SANTA CLARA -- Seven weeks before this season's training camp, Frank Gore watched as the 49ers signed free agent tank-rusher Brandon Jacobs before using their second-round pick on speedster LaMichael James.
As if the team's statement didn't already register, Gore's four-year, $23.9 million contract extension signed in August of 2011 for the first time included a $400,000 workout bonus to participate in the team's offseason conditioning program.
With the knowledge he wanted to get in better shape for the crowded and competitive training camp, Gore had to make a change or risk losing significant playing time in his eighth season with the 49ers.
Preseason pundits took notice, ranking him around 20th among NFL backs, but Gore wasn't having it.
He took a cue from teammate Michael Crabtree and employed Brian Schwartz, the man who trained Crabtree during his lengthy 2009 holdout and handled everything from conditioning and lifting to route running before the rookie was allowed at the 49ers training facility.
Schwartz, owner of Undisputed Boxing Gym in San Carlos and a third-degree black belt, is a bit of an unlikely trainer for a football player, but Gore had a bout to prepare for -- a training camp battle with Jacobs, James and second-year standout Kendall Hunter.
Every night, Schwartz would put Gore through a fighter's workout that included shadow boxing, bag work and -- according to Schwartz -- running the very hills Jerry Rice used to train on. (Rice's famed hill is in Edgewood Park, just outside San Carlos.) There was only one difference between Gore's regimen and a boxer's training camp.
"I didn't beat him up as much," Schwartz told CSNBayArea.com with a laugh. "That's the last thing I want, the 49ers coming after me."
Based on the results Gore saw, he might have 49ers coming after him for a different reason.
When they started, Gore struggled to finish a three-minute round of boxing. Seven weeks later and 25 pounds lighter, he was ripping off 40 straight minutes without break.
"He responded to the style of training very well," Schwartz confirmed. "He was into the psyche of a fighter, too, and the mental preparation of training for a fight."
One particular workout, Gore was joined by another of Schwartz's pupils -- four-division world champion boxer Nonito Donaire.
Donaire and Gore hit it off, so much so that the WBC Diamond Super Bantamweight Champion invited the running back into the ring with him.
"Being inside that ring is no joke," Donaire told CSNBayArea.com. "I was pushing him, 'Come on, Frank, hit me, man! Hit me!' That might have been a big mistake by me. He packs a punch if he wants to. But I got him tired, and that's what he wanted."
Going in, what he wanted was to get into top football shape, but what Gore actually got from seven weeks of fight sport training was overall body conditioning -- something Schwartz reveals Gore was reluctant to strive for at first.
"Your overall body condition is going to help you late in the season," Schwartz convinced. "When guys are beat up and tired from the 16 grueling weeks, you're still going to be fresh. You're not just in football shape, you're in overall shape."
So Schwartz broke out a few old school drills designed to condition Gore's body and increase his durability.
Lo and behold, Gore rushed for 1,214 yards in his eighth NFL season, the second-highest mark in his career and good for 10th in the league.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman acknowledged after last Saturday's win over the Packers -- while Gore was getting X-rays -- that the 49ers like to hold their ace card. So it would be understandable, especially considering Gore's mileage, for the team to limit his late-season carries in an attempt to keep him fresh for the playoffs.
"No, every week we were going into it as that game being the most important game," head coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday. "I wouldn't say there was an eye toward the playoffs with Frank."
But the heavy workload doesn't seem to be affecting the 29-year old this season. Despite the fact he hobbles away from nearly every game, and is frequently on the early-week injury reports, Gore is fresh.
"Frank has mentioned a few times that he feels great," Harbaugh said. "Body feels great, his mind feels good, great attitude. It's a real positive for us."
It's almost surprising, too, considering Gore received X-rays after Saturday's game. Not surprising, though, was his status on the 49ers injury report Wednesday, the day they're submitted to the league: Full participation (knee).
The importance of having your franchise leader in rushing attempts (1,911), rushing yards (8,839) and rushing touchdowns (51) healthy and available for Sunday's showdown with the Falcons cannot be understated for the 49ers even though the Falcons ranked 21st in the NFL during the regular season, averaging 123.2 ground yards allowed per game.
Gore tallied 119 of the team's 323 rushing yards against the Packers, which was the highest NFL postseason total for a team since 2005. (It was the Falcons who ran over the Rams for 327 yards that year.) The 49ers feel good about their chances if they can get Gore going; they are undefeated under Harbaugh when they feature a rusher with 100-plus yards and 9-2-1 when Gore carries the ball at least 20 times.
Running backs do battle every week in the NFL, and Frank Gore is the example, not the exception. He never turns out of bounds or shies from contact, putting his footwork and endurance to the test every time. Those are the very attributes his fight sport training is designed to enhance.
"When you don't have the lungs, your whole body will fall," Donaire said. "Being in shape lets you see everything in slow motion."
It seems to have done the trick for Gore, evidenced by the choice words his coach used to describe him.
"He sees it slowed down," said Harbaugh, "and he's got a very quick mind."
With a pugilistic mentality and "just call it, I'll run whatever" approach, being sharp of mind isn't always the first of Gore's characteristics that's pointed out, but Roman set the record straight Thursday.
"He's one of the most gifted, knowledgeable and intelligent players I've ever been around, really at any position," the play-caller said before forecasting Gore's post-football career as a coach.
"I think I'd be a great coach," Gore agreed, though if he continues to prepare for every NFL season like it's the fight of his life, that new profession is still a few years away.
Gore started all 16 games this season, something he hasn't done since his breakout year 2006 when he rushed for a career-high 1,695 yards.
Ask Gore what he attributes his durability to, and he'll tell you.
"Working hard in the offseason," Gore put it simply Thursday.
But it isn't that simple. Gore is cut from first-to-arrive-last-to-leave cloth, and he makes sure he's in early every day to stay sharp with strength and conditioning coach Mark Uyeyama.
Entering his eighth NFL season and looking to retain his title as 49ers bell-cow, Frank Gore found his plan inside the ring.
"The plan going into the year was for Frank to rush for 1,000 yards, for Frank to make the Pro Bowl and for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl," Schwartz shared after revealing that his true rooting interest lies with the Raiders. Still...
"We're two out of three right now."