|Raising the bar at 40; More athletes are staying in the game longer, leading the way for middle-aged Americans.:|
|Martin Miller. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: September 29, 2003. pg. F.1|
|Full Text (2449 words)|
Copyright (c) 2003 Los Angeles Times)
We watch them in awe, amazed by their athletic prowess. They aren't supposed to be this fast, this strong, this dominant as their hair goes gray, as they advance deeper into middle age.
They are an elite class of older athletes -- including baseball's Barry Bonds (age 39), basketball's Karl Malone (40) and track-and- field star Regina Jacobs (40) -- whose competitive excellence sends a message to fans and casual observers alike: You too can stay in the game.
There are more professional athletes in their late 30s and 40s in major sports today than at any other time. Major league baseball, for example, has 11 players over age 40, including such stars as New York Yankee Roger Clemens and Arizona Diamondback Randy Johnson. In tennis, Martina Navratilova, at age 46, became the oldest player in Wimbledon history to claim a title when she won a mixed doubles crown last summer. Although not all are record-setters, together they serve as role models for millions of middle-aged and older Americans trying to stay in shape.
"I think when some athletes get older they decide to stop working hard," says Malone, a Laker and the NBA's second all-time leading scorer, whose off-season workouts are legendary around the league. "It's not that their bodies stop, it's just that they've decided to stop pushing it."
Older athletes aren't the only ones who stop pushing it. So do many other Americans, who slip into patterns of overeating, inactivity and fatalistic attitudes about the physical decline that often accompanies middle age. Although even the most ambitious workout and dietary program won't propel your average 40-year-old into the big leagues, it can provide a hardy defense against physical decline, according to exercise physiologists.
"Through science we've learned how to train people and keep them stronger and fitter over a longer period of time," says Dr. Richard Kreider, head of the Center for Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health Research at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "There's no reason to slow down, whether you're a professional athlete or the average person."
Not only have some aging professional athletes not slowed down, a handful have taken the performance to new heights toward the end of their careers. Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, is one such athlete. His ability to hit a baseball -- a skill widely regarded as among the most difficult in sports -- is virtually unparalleled. Last year, he set a single-season home run record with 73; this year, with more than 40 homers already, he was poised to overtake Willie Mays for third place on the all-time career home run list.
Two decades of evidence
For decades, the average age of athletes in such North American sports as basketball, baseball, football and hockey has crept higher. Two decades ago, the average age of players in the National Hockey League was 25; today, it's 28. In major league baseball, the average is 29.
Some experts believe that the number of older athletes will continue to rise. "There's definitely going to be more 40-year-old pro athletes," says Kreider. "I wouldn't be surprised if some day we see a 45-year-old running back in the NFL."
For the millions of fans sitting on the sidelines, the growing success of older athletes may be fueling the motivation to remain fit. "It's enormously inspiring for ordinary people over 40," says Dr. Jerry May, a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada Medical School in Reno who worked with the U.S. Alpine Ski Team from 1980 to 1992.
Exercise physiologists point to the rise of strength and conditioning programs as the engine driving the new athletic durability and longevity.
Many of today's older athletes were entering college and professional sports at the time that strength and conditioning programs were becoming more commonplace. The programs, which stressed cardiovascular fitness and weightlifting, were designed to give athletes an extra competitive edge -- and they did.
Their success spawned a culture of physical fitness among professional athletes that was absent just 20 years ago. Back then, when even star athletes were known to drink beer and smoke during training and the regular season, few pro teams employed strength and conditioning coaches.
Now, they all do, even in such sports as baseball and basketball, in which the conventional wisdom used to be that lifting weights would ruin the ability to hit a fast ball or shoot a free throw. The new training philosophy forever changed the purpose of training camps as well. Once it was a place to get in shape; now it's a place to get in even better shape.
Lifting data 'astonishing'
"Guys would show up fat," says William J. Evans, a physiologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who has worked with professional sports teams. "That almost never happens today where players can be denied pay [bonuses] for being out of shape."
Coaches and trainers then were just beginning to understand what exercise physiologists now know: You can stall the deterioration of the body with proper training. Each decade after the age of 25, a person loses about 4% of his or her muscle mass. In addition, the average person can expect to lose endurance, flexibility and the ability to process oxygen at roughly the same rate.
Studies have consistently shown that these natural declines can be slowed in people in their late 40s and early 50s with a vigorous and faithful workout routine, say exercise physiologists. Indeed, Evans showed in one study that even 100-year-olds could increase their strength fourfold within months through light weightlifting. "It was really quite astonishing," says Evans, coauthor of "Biomarkers: The Ten Determinants of Aging You Can Control." Although they are not panaceas, weight training and physical conditioning help combat the other physical deterioration of age. Metabolism, which begins to slow by the late 20s, can be maintained by vigorous exercise. And recovery times from activity and injury greatly improve over what they would have been otherwise, say exercise physiologists.
If any athlete embodies the value of strength and conditioning, it's Malone, who concedes that his highly disciplined fitness regimen could be viewed as obsessive.
During the off-season, he works out from 7 a.m. to noon each day, stretching, lifting weights and mixing in some cardio work.
His well-honed physique is built upon rotating heavy and light weights and concentrating on just two or three major muscle groups per day. For example, chest, shoulder and back one day; calves, thighs and stomach the next.
He typically wraps up a workout with 40 minutes on a treadmill, another 40 minutes on an elliptical trainer and 30 minutes on a stationary bike. Sometimes, he'll follow this program for three weeks without taking a single day of rest. (Of course, no personal trainer would recommend working out every day for three weeks without breaks.) And by the way, he never even picks up a basketball during the off season.
