of course, embracing the challenge isn't the same as conquering it. Willingness must be backed with labor, and for most pinch-hitters, there's plenty of that.

Getting ready for a pinch at-bat is a complicated dance that can involve stretching, swinging, studying and reading a variety of cues about game situation – all orchestrated to generate peak performance within a tiny window. Timing is critical.

“If you’re getting ready the whole game, then you’re going to be out of gas, so it's a fine line between being ready and wearing yourself out,” said the Reds' Chris Heisey, who had eight career pinch homers, with a .935 OPS as of Friday. "You’ve got to kind of know the limit and then at the last second get up to game speed."

From Little League through the minor leagues, most big leaguers play every day and gain little to no experience in this art. As veteran bench player Greg Dobbs put it, going from three to five at-bats per day to maybe three to five per week requires making good use of the time not spent in the game so that when opportunity knocks, "you don't feel like everything is so fast." Learning this comes from trial and error and often the guidance of veterans, who pass their tips and tactics down to the next generation.

After Dobbs debuted with the Mariners in 2004, he soaked up knowledge from Dave Hansen, who is fourth all-time in pinch-hit appearances (703) and sixth in hits (139). A decade later, Dobbs -- now at the Nationals' Triple-A Syracuse affiliate -- sits as the active leader in both categories, thanks in large part to a routine shaped in those early days.

“I’ve learned that you have to prepare more than anyone,” Dobbs said while playing for Washington earlier this season.

He will start well before the game, looking at video and scouting reports of pitchers he might face and studying their past confrontations. Once the game is underway, Dobbs stays on the bench, supporting his teammates and watching, with a purpose. He looks for little things -- such as how the opponent is attacking his team's left-handed hitters -- to file away for later. Then sometime between the third and fifth innings, he begins getting his body ready while also tracking pitch counts for both starters and thinking about matchups, looking for a spot that might require his services.

As the Marlins' Jeff Baker described this game of mental gymnastics, “You basically become your own manager to make sure you’re not surprised by the situation when it comes up.”

The routines vary from player to player.

Like Dobbs, Johnson craves information, believing it can “lower your anxiety.” His iPad is loaded with scouting reports and video of pitchers, and before each series, he studies intently, looking for tendencies and developing a plan. During games, he leaves the iPad in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse in case he needs to grab it for a quick refresher before an at-bat.

On the other end of the spectrum, Heisey mostly foregoes any information beyond what the pitcher throws.

“I try to stay away from video,” he said,. “If I try to look for too many tendencies, I’ll start guessing up there, and I’ve never been a good guesser.”

Instead, Heisey’s focus rests on making sure he’s “ready to attack” when he steps to the plate, alert for a potentially meaty first-pitch fastball. While some hitters like to work the count more than others, there is a balance to strike between waiting for an optimal pitch and not exacerbating an already difficult situation by inviting an adverse count.

“The best pitch you get might be the first one,” Magadan said. “It's hard enough to pinch-hit without always being 0-1 all the time.”

But before a pinch-hitter can worry about when to swing, he must prime his body for the task. That means getting loose and limber, sometimes more than once during the course of the game. He might stretch, run, ride a stationary bike, and of course, take some cuts.

The quantity and type of those swings depend on individual preference. Stairs, for example, estimates that he averaged close to 500 hacks per day, and almost all of those came before first pitch.

“My game was my batting practice,” Stairs said. “Nobody could take that away from me, so that’s when I’m really going to have fun and see how many home runs I can hit and how far I can hit a ball and just have some fun with it."

Stairs didn’t bother to work the whole field with line drives. His goal was to go deep on every pitch, picking out the most remote deck in any particular stadium and trying to reach it with “bazookas.”

Others take time before and during games to utilize the batting cages situated near the dugouts in most stadiums. They take cuts off a tee, at tosses from a coach or against a pitching machine.

With the Nationals trailing the Reds, 2-1, in the ninth inning of a May 19 game in Washington, veteran Nats reserve Scott Hairston knew he could be headed toward an encounter with flamethrowing Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman.

Hairston, the active leader with 13 pinch homers, went to the cage and had a coach pull the protective screen to within about 40 feet of the plate before firing pitches at him to simulate the velocity Chapman unleashes from 60 feet, 6 inches.

Sufficiently geared up for Chapman's missiles, Hairston got his bat on a 99-mph, two-strike fastball at the letters and lofted it to left for a game-tying sacrifice fly.

