Despite aching backs and stiff joints, a growing number of elite athletes – from Zlatan Ibrahimović to Serena Williams – are pushing the clock back. So why can’t you? We ask the experts how to do it
Last modified on Fri 28 Jan 2022 15.02 GMT
Six years ago it looked as if Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s footballing career was approaching the final whistle. After Sweden’s early exit from Euro 2016, the striker announced his retirement from international competition. At 34, he was getting on a bit for an elite athlete. Cut to November 2021 and, days after firing in a spectacular free-kick for his club, AC Milan, Sweden’s record goalscorer was helping keep alive his country’s hopes of making the next World Cup. The retirement chat was over. “I am trying to prove that 40 is just a number,” he said.
Ibrahimovic had joined what feels like a growing club: the quadragenarian athlete holding back the clock. In an era of ever more punishing professional sport, these twilight stars seem to challenge notions that youth trumps all else. Members include American football superstar Tom Brady (44), the tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams (41, 40), Roger Federer (40), and Oksana Chusovitina (46), the eight-time Olympic gymnast from Uzbekistan.
There have, of course, always been athletic outliers. But is something else happening? Is it improved nutrition, technology or psychology? Or are sports stars just better at looking after themselves? What are the secrets of prolonged high performance – and what can everyday fortysomethings do to stay healthy during what can be an exhausting yet pivotal decade?
I’m only six months younger than Ibrahimovic. I bounded through my 20s and early 30s without a care for much at all. I cycled, ran and swam. I now juggle work stress and two children under four. I ride when I can, a few times a week on a soulless indoor bike, but if I’m not at my desk, I’m picking up toys, food or wriggling humans off the floor. I have watched a slightly dodgy hip and back get worse. I can’t run, feel uncomfortable on the bike and take ibuprofen to help me sleep pain-free.
I’m also increasingly aware of my own mortality, and have told myself that 2022 – when I hit 40 – is the year I’ll sort myself out. I suspect my heart and lungs are OK, but I feel I have the physique and flexibility of a much older man. I can hear things creaking.
Let’s keep things depressing for a bit. Because 40 is not just a number. “People reach a peak in most sporting events in their mid-30s,” says Stephen Harridge, professor of human and applied physiology at King’s College London. Harridge, 56, a former 400-metre hurdles runner, specialises in ageing. You then enter a “progressive decline in performance” that remains steady until your 70s (don’t ask).
Measuring this decline can be tricky. Maximum heart rates are an indicator (they fall). So are 100-metre sprint times in masters and senior races. “During the 40s we see about a 0.6-second decline in men’s and women’s times,” Harridge says. A combination of small changes, including drops in muscle mass, aerobic capacity and neuromuscular control – the way the brain conducts our muscles – add up to a drop in what is possible. In people like me, abused knees, creaky backs, feeble cores and neglected niggles can further limit performance.
The elite twilight club has several advantages that make the difference. “The big one is what we call the physiological reserve,” says James Moore, a consultant physiotherapist and director of sport and exercise medicine at the CHHP sports clinic in central London. “They have built up a training history and an ability to listen to their bodies.” A wise head can also count. “We all love older players who can’t run as fast as they used to but have developed this incredible tactical sense, so they don’t have to run any more,” says Jeff Bercovici, author of Play On: How to Get Better With Age.
See also: money. We’d all be a bit more supple if we could surround ourselves with physios, trainers, cooks and nannies. Moore, 47, had a call last summer from Andy Murray, who was trying to return to winning form after two hip operations. The Scottish tennis star’s joint woes are unusual for his age (he’s 34), but less so in Moore’s other patients, who tend to be 40-plus high-achievers. Moore reviewed Murray’s rehab and training regime to help him cope better with the inconsistent demands of tennis, where matches can go on for hours, and there may be little time to recover between rounds in a tournament.
With older patients, says Moore, the challenge is getting a sense of their changing limits. Anyone, whether they’re heading to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup or KFC via a five-a-side pitch, must be smart enough to go easy – and do less – or risk an injury. Can’t match your 5km personal best from a decade ago, or lift the same in the gym? Don’t sweat it. “You have to park your ego at the door,” says Baz Moffat, former Team GB Olympic rower and co-founder of The Well, a women’s wellbeing advocacy group.