"I'd be finished today if it weren't for my training," says Malone, who developed his training program with the help of the strength and conditioning coach at his former team, the Utah Jazz. "But when I line up against an opponent in the fourth quarter, I ask myself if this guy has paid the price I did. And I always come back and say, you know what, I could be wrong, but I don't think so."
Experience really counts
It's not only the body but also the mind that keeps older athletes in the game. Experience and wisdom can trump youth and energy. Veterans learn when to regulate their energies, saving themselves for the big play. They also develop a sense of the game that often allows them to anticipate events.
"If you understand athletic ability and you see all these rookies, you know they're all better than the veterans," says Jerry Attaway, physical development coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. "Why aren't they playing instead of the veterans? Well, once you've played for a while you know what's coming. It takes years to learn to play the [pro] game."
A healthy attitude can help extend a player's career, say sports psychologists. A good example is Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice, 40. During his 19 years in the league, a common sight was Rice catching a short pass in the middle of the field, then outracing defenders to the end zone.
That rarely happens anymore. But Rice, like so many older athletes, has adapted his game.
No longer considered a "burner," he's become what's known as a possession receiver -- a player who runs smart, crisp routes and who has a reliable pair of hands.
"The older athlete tends to put less energy into things out of their control," says Jonathan Katz, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who has consulted with the Chicago White Sox and the New Jersey Nets. "If they're slower, they put more energy in their moves. It's an acceptance of where they are. They've learned to avoid the macho chest-bumping of the younger athletes."
Focus on nutrition
Nutrition may be the next frontier in helping tomorrow's older athletes remain in the game even longer. Within the last decade, almost all of the major professional teams have either hired a consultant or created a permanent staff position to supervise diet and nutrition for pro athletes.
Players are usually given advice about what to eat and when to eat it. Much, however, depends on their individual metabolism, the sport and what position they play. Though there is mounting evidence about the critical role nutrition plays in performance, some of today's athletes, particularly older ones, don't put much stock in it.
"A lot of players look at seeing me as a trip to the principal's office," says Julie Burns, owner of Sports Fuel Inc., who is the team nutritionist for the Chicago Bears and Chicago Black Hawks. "They're so ritualistic. Some of these guys are still eating the same meal they'd eat before a high school football game."
Today's younger athletes are usually more open to heeding the pitch for proper nutrition and its long-term rewards, Burns says.
"Premature aging occurs without good nutrition," says Burns, who has accompanied young athletes to grocery stores with wives, girlfriends or even personal chefs in tow to buy the proper kinds of food. "They have to have good daily lifestyle habits."
A little bit of luck
For athletes to continue to thrive in their 40s, they also need to be lucky. To be sure, sports medicine has made extraordinary advancements compared with only a couple of decades ago. It enabled Rice to overcome a serious knee injury in 1997 and return to the game. Still, players must be able to avoid serious injury.
"Look at players like Mark McGwire and Cal Ripken. They didn't stop playing because they lost their skills," Rickey Henderson, 44, remarks before a recent game. "They had to stop because of injury. As far as that goes, I've been blessed."
But in the end, it's not just a case of fans being inspired by the achievement of the older athletes. It works the other way, too. When Malone pivots and hits his trademark jump shot, he realizes now it won't just be for the hometown fans. "I've also said I play for everybody, but especially the 35 and older club. But now that I've turned 40, it's all the 40-year-olds out there."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
On top of the hill
A list of professional athletes 40 and older in the major American sports leagues:
Major league baseball
Jesse Orosco; Minnesota Twins; 46
Julio Franco; Atlanta Braves; 45
Rickey Henderson; Los Angeles Dodgers; 44
Roger Clemens; New York Yankees; 41
Dan Plesac; Philadelphia Phillies; 41
Edgar Martinez; Seattle Mariners; 40
Jeff Fassero; St. Louis Cardinals; 40
Randy Johnson; Arizona Diamondbacks; 40
Jamie Moyer; Seattle Mariners; 40
Terry Mulholland; Cleveland Indians; 40
David Wells; New York Yankees; 40
National Football League
Gary Anderson; Tennessee Titans; 44
Morten Andersen; Kansas City Chiefs; 43
Sean Landeta; St. Louis Rams; 41
Doug Flutie; San Diego Chargers; 40
Jerry Rice; Oakland Raiders; 40
Bruce Smith; Washington Redskins; 40
National Hockey League
Igor Larionov; Detroit Red Wings; 42
Mark Messier; New York Rangers; 42
Chris Chelios.. .Detroit Red Wings; 41
Adam Oates; Anaheim Mighty Ducks; 41
Dave Andreychuk; Tampa Bay Lightning; 40
Ron Francis; Carolina Hurricanes; 40
Al MacInnis; St. Louis Blues; 40
James Patrick; Buffalo Sabres; 40
Steve Thomas; Free Agent; 40
National Basketball Assn.
Kevin Willis; San Antonio Spurs; 41
Karl Malone; Los Angeles Lakers; 40
Sources: Major league baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Assn.
They're still going strong
Three athletes from different sports -- Karl Malone, Jerry Rice and Barry Bonds -- exemplify the increasing number of older athletes who have continued to compete at an extraordinary level at an age when most other competitors have retired. They credit their longevity to training programs, experience and determination.
40, Los Angeles Laker forward
40, Oakland Raider wide receiver
39, San Francisco Giant outfielder
Sources: USA Track and Field; National Football League; National Basketball Assn.; major league baseball
Credit: Times Staff Writer
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further
reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
|Section:||Health; Part F; Features Desk|
|Text Word Count||2449|