Brian Moore is working with A-list athletes across the world
If there is a conversation that simplifies it all – the complex balance between hard training and optimal recovery – then for Brian Moore it was the one he had with Moses Kiptanui in 1999.
Kiptanui, a three-time world champion and former steeplechase world record holder, was training in London at the time, where Moore was making his name as a physiologist.
He was studying the blood of elite athletes and trying to identify signs of over-training – the dreaded state for sportspeople whereby the more work they put in, the worse they perform.
Moore was running with Kiptanui one morning and the Kenyan was complaining of lingering fatigue. The World Championships were approaching, but Kiptanui’s form was going in reverse. Moore asked him what he normally does in such scenarios.
“First, I ask myself three questions,” said Kiptanui. “One: am I resting enough? Two: am I eating enough? Three: am I sleeping enough?”
“And what happens if the answer to all those is yes?” asked Moore.
“Then, Brian, I come to you.”
Over the past 23 years, Moore, a native of Galway, has worked with a Who’s Who of world sport.
His company, Orreco, currently works with 3,500 elite athletes – from Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell to NBA stars like Pascal Siakam and A-list footballers like Gabriel Jesus.
From Benfica to Tottenham to Newcastle, the Dallas Mavericks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the San Francisco 49ers, Orreco is a key piece of the performance jigsaw for many of sport’s heaviest hitters, which are placing an ever-increasing value on keeping players healthy.
“Elites are wired to overreach, they are constantly pushing, but it’s about pushing hard at the right times,” says Moore. “Athletes can often train too hard, but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
It was a lesson he first learned in the late 1990s, when Moore got to know a host of champion distance runners like Sonia O’Sullivan and Daniel Komen, and later Australians Craig Mottram and Lee Troop. In training they were workhorses; outside that, they lived like sloths.
“The best in the world take their recovery as seriously as they do the work. I noticed they didn’t move outside of training. They’d get the bus the kilometre to the shop. They’d make a big flask of tea rather than get up to go to the kettle a few times.”
Moore has a long list of qualifications and research papers to his name, but when it comes to communicating the importance of recovery to global stars, simplicity works best. He likens it to a game of Space Invaders.
“You’ve got free radicals and antioxidant defences, and in Space Invaders they’re your antioxidant defences at the bottom. They’re made up of sleep and nutrition – mainly sleep.
“The guys at the top are free radicals. They’re trying to get you. What happens when your bases are knocked down? That means you’re sick or you’re hurt. With chronic, systemic, low-grade inflammation, or chronic over-training or under-fuelling, your bases get wiped out.”
Moore knows of what he speaks – personally and professionally. In 1998 he ran himself into the ground while training with Kenyans in London, developing chronic fatigue that left him unable to “barely walk to the shops” for months.
“It often happens with Type A personalities,” he says. “They’re very driven (and believe) more is better.”
He did a series of blood tests at the time and the lab manager told him everything was fine, but through his research Moore could identify signs of immune compromise.
“What happens is your immune system gets fried, the white cells go to the muscles to repair damage and they don’t work as well, they don’t turn off, so you’ve got this constant low-grade inflammation.”
These days, Moore can pick up on such things in minutes. With Orreco’s clients, he’ll often prick the finger of athletes before they begin their warm-up, run a quick blood test, and can soon tell them if they’re sufficiently recovered to complete the workout. “Then we can say, ‘not today’ or ‘crack on’,” he says. “But it’s more ‘crack on’ than anything else.”
In 2010, he co-founded Orreco with the haematologist Dr Andy Robertson. The company name drawn from its mission: ‘ór’ is the Irish for gold; ‘reco’ is short for recovery.
Moore had a lucky start. He knows that. In 1999, he began a PhD in the haematology of elite athletes under Dr Craig Sharp, the father of sports science in Britain.
By studying in the mid-1990s at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, he got to spend time around a raft of champions, from Komen to Paul Koech to O’Sullivan – who is godmother to Moore’s son. From early on, he knew there was a performance edge to be found in blood tests – if you knew where to look.
“Both my parents were biomedical scientists and it was the last thing I wanted to do – to be in a lab. But I was seeing very early signs of iron deficiency and I was like, ‘holy s**t’.
“When you get a blood test you’ll see 15 to 20 numbers, but there’s also hundreds of numbers at the back of the machine no one ever really sees. In there was amazing stuff and you could see patterns.”
Seeing such trends is one thing, making use of them is another. But top athletes kept Moore around because of his ability to understand the data and transmit its meaning.
“If you don’t add value, you’re gone, and I love that,” he says. “There’s a lot of similar scenarios with Sonia and Pádraig Harrington. They’re very analytical and there’s no bulls**t. Around this stuff, you can’t bulls**t.”
So how, exactly, does it help?
There’s an example O’Sullivan cites in her book. A month out from the Sydney Olympics, she had a terrible run in Crystal Palace, trailing home ninth over 5,000m, a race that made her question her fitness, her training – everything.
A day later, Moore tested her blood and could tell her – with confidence – that nothing was seriously amiss, but that she had gone into the race carrying a short-term overreach, the kind that often occurs in hard training but which corrects itself with a few days’ recovery.
Later that week, she bounced back with a superb run in Zurich, and on she went to Sydney, winning Olympic silver. Without that test, and that gentle nudge to back off, there’s every chance she could have dug in harder in training to address the under-performance, sinking deeper into an over-training hole.
Moore’s work with O’Sullivan inspired another of his career goals: contributing to clean sport. In 2000, he began work as anti-doping researcher alongside Robin Parisotto at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), developing tests that could detect the game-changing blood-booster EPO.
“Doing that helped clean up [the Olympics in] Sydney because sport in the late ’90s was destroyed by EPO,” he says.
“Sonia was like, ‘Here, take all my data, give it to the AIS’. That was so important because it cleaned up sport for her to have a chance. I was quite demoralised with it for a long time, with [clean] athletes coming sixth, seventh, 10th. In 2002 I stepped away [from anti-doping work]. I said there were enough very smart people doing it and I wanted to help clean people go faster. That’s the other side to it: athletes competing clean had to train so hard that they were destroying themselves.”
With Orreco, his work centres on optimising recovery through natural means. It was at a different Olympics, London 2012, where he found his gateway to the Premier League.
That’s where Moore met Dr Paul Catterson, chief physician at Newcastle United, who told him about a player struggling to recover in training following that summer’s European Championships.
In the years after, word of his methods spread across the world, with interest growing in the US, where Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, was one of the earliest converts.
A couple of years ago, having worked with Orreco throughout the season, the Mavericks lost zero days to illness among its players.
“They’re the kind of things that are possible,” says Moore. “The reasons teams keep us around is they see that reduction.”
An NBA or Premier League player working with Orreco might have their blood tested once a week, but in pre-season, “when guys are getting blitzed”, Moore might do it every morning “to see how they’re handling the load”.
Orreco recently launched a new app, @thlete, that collates data – from biomarkers to sleep cycles, nutrition to training loads to travel schedules – and offers clients advice on tweaking their routines to optimise performance.
Women can add their menstrual data, a long-overlooked element that Orreco tried to address in 2018 by launching the FitrWoman app.
“It can be very difficult for male coaches to get their head around, that female athletes can do a workout on two different weeks and feel completely different based on the hormonal profile,” says Moore.
“A lot of the sports science research is done on men and extrapolated to women, but we have a five-year-old in our house who’ll tell you that’s not a good idea.”
Moore works with a staff of 40 that includes experts in biostatistics, applied nutrition, physiology and even machine learning, given the complexity of the algorithms he uses.
“The data sets run into billions of rows, but you have to bring it back to the athlete in a really simple way.
“We’ve got 17 PhDs on staff and over 300 peer-reviewed papers. It’s the hard way, the long way, the expensive way, but the right way. It’s why I’ve got all this grey hair.”
Among sportspeople, no matter the level, Moore sees the same mistakes time and again.
“A lot of under-fuelling,” he says.
“Athletes will say they don’t want to gain weight, but you can eat more and go faster. If you restrict intake, you get a short-term spike where your performance can improve, but in the long term you can run into serious challenges around osteopenia, amenorrhea. The other thing is taking a load of supplements when you don’t know what is in them. ‘I’m tired, I must take iron.’ Why?”
Mistakes happen, of course, but those who succeed tend not to repeat them. Moore cites one of his favourite lines from an American football coach: “First time’s an accident. Second time’s a trend. Third time’s a problem.”
Of course, not everyone has the budget for such testing, but most of the practices Moore preaches can be applied without any cost. His advice on recovery to the everyday sportsperson?
“It’s about balancing load and recovery, and prioritising sleep,” he says.
“Simple things like morning heart rates give you a sense of how you’re adapting. If you feel tired, ask those three questions Moses did.
“If the answer is no, talk to your primary care physician to get a simple blood test, get your iron levels checked, and have a look at your immune system.
“If you’re a multi-sport athlete or on different teams, you have to own your own performance. Each team will have their own demands and if there’s no one taking ownership you can very easily get burnt out.
“It’s having the courage to go to your coach and say, ‘I’m tired.’ There are points you have to push through fatigue and adaptation, but the problem is when you’re overreaching or under-recovering without knowing it.
“If you’re a female athlete, I’d suggest looking at your menstrual cycle. Download the FitrWoman app, it’s free and it gives you a sense to understand the changes week to week.
“If you are missing cycles or have delayed onset, they’re good things to talk to your GP about, and to your coach.”
Moore hopes to eventually scale his work to “make it available to everyone” and when he gets the time, he would love to do a study on athletes who succeed at major championships following a breakdown during the build-up. It sounds counter-intuitive, but he’s got a hunch it often helps.
“They’re saved from themselves – that one extra session, the one sharpener,” he says. “If things aren’t going to plan, athletes can sometimes double down and dig themselves further into a hole, where they’ll try to prove everything is fine, but the best ability is availability.”
And to achieve that every weekend – whether on the pitch, court or track – Moore encourages sportspeople to think about what they’re doing each day, and why.
“The most precious thing we all have is time and if you’re going to spend that training, it makes sense to get the best return on that investment,” he says.
But amid all that he’s learned, the complex science behind his work, Moore often finds himself steering people back to those three questions from Kiptanui, knowing they so often provide the answers for struggling athletes: “Am I resting enough? Am I eating enough? Am I sleeping enough?”