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As retirements go, it was short. Just two months after Tom Brady announced he had thrown his last football, the 44-year-old quarterback changed his mind. By the time he walks on the field for his 23rd training camp, Brady will be 45, an elder in a sport where the average retirement age is 27.
Pro sports used to be a young person’s game, with most athletes considered veterans by 30. With good reason: Professional athletes start playing sports as kids, specialize in their early teens and devote the next decade or more pushing their bodies to their physiological limits. Injuries and burnout often cut careers short, but with the likes of Brady, Serena Williams (40), Sue Bird (41), LeBron James (37) and Phil Mickelson (51) staying competitive in a field of much younger athletes, today’s top players are older and better than ever before.
Admittedly some sports are more forgiving than others. Curlers, golfers and equestrians are less likely to age out early than football, basketball and tennis players. But with advancements in training, nutrition and recovery, it’s not as rare as it once was to see athletes on top of their game in the twilight of their career.
Nobody’s sure why athletes like Brady are able to outplay most of their peers despite the age gap. It might be because of their privileged access to resources. But even the best trainers, doctors, nutritionists and physiotherapists can’t erase the physiological changes that occur with age. Physical peak is reached between 20 and 35 years of age, with some athletes getting there early and others a bit later.
While studies of masters athletes have shown that high levels of exercise can delay some of the physiological changes related to aging until about 70 years old, the level of play expected of Brady demands the strength, agility and reaction time of a young body. So while most studies of masters athletes compare their bodies to that of their less active same-age peers, aging pro athletes compete daily with younger versions of themselves — which makes their success all the more remarkable.
“At 40, everything we know from a physiological perspective is that they should be in decline,” said Stuart Phillips, professor at McMaster University and director of the McMaster Center for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research.
Indeed, strength, speed, quickness and flexibility begin to wane in the early 30s. Anybody who’s hit their 40s knows that the body takes longer to recover from a tough workout, especially ones that produce high amounts of muscle damage. But Phillips says even among the pro ranks, which already include the top athletes in their respective sports in the world, Brady and the rest of the outliers are the best of the best.
Cameron Mitchell, assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology at UBC, agrees. Mitchell says skill-based athletes have more career longevity than those who rely largely on strength, speed and power like running backs. Brady is known for his throwing accuracy, vision and making good decisions under pressure. He also throws from the pocket (he’s not a running quarterback) with a solid offensive line protecting him. And while he’s had a couple of knee injuries over the course of his career, they don’t seem to be chronic.
Phillips also points to Brady’s lifestyle as a contributing factor. While plenty of athletes celebrate a win out on the town, Brady has always known the value of rest and recovery after a game.
“The investment in career longevity starts early,” Phillips said.
That dedication to a healthy lifestyle is admirable, Phillips said, but he’s less convinced than Brady that there’s anything magical about his much-talked-about diet and exercise plan. Brady eats lots of fruits and vegetables, but no caffeine, dairy, sugar, mushrooms or nightshades like tomatoes and eggplants, which he claims among other things boosts energy and performance and reduces inflammation. As for his personalized workout regimen, it isn’t so revolutionary that it can be relied on to extend his career.
“If I were to take him in the lab or put him through the combine (an annual event that assesses the athletic skills of future NFL draft picks), his results would be moderate among others in the league who play his position,” said Mitchell. “With Brady, it’s the intangibles, like being able to read the game, that makes him stand out.”
Add work ethic, resilience, experience and maturity to those intangibles and they can make up for some of the physical decline that comes with age. While he might be a step or two slower, Brady’s got some of the best game smarts in the business.
How can we tap into some of that Brady magic?
There’s no one-size fits all recipe for maintaining a competitive edge as the birthdays \add up. Genetics, history of injury, consistency in the gym, lifestyle habits (eating, sleeping, stress management) and attention to recovery all factor into being the best we can be.
That and a $25-million contract.
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