Health and Medicine Science and Technology

How age-defying professional athletes are beating father time

Advancements in nutrition, training, and sports medicine have helped athletes like Tom Brady, Phil Mickelson, and Serena Williams extend their careers and excel in their sport.
Pro athletes Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Phil Mickelson. Photos: The Associated Press
Professional athletes Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Phil Mickelson. Photos: The Associated Press

He held just a one stroke lead going into the last 18 holes.

In golf—where treacherous bunkers and ankle-high rough and slick greens always come into play—such a margin can disappear in a heartbeat.

But it was a series of different numbers that had many golf pundits counting Phil Mickelson out, as he went into the final round of last month’s PGA Championship clinging to the narrowest of leads. At 50, he was nearly 19 years older than the man chasing him, Bruce Koepka, a 31-year-old with a halfback physique known for his monstrous drives. 

Lefty, as Mickelson is sometimes called, didn’t fold, overcoming his nerves—and father time—to become the oldest golfer to win a major. 

Chalk one up for the older generation. 

While his victory was indeed historic, it is just the latest example of present-day age-defying athletes who are performing at the top of their sport, not only competing against 20-somethings but also winning championships. 

The professional sports leagues are rife with examples of athletes who are bending the aging curve.

They include Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Tom Brady, who at 43 won his seventh Super Bowl title last February; 39-year-old Serena Williams, who earlier this year at the Australian Open became the oldest active tennis player to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal; and Albert Pujols, the 41-year-old Los Angeles Dodger who has 10 home runs so far this season. 

Are they anomalies, or is it advancements in training, nutrition, and sports medicine that are helping them to compete longer? 

“It’s a combination of both,” said Arlette Perry, professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. 

“These are some of the best athletes of all time, and they are absolutely top-notch in terms of their physical skills and how strong they are in their particular sport,” Perry explained. “But it’s also the upgraded and updated training they are integrating into their sports that’s also helping them. And that is particularly true for Brady. For the past few years, he’s dedicated himself to wholesome nutrition, eating better foods, and training the mind and body holistically. And that, combined with his skills, which we know are stellar, has enabled him to continue that much longer in his sport.” 

Playing a team sport and being a pocket passer have also enabled him to play longer in a league where the average career is only a handful of years. 

“With age, we lose speed and quickness,” said Joseph Signorile, a professor of kinesiology and sport sciences, whose research concentrates on targeting exercise to the diagnosed needs of older people. “If a quarterback’s bread and butter is leaving the pocket and running the option, he’s likely not going to last as long as a Brady, who sits in the pocket and depends on protection from his offensive linemen to use the skills he’s developed over the years,” Signorile added. 

And that makes Serena Williams’ and 39-year-old Roger Federer’s accomplishments that much more impressive, according to Perry. Playing multiple sets in a match and with only a day off between matches can be grueling. “What they do on the tennis court is like a physical chess match—the agility and the movements,” Perry explained. 

Perry has tested several top professional tennis players as well as Miami Heat basketball players in her Laboratory of Clinical and Applied Physiology at the School of Education, measuring their metabolism, body composition, and other physiological attributes. 

“Serena and Roger are playing opponents in their 20’s, and they’re completely on their own. So, the demands upon them physically are incredible. For them to go far in an individual sport, their bodies must be highly trained, or else they would not be able to compete at that level.” 

Training, then, becomes paramount in an older professional athlete’s regimen. But as they age, the way athletes train evolves. “Brady’s not going to be putting a bar on his back and squatting 500 pounds,” said J. Bryan Mann, an assistant professor of practice in kinesiology and sport sciences and a former competitive powerlifter. “He might do activities like single leg squats that won’t stress the spine.” 

Load management—in which athletes, in an effort to recover and perform better, reduce the amount they train and compete—has become a buzzword in sports, said Thomas Best, a family medicine physician at the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, a professor of orthopaedics at the Miller School of Medicine, and a team physician in the Department of Athletics. 

“We’ve known for decades that if you train too hard, the body breaks down,” Best said. “Now, we’re much more specific in terms of load managements,” he said, noting that all sorts of apps now exist to help athletes monitor the intensity of their workouts. 

“We see it a lot in professional basketball,” noted Best, who is also research director of the UHealth Sports Performance and Wellness Institute. “We’re always hearing about how LeBron James needs days off. And now, we’ve got all these technologies to monitor how much you exercise and lift each day.” 

Being an older pro athlete in some sports could actually be an advantage. The tremendous experience Mickelson has amassed from winning 45 tournaments on the PGA Tour, including six major championships, has undoubtedly given him an edge over younger, inexperienced players, said Patti Rizzo, head coach of the University of Miami women’s golf team. 

“Phil has probably played in a thousand or more golf tournaments in his life. So, he knows how to play under pressure and handle that pressure,” said Rizzo, who was a collegiate All-American at the University of Miami and played 20 years on the LPGA Tour. “The more experienced golfers like Phil realize that they don’t need the perfect swing. They need the perfect emotional and mental control.” 

For experienced golfers, playing the sport is like riding a bike. “I’ve done it for so long, it’s natural,” Rizzo said. “I don’t have to think how I want to swing, what position I want to be in at the top of my swing, or where I want to be at impact. I just know how to get the ball from point A to point B. And those will always be your better players.” 

But as golfers age, they do lose distance on their drives, Rizzo pointed out. 

“And that’s the hardest thing to cope with,” she said. “When I was coaching 10 years ago, I was pretty much keeping up with my girls off the tee. But now, they are literally 30 and 40 yards ahead of me. But golf is such a mind game that you can still get it around without having to hit it far. We get better and smarter with our