If you’re a jock and you’ve been feeling your age lately, pay attention, because we might be witnessing the greatest eight-day stretch for athletic old dudes in history. Roger Federer, 35, capped off his return from a knee injury by winning the Australian Open, prevailing in a grueling five-set, three-hour-and-thirty-minute final over his longtime (and considerably younger) archrival, Rafael Nadal.
And 39-year-old Tom Brady — looking as sharp as he did at 29 — won his fifth Super Bowl, which would put an exclamation point on his case to be considered the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL.
By all rights, these guys should have been done long ago. As you get older, your ligaments become stiffer, your muscles become less supple, your speed and explosiveness deteriorate. So how the heck have Federer and Brady been able to maintain their peaks well into what should be their retirement years? And is there any way that you can emulate such super humans? We talked with some of the best minds in the strength and conditioning business to find out and distilled their approaches into 10 maxims that might just help you be fitter at 40 than you were at 20.
1. TRAIN FOR EXPLOSIVENESS
It’s true that athletes lose their pure speed long before anything else, but your ability to move quickly doesn’t have to go into free fall once you hit thirty. How can you stay quick? Focus more on lifting explosively than piling on tons of extra plates. “I would stop a player at or before he was squatting double his body weight,” Johnny Parker, a legendary NFL strength coach, says. “I would tell him, don’t squat more, squat faster.”
For Parker, the key to staying fast was maximizing the rate of force produced. Much better than lifting very heavy weight very slowly was lifting slightly less heavy weight quickly. “That’s something that’s important for younger players,” Parker says, “but it’s almost everything for older players.”
2. STAY LIMBER
As you get older, you get stiffer. You don’t need to read that. Your body announces that to you with perhaps alarming frequency. But putting in some extra work to stay as flexible and limber as you can has big benefits. Vince Carter, still racking up nearly 25 minutes per game for the Memphis Grizzlies at age 40, says that part of the secret to his longevity is that he’s “more flexible than most of the guys on the team that are half my age.” Carter keeps to a disciplined stretching program, and so should you, but don’t forget the importance that dynamic movements can have in keeping your muscles supple.
“All of my masters athletes have a body maintenance practice to work on their tissue health and mobility,” says CrossFit pioneer Kelly Starrett. This means familiar interventions like foam rollers, but body maintenance is also about focusing on a proper and full range of motion on every lift. (Provided a previous injury doesn’t prevent it.) Your aging body will try to seduce you into shallow squats, partial bench presses, and an avoidance of anything overhead. Don’t let it.
3. TAKE SMART RESTS
There are two routes to aging prematurely: resting too much and never resting at all. Aging gracefully is about finding the happy medium between them, and that has always been a tough balance to strike. It’s different for everyone, but thankfully, data has come to the rescue. Teams have recently been turning to wearable devices that can track things like metabolic output, oxygen consumption, and peak heart rate. (These measurements are much more useful than “steps in a day.”) With that information, teams can see when players are getting tired, when their running and jumping form begins to slip, and when athletes with similar physical characteristics tend to break down. You probably don’t have access to an in-house sports scientist, but just keeping track of your heart rate over time with a FitBit can tell you a lot about how hard you’re working—and what the patterns are when you start to have problems.
4. LOOK EVERYWHERE FOR HELP
The one innovation that has changed athletic training and injury prevention more than any other: the Internet. These days, athletes don’t have to rely on word of mouth or the official opinion of whoever happens to be their team physician. If they have a sports hernia, they can find the name of leading surgeon William C. Meyers with a few keystrokes and schedule an appointment with him in Philadelphia with a few more. If they’re having knee issues, they can read up on German doctor Peter Wehling and his Regenokine approach. Then they can do what Kobe Bryant did and hop the next Lufthansa flight to Dusseldorf. You should do this too.
If your local doctor tells you that you’re “just getting older,” find the specialist at the cutting-edge of his field. “It’s no different than going to five different grocery stores in your hometown,” says Eric Cressey a stregnth-and-conditioning coach renowned for his work with professional baseball players. “In the past you only had your training staff. Now you can go and get expertise anywhere.”
