Shaun White, 31. Roger Federer, 36. Lewis Hamilton, 33. Rafael Nadal, 31. Tom Brady, 40. What do all of these professional athletes have in common?
In the world of professional sports these old timers should all be past their used-by date. And yet, here they are collecting gold medals and silverware like an athletically gifted fat kid in a candy store.
This is evidence that today’s sporting champions are giving their finest performances later than ever. But rather than throwing around figures about how much each champion earns for their age, we wanted to dig a bit deeper to look at how a champion is reborn from an old dog via a health, training and competition perspective.
Why does life being at 30 for today’s elite athletes? Behold.
Age Affects How Your Body Uses Oxygen
There’s no denying that age is a limiting factor to performance. According to a fitness vs age study in The Conversation, the decline in aerobic and endurance based athletic performance comes down to age affecting a body’s ability to effectively use oxygen.
The science behind it highlights something called VO2max, or the body’s maximal ability to utilise oxygen. VO2max is a numerical figure used as a predictor for endurance performance across all ages. More specifically, it’s how much oxygen your body can use per kilogram of body mass.
VO2max of course is also linked to how efficiently your body can carry oxygen to the lungs, blood and muscles – the higher the number, the better your fitness.
Exercise in itself can aid in maximising VO2max to allow the body to perform more endurance work as per bodyweight.
The kicker? VO2 is known to decline by around 10% every decade after the age of 30. Professional athletes who have continued to compete and train hard can slow this decline down to 0.5 – 5% per decade after the age of 30.
Today’s Top Athletes Have A Secret Weapon
The top performing athletes over the age of 30 today are also the ones who have been in the game the longest.
Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton began go-karting at the age of eight and has continued his ascension as the one to beat with four world titles under his belt at the age of 33. The same can be said for guys like American footballer Tom Brady who learnt how to throw a ball in football camp as a child.
The underlying point is that these guys have honed in on their fitness by training smarter, not harder. Even in the losing battle of age versus performance, they’ve remained steadfast at the highest level of competition.
Anthony Minichiello who is the former captain of the Sydney Roosters agrees with this ideology.
“As you get older, you get smarter,” says the 37-year-old retired footballer who now spends his days running MINIFIT, a fitness program for children.
“You’re much wiser in your 30s. You pick and choose your time a lot better; you know your body a lot more as well so you know when to push it or pull back,” he explains.
“All the guys at the top of their game in their 30s all look after themselves away from the sport better than their younger peers.”
Based on his own experience at the pointy end of the competition during his later years, Minichiello explains that the long training hours of pre-season are still in place.
“But most of the gains are coming from when they’re away from the sport, behind closed doors where people don’t see what they’re doing.”
This duty of care covers aspects such as looking after sleep, nutrition, hydration, relaxation and recovery with salt baths, saunas, or swimming in salt water all playing their part in an older body.
…Or Today’s Competition Could Just Be Shit
When Roger Federer was on his way to winning his 20th grand slam at this year’s Australian Open, he expressed to interviewers what many have thought about themselves.
“With age, I feel like I play down my chances just because I don’t think a 36-year-old should be a favourite of a tournament. It should not be the case,” he told the press.
“That’s why I see things more relaxed, you know, at a later stage of my career.”
Federer’s secret weapon for being unbeatable is seemingly in line with what Anthony Minichiello previously outlined, but there could be something else that’s helping these ageing athletes stay at the top of their game: young players who simply don’t have what it takes to go the distance.
“Since my generation and Rafa’s generation, yes, the next one hasn’t been strong enough to push all of us out,” Federer told News after taking out the 2017 Wimbledon crown.
“A young guy, if he wants to make a breakthrough, he can beat me or any top player, but, if he doesn’t make a run to the final or win the tournament, he’s not making any move in the rankings.”
“It’s not so easy to win five straight matches [in Masters and lower tournaments]. The consistency that’s required by the young generation is quite complex. Because of our different playing styles at the top – put Stan [Wawrinka] in there, put Cilic in there and then the big four – it’s hard for young guys to make a run through that.”
We’d hate to admit it, but our home grown guys in the pro-circuit are prime examples of this lacklustre generation of athletes.
Nick Kyrgios, whilst naturally talented and getting over his bouts of random outburst, is still prone to injury and early exits – he’s 22 years of age. Bernard Tomic meanwhile would much rather split his time between laying into tennis officials, counting his millions and not making the qualifying team. It’s little wonder these guys find it so hard to win a grand slam let alone making it to the finals.
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Marat Safin, a retired tennis star of the Federer and Nadal generation was even more scathing in his view of today’s young tennis players.
He told the Independent that, “If Federer and Nadal are still winning, I think there’s something wrong.”
“I don’t see any upcoming superstars today. Federer and Nadal are great players but they’re getting older. No matter how much you work in the gym, it becomes harder and harder to recover match after match. Age catches up with you.”
“Players used to retire by the time they got to 30,” he went on. “At 32 you were a dinosaur.”
“Now you see players who are still running at the age of 38. The upcoming young guys just aren’t at a high enough level. If you can still manage to run at the age of 38 and still be No 1 in the world, it means there must be something wrong with the other players.”
Age Is No Barrier To Hunger
Shaun White took out the 100th gold medal at the Olympics for the U.S this week. The 31-year-old skateboarded turned snowboarder is one of the most enduring names of the sport and it’s this unyielding hunger that has seemingly brought the three-time gold medalist back from the dead.
Or as White likes to put it, perceived retirement.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, I thought you were done,'” he told CBC.
“I was like, What? Who said that? I never said that.”
“I love it. Deep down, I do. I like to compete, I like the struggle, I like the heartache of it. And it goes past fun. People are like, ‘Are you having fun?’ Yeah, but it’s fulfilling. I’m getting more than just fun and a good time. It’s a fulfilment. And I missed it.”
“I love new blood coming on the scene, and it’s always fun to have somebody stir things up,” White continued. “If you just keep the same guys and the same thing you lose motivation, as well.
White admits that it’s tough to compete at the top though.
“I’ve lived with this kind of, sort of, expectation to succeed, and it’s not something that’s easy to maintain. A lot of times you get that look, and that hard look, and it’s hard when everyone’s watching you.”
“Before you were the underdog, and you can win, and you can do whatever. And if you don’t win, it’s OK. But when you’re expected to be the guy, it’s really hard, sometimes.”
No one ever said anything about not being hungry beyond the age of 30. Maybe that’s all it takes for those that are hungry enough and can take the pain.