It had been several hours since Hairston arrived at Nationals Park, and his game action lasted all of two minutes. That's an equation destined to provoke frustration, but this time, it produced a critical run.

"A lot goes on -- more than people think -- preparing for what we do," Hairston said.

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Donald Penn made it to the Pro Bowl after the 2010 season as a tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But last season Penn (and the rest of Bucs) are struggled, and the team released him in the spring. He signed with the Raiders and he is eager to prove that at 30, he still has quality football to offer. Here's how Penn spent the off-season gearing up for the challenge of his first year in Oakland:

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As teams pursue a playoff position and a World Series title in the second half of the baseball season, the most important name in the sport might not be Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainright. The name with the most impact might be Tommy John.

Tommy John has become shorthand for Tommy John surgery. The operation, named after the pitcher who had the first such operation in 1974, is a procedure in which the damaged ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow is reconstructed using a tendon from another part of the body, usually the forearm. The tendon is used to re-create the damaged ligament and improve the stability of the elbow joint. After the surgery, it usually takes about a year for a player to be ready to pitch again.

This season, a small army of young arms have been lost for the year because of the injury.

The list includes the Tigers' hard-throwing reliever Bruce Rondon, Patrick Corbin and David Hernandez of the Diamondbacks, Jose Fernandez of Miami, the Rangers’ lefty Pedro Figueroa, Braves reliever Corey Gearrin, Athletics righty A.J. Griffin, the Royals' Luke Hochevar, Rays lefty Matt Moore, the Yankees’ Ivan Nova, and the Mets’ Bobby Parnell.

Some pitchers have needed the procedure for a second time. That group includes Rockies right-hander Tyler Chatwood, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy of the Atlanta Braves, Daniel Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Corey Luebke and Josh Johnson of the San Diego Padres, Jarrod Parker of the Oakland A's.

The Yankees rookie phenom, Masahiro Tanaka, is the latest candidate for the procedure.

While trying to stay in the playoff hunt, New York will have Tanaka rehabilitate the relatively small ligament tear, with the long odds that he can avoid a Tommy John.

Baseball experts are still trying to sort out the possible reasons for the surge in the surgery, which has about an 85 percent success rate.

Rick Peterson, the Baltimore Orioles' director of pitching development, cites three main reasons for the rising amount of ligament damage: Increased velocity, too many innings before becoming pros and defective pitching motions.

"Velocities are way up to what they’ve been over the years," he said.

According to Peterson, the force needed to generate that much speed pushes tendons and ligaments to the limit.

“You have many more guys who are throwing 100 miles an hour or close to 100,” said Peterson, a coach for 35 years and the founder of 3P Sports, a program to study and prevent injuries among amateur and professional pitchers. "Guys are throwing so hard now that ligaments can only handle so much force and torque and speed."

Peterson feels that pitchers have been overused at the amateur level, including playing on travel teams, and throwing too many innings and playing all year long with not enough breaks.

"Years ago, I had a pitcher that needed Tommy John surgery," he said. "We had a biochemical analysis of that pitcher. His delivery was flawless. He was in great physical condition. And yet a year later he had Tommy John. He was abused in college. When he had the surgery, when I talked to Dr. (James) Andrews, who was the surgeon, he said, ‘I just operated on a 40-year-old elbow.'"

In addition, defects in deliveries contribute to pitchers' hurting their arms.

"If there’s a major flaw, you’ll be injured,” he said. “That’s just a given."

Dr. Ralph Gambardella, a surgeon and chairman and president of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, has been performing Tommy John surgery on players from the Pony Leagues to the majors since 1985. He said there are numerous factors involved in the arm injuries.

"It's multifactorial,” Dr. Gambardella said about ligament tears. "You are going to see more and more in the world about genetics, and genetic screening. Maybe to the point of supposedly picking the sport your 2-year-old is going to decide to go into. However, it's not as easy as that. There are so many variables that are involved here that it gets very difficult to really come up with the best way to prevent injury to the ligament.

"It's like a spike, just like the weirdness of the winter weather around the country. Is there some overall thing going on? If so, we haven’t been able to quite figure it out. I think that people spend more time conditioning in the off-season then they ever had. So it’s hard to put your finger on it. I don’t think we can blame one thing."

Dr. Gambardella believes teams are diligent in monitoring pitchers year round.