5. END THE INJURY CYCLE
Here’s how an athlete’s careers end: It starts with an ankle sprain. Then the athlete starts over-compensating with his other leg. Before he knows it, he has a gimpy knee. To protect that knee, he starts running and jumping awkwardly, and suddenly he begins to feel pain in his lower back. He decides he must be getting old. He retires.
Guys: it need not be so.
“In almost every elite sports, they’re going to have some type of injury,” says Dr. Marcus Elliott, director of the “applied sports science” firm Peak Performance Project. “What athletes need to do after an injury is reset their bodies. That doesn’t mean just getting your strength back, but returning to moving just like you were before.” Elliott’s company uses innovative technologies to map a player’s movements, but he suggests that even paying attention to the way your distribute your weight during simple running and jumping exercises can pay major dividends. Remember when Tom Brady suffered those potentially debilitating tears of his ACL and MCL in 2008? In the eight seasons since, he hasn’t missed a game because of injury.
6. FOCUS ON YOUR LEGS
Upper body strength is awesome, but as Vince Carter says, “you’re going to lose your lower body first.” When Carter was in his “Vinsanity” prime, he didn’t squat. Now that he’s the most veteran of veterans, he’s discovered their value. Carter has limited mobility and inflexion in his ankle, so he can’t do full squats, but he doesn’t let that stop him. “Box squatting has been my go-to,” he says. “I need to make sure that my lower body can sustain a season.”
7. GET MORE SLEEP. PERIOD.
When Miami Heats strength coach Bill Foran came into the NBA in 1989, the travel schedule wasn’t conducive to sleep. “You didn’t have your own planes. Sometimes you had to take the first flight out,” Foran says. “The guys would have to wake up at 4 a.m. on game days.” This wasn’t good. Studies have shown that better sleep not only means better performance, but fewer injuries. In fact, one study of high school athletes showed that hours of sleep per night was the strongest predictor of whether an athlete would get injured or not. There’s no reason to suspect that older athletes get a pass on the link between lack of sleep and injury either.
8. WHEN YOUR BODY FEELS RIGHT, PRESS GO
Jaromir Jagr has played 51 games for the NHL’s Florida Panthers this year. Jaromir Jagr will turn 45 on February 15. Sure, Federer and Brady are impressive, but Jagr is truly ageless. And how does he do it? Among other things, he grabs the moments when he’s feeling at his best and squeezes them for all they’re worth. This can be hard on his team’s strength and conditioning coach, Tommy Powers, who has gotten accustomed to calls from Jagr at 10pm summoning him for skating, sprinting, and lifting sessions that can last until after midnight. “He wants to train when his body feels ready and right to train,” Powers says.
9.TRAIN YOUR TENDONS
For decades, the conventional wisdom in exercise science was that tendons couldn’t be trained. We know better now. In addition to training explosively, older athletes would do well to work in some training for their support structures. One way to do this? High-load isometrics. You can do this by extending your ankles to the midway point on a heavy leg-press and holding for a few seconds, but the principle applies to other heavy lifts and other parts of the body. It might not pay off immediately, but as Jeremy Holsopple, the Dallas Mavericks’ athletic performance director, says, “everyone should do it. When it’s possible to load the tendon structures three times a week, that’s an ideal scenario.”
- EAT LIKE TOM BRADY
OK, that would be nearly impossible. Brady has a personal chef, his diet is said to be 80-percent alkaline and 20-percent acidic (whatever that means), and he’s big on avoiding nightshades like tomatoes, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. But don’t ignore the fact that many of the sports stars of old ate a lot of crap, and the sports stars of today—particularly the ones with very long careers—are as disciplined as Zen monks about what they put in their bodies. You probably already know the rules: eat lean proteins, load up on complex carbs like brown rice and quinoa, not simple carbs like Wonder Bread. But you also probably know how easy it is to opt for the bacon cheeseburger and fries when it’s staring at you on the menu. Next time you’re tempted by something like that, realize this: Tom Brady never goes for the bacon cheeseburger and fries.