Walking through the office of Jordan Metzl, M.D., is like walking through a sports hall of fame. Framed photographs and posters of pro athletes line the walls, each with an autograph scribbled across in black marker. But to Metzl, what’s more valuable than the famous signature is the thank-you that accompanies it.
“Being a part of the process of seeing people meet their goals is so gratifying,” he says. As a sports medicine physician at the Hospital of Special Surgery in New York City, Metzl works with athletes of all levels, from Olympians and Olympic hopefuls to recreational athletes ages 8 to 81. And as a 33-time marathon runner and 13-time Ironman finisher, he knows a thing or two about intense competition. Here “The Athlete’s Doctor” tells us what it’s like to be the go-to guy for some of the most gifted athletes in America.
Tell us about what you do.
Every single person who comes to see me wants to move and be active, and it’s my job to help them do that. I treat everyone from an 8-year-old who wants to play Little League Baseball to an Olympic athlete to an 81-year-old who wants to run a marathon.
The nice thing about what I do is that even though some of the resources are better at the upper end of athletic competition, the motivations are the same. Everybody wants to move, do more, and avoid injury, and my job is to help make that happen for athletes of all levels. I treat them the same. That being said, when you see your patients on TV, it certainly makes you think about it differently. It’s really gratifying.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I’m a big believer in prescribing the medicine of exercise. Much like doctors who wouldn’t smoke and tell their patients not to, I'm big on practicing what I preach. So first thing in the morning at 5:30 a.m., I do a workout. Then I head to work. Some days we have an educational meeting around 7:30 a.m.—that could be a lecture, a conference, or a seminar. Then I get to the office and see between 30 and 40 patients. My stamina as an athlete is important because I want to give people the best care I can and that takes a lot of energy. My job is to diagnose the problem, fix it, and figure out the best way to prevent it from happening again. Then I like to do something active again after work so I can wash away the day. So if I have a dinner downtown, I might pack clothes and run there. I just like to do a little something after work to rejuvenate and then go have a life.
What’s it like working with Olympians versus other athletes?
The stakes are little bit higher. The average recreational person is doing sports as part of their life, and for Olympians, sports are their life. So things are scrutinized more closely, and some tests are performed more quickly. The resources you have available are certainly higher with higher-level athletes, but the processes are the same.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
Even though it sounds hokey, being a part of the process of seeing people meet their goals is so gratifying. I guess I'm part cheerleader, part facilitator, and part doctor. I love getting really cool notes, letters, emails, and pictures. I get so much cool stuff from people who have met their goals; it’s really awesome.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
A few things: For one, it’s really physically taxing. Saving time for myself is something I struggle with. That’s hard and has become increasingly harder as my practice has grown and I’ve become busier. And two is giving people tough news about their injury—or sometimes worse things like a bone cancer diagnosis, which is rare, but definitely happens.
What’s one of the most surprising things about working with elite athletes?
How amazingly awesome they are! They have a special gift, but beyond that, they are just incredibly amazing. They are so normal in a lot of ways. For example, I’m taking care of a patient now, and we’ll Skype back and forth and talk all the time. This person is about to be one of the most famous people in the United States, but it’s amazing how normal they are. They talk about their insecurities and their futures, and they are so humble. I’ve had the best experience with down-to-earth, genuine people.
Is there something we can all do to live a bit more like an Olympian every day?
It’s important to remember that their full-time jobs are their bodies, so it’s a different thing, but you can certainly learn from them. Much of what we learn in sports medicine is from studying these athletes at the elite level. If you have a limited amount of time, I think that intensity is the biggest differentiator. You can do 45 minutes and get an amazing workout that is equivalent to multiple hours at a less intense level.
What healthy habits make you the happiest?
Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body. I think they go hand in hand. The thing that makes me healthy is moving every day. I’m not the biggest stickler about healthy foods. I try to stay away from really processed stuff, but aside from that, I eat well and exercise. Those things help me enjoy what I do.
The other piece I’ve found for myself is that as you get older, it’s tougher to be part of a community. So I built my own fitness community because I wanted to prescribe exercise and I wanted to have a community. I think that’s very cool; it’s very empowering.
In one word, what inspires you to go to work every day?
Make a difference. That’s three words. Difference.
And just for fun... what’s the background on your phone right now?
A mountain nature picture.
Coffee or no coffee?
Favorite guilty pleasure?
That you can print? Ice cream, for sure.
Quotes edited for clarity.