"Each team has their own program, and they try to keep a watch on their own players,” he said. “There’s been a lot of controversy over whether or not, for example, players should play winter ball or not play winter ball. Is it better to give them a long rest or a short rest?”

As far as the growing number of pitchers who need the second Tommy John surgery, Dr. Gambardella again feels genetics plays a role.

"The basic problem is the original ligament is the best," Dr. Gambardella said. "The reconstructed ligament is going to be no better than the original. The forces that go through it are the same forces that tear the original. We have not solved the problem of how to heal a ligament biologically and get it back to its original state.

"At this point, even if we do that, we still haven't solved the problem of what can we do preventively to decrease the number of these injuries. Because the ligament is clearly getting overloaded from the act of throwing."

Peterson believes that players might feel invincible after the first Tommy John procedure. That leads to a false sense of security and the chance for re-injury.

"This notion that you get a Tommy John surgery and you're good for life,” Peterson said. "Let’s say the first one was the result of a combination of a flawed delivery and overuse. The question is have they made an adjustment in their delivery when they come back?"

One theory among the medical community is that some people have genetically stronger ligaments and tendons. In that case the original ligament would be less prone to tear. Pitchers who require Tommy John surgery who have a genetically stronger donor tendon used to replace the torn ligament may need only the one procedure.

Another aspect physicians and teams are reconsidering is the rehab time. Most pitchers return to action nine to 12 months after surgery, down from the original 12 to 18 months. Do the players need more time to recover?

"Historically, the longer rehabs were chosen because we did not really know where we were going," Dr. Gambardella said. "I think that what happens here is that biologically, because the tissue has to transform and then become a ligament, the only way it does that is being subjected to small incremental increases in stress, which is why you go through an extensive throwing program. Clearly, if you just want to make it easy, then have major league baseball come up with a rule that says nobody can throw a ball faster than 85 miles an hour. Then you don’t have a problem anymore. When people rehab from these surgeries, the only time they start to get into issues is when they're rehabbing in the final stages. And that's when we're putting those excessive stresses on the reconstructed ligament or on the original ligament."

Dr. Gambardella feels that biology, along with nutrition, holds the key to optimal recovery from Tommy John surgery. He also believes that as medicine advances the procedure will not be needed.

"We're getting back down to the biology," he said. "Even when the ligaments are just starting to fatigue, and there may be microscopic injuries that occur to the tissue, can we do anything to enhance the healing response? That's part of what you’ve seen with everything that’s gone on with P.R.P. injections, and regenerative medicine, and adding stem cells."

Platelet rich plasma injections, or P.R.P., use part of the patient’s blood to promote healing of injured tendons, ligaments, muscles and joints. The Yankees' Tanaka is using this procedure to try to avoid surgery.

For medial collateral ligament injuries, Dr. Gambardella said, “there may be a role for treatment with P.R.P. and stem cells that can allow people to actually get back without having to go through the Tommy John procedure."

"So I think the biology of healing includes diet, exercise, nutrition, all of those factors,” he said. "Our problem is we haven’t been able to figure out the right combination yet."

Dr. Mike Marshall, was a successful relief pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in 1974 with the Dodgers. He holds two major-league records: 106 pitching appearances in a single season in 1974 and 13 straight appearances that same year. He believes the way pitchers deliver the ball is the main culprit in injury and ulnar collateral ligament damage.

Dr. Marshall has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, coaches athletes and offers advice on his web site, DrMikeMarshall.com.

"The ulnar collateral ligament is a ligament, not a muscle," he said. "Only muscles are able to hold the elbow joint tightly together."

He endorses a pendulum swing in pitchers' motions that uses muscles to eliminate stress on the ulnar collateral ligament.

"Pitchers need to pendulum swing their arm downward, backward and upward to driveline height in one, smooth, continuous movement,” he said. “Such that their upper arm is at shoulder height, their forearm points backward with their hand slightly above their head. This position forces pitchers to contract the muscles that protects the ulnar collateral ligament.”

Driveline height is the horizontal height at which baseball pitchers drive their pitching elbow toward home plate. Dr. Marshall predicted that the Marlins' Fernandez and Tanaka of the Yankees would be candidates for Tommy John surgery after analyzing their deliveries earlier this season. Fernandez had the procedure May 16, and Tanaka is disabled with a ligament tear and might eventually need surgery.

He gave a scouting report on the pendulum swings of a few selected pitchers.

He believes the Tigers' Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer "have very good pendulum swings."

However, he cautions that the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw does not pendulum swing his arm to driveline height in one smooth movement.

Instead, Dr. Marshall said of Kershaw and pitchers with similar deliveries, "They stop their arm just behind their body, then, with their forearm pointing downward, they raise their forearm to pointing upward. From this position, they pull their elbow forward, which reverse bounces their elbow and does not contract the muscles that protect the ulnar collateral ligament. These pitchers are candidates for tearing their ulnar collateral ligament."

Dr. Marshall's theories, like several others, will be considered by a baseball community searching for answers to save their young arms.

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Mike Pope became somewhat of an institution with the New York Giants as he was the only member of the coaching staff for all four of the franchise's Super Bowl championship teams. The Giants overhauled their assistant coaching positions after last season, and Pope decided at 71, he still wasn't ready to retire. The Cowboys signed him to be their tight ends coach, the same job he had with the Giants, and Pope hasn't wasted much time making an impact.

Consider this drill at training camp in which he throws buckets of ice water on Cowboys tight ends as they're trying to catch a pass.

"Concentrate on the ball," Pope told reporters. "Don't flinch. Don't bat your eyes. So everything we do has to do with that. If they can't play with distractions, they can't play."

According to the Dallas Morning News, Pope has 478 drills for tight ends.

"Can't remember all of them because I'm getting a little older," Pope said. "It's foolish to practice on air because we all know that has nothing to do with the game.

“To be more realistic, you have to create distractions in order for them to build that in the game, heat of the battle technique to move their head and see the ball hit their hands."

Other drills have included players trying to catch balls while having laundry bags over their heads and while laying on the ground.

"We don't catch the ball in space very much at our position," Pope said. "It's always in traffic. So all these things are just to make them concentrate in that much more detail."

Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a perennial All-Pro, gave a rave review for Pope's tactics.

"That's coach Pope," Witten said. "He's legendary. It's making us better, for sure. A lot of tough catches playing this position. He works on it every day. Knowing him for five months -- he's made me a better football player already. Love playing for him."

DallasCowboys.com has more from Pope in this video.

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Kyle Korver has become perhaps the NBA's most lethal three-point shooter, an accomplishment that is all the more impressive considering he is 33 and has played on three teams the past five years.

Last season Korver led the league with a 47 percent mark from beyond the arc. He also recorded career highs in games started (71) and minutes-per-game (34).

How has Korver managed to defy age and time? In an excellent profile on Grantland, Zach Lowe describes Korver's ambitious offseason training regimen.

Marcus Elliott, founder of the renowned P3 Peak Performance Project in Santa Barbara, Calif., introduced Korver to the concept of misogi, a Japanese annual purification ritual. Korver explained it in an article from December 2013.

“There's a jiu-jitsu concept that was introduced to me this summer called the misogi," Korver said. "It comes from the idea that as we get older we take fewer risks, think more inside the box, get more careful, make more decisions based on fear. To combat this, once a year you do something that you’re not sure you can do. That's the misogi. I'm not talking a marathon -- lots of people do that. It’s more like, climb to the top of the farthest mountain you can see. That’s where I’m gonna go."

Last offseason, Korver and Elliott stand-up paddled 25 miles for their misogi. Then Korver had one of the most productive years of his career, even breaking the NBA's all-time record for most games with a consecutive three-pointer. He ended his streak at 127.

This offseason, Korver has already completed his challenge. He and four friends split into two teams and did a collective 5K while holding an 85-pound rock. And did we mention they did this underwater?

Lowe writes:

"Each participant would dive down, find the rock, run with it as long as he could, and drop it for the next guy to find. Those waiting their turn wore weight belts and tread in water between five and 10 feet deep."

The entire challenge took five hours, and Korver said he and his buddies were worried about blacking out and/or encountering sharks. Thankfully, they survived and Korver is currently in Las Vegas trying to earn a spot on Team USA's roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

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After five seasons with the Raiders, defensive end Lamarr Houston signed with the Bears to fill the spot vacated by Julius Peppers, who hooked up with the Packers. Houston's offseason regimen is not only intense but it's also diversified. He includes activities such as boxing and swimming along with traditional weight training. Here's a closer look at how Houston prepares for the season:

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