Finding enjoyment in an activity is more important than what you do, as then you’ll keep at it. “Let’s not forget that the majority of people hate physical exercise,” says Alexei Sharp, 49, a former decathlete, at the FitFor gym and physiotherapy clinic in south-east London. Moore, who was head of performance for Team GB in Rio, says he has seen so many battered bodies that he can determine a patient’s problem within the first 10 minutes of a consultation. “I spend the rest of the time trying to work out a solution that fits their lifestyle and will motivate them,” he says.
Enjoyment often comes from competitive sport that is fun and perhaps nostalgic – five-a-side or netball, perhaps. But if an hour of intense exercise falls between a day at a desk and a session in the pub, you’re asking for trouble. “Five-a-side is so jarring on joints and muscles,” Moore says. The key, he adds, is flushing the chemicals out of muscles that cause pain if left to linger. “Going for a five-minute jog after the match, then stretching, is way better than stretching or just going to the pub.”
Cold water also helps this flushing process by stimulating blood flow, whether it’s an ice bath, ice packs or a cold shower. Moore says elite athletes increasingly drink sour cherry juice. It contains natural anti-inflammatories that reduce muscle pain and strength loss after exertion.
When pain does stop play, switching to low-impact sports such as swimming and cycling can be good for the cardiovascular system. But the loss of impact can be detrimental. Studies have shown that cartilage, including in the knees, benefits from impact as repetitive squeezing and releasing draws in fluid rich in nutrients and oxygen. Bones need impact to stay strong; studies have shown that competitive cyclists have thinner and more fragile bones than comparable runners.
“It’s always a good idea not to just do one type of exercise,” Harridge says. Lifting weights and more resistance-based cycling, such as up a steep hill, can provide some impact, he adds, but regular jogs that are short enough not to trigger niggles will reduce the chances of developing brittle bones later on.
Variety also means working a bigger range of muscles. I have a cyclist’s legs but the core and upper body of a lame rabbit. It’s not just about being strong, but protecting joints and promoting balanced movement throughout the body; squats and lunges, for example, strengthen muscles around the knee.
It may be significant that Ibrahimovic is trained in taekwondo. His Milan teammate Paolo Maldini, who retired at 40, is also a big tennis player (he made his professional debut in 2017, aged 49, losing in the first round of a doubles tournament in Milan).
Sleep is often neglected as a factor in ageing. And in this demographic, stress that results from heightened work responsibility can collide with the demands of a young family. A vicious cycle can develop; discomfort further reduces the quantity and quality of sleep, sapping energy levels. Sleep loss also contributes to a weakened immune system, and an increased chance of developing depression, dementia, type 2 diabetes and heart problems.
We also produce vital hormones while sleeping, including testosterone, which has a broad range of effects in men and women, including burning fat, building muscle and strengthening bone. In short, by improving my physical state, I’ll get better sleep, which will further improve my physical state.
Beyond mixing a manageable level of impact with more cardiovascular workouts, and working on my sleep and warming-down habits, there is a growing array of devices, diets and obscure protocols that promise to mitigate the effects of age. “I call them the one-percenters that contribute around the margins,” Bercovici says. Yet some have been shown to be effective. Moore is keen on Kaatsu, a form of training in which bands that restrict blood flow to muscles stimulate their growth and function. Like cold water or ice, he says handheld massage guns can also help flush out muscles after exercise.
I have been advised to consult a physiotherapist for my own ailments, and be wary of following, say, a random stretching routine on YouTube that may make things worse. Targeted pilates moves, Sharp says, are what I need to rebalance my body and reduce lower-back strain. Then I can get back to running and should become stronger on the bike. And I’ll be able to lift my kids without thinking twice.
Because the good news is, while elite athletes have to eke out a few more years at the top after being used to supreme performance, it’s perfectly possible for amateurs to peak in their 40s. “You see a lot of people take up new sports then and find they’re on that rewarding part of the curve where they’re getting better and better,” says Bercovici.
Perhaps Ibrahimovic will pivot to completing an iron man in a couple of years. Meanwhile, he’ll play football for as long as he can. “I don’t want to stop until I’m kicked out, well and truly finished,” he said of his heroic comeback for Sweden. Two weeks later, he admitted to a certain frailty in an interview with the Guardian: “Every day I wake up, I have pain everywhere,” he said. There’s hope for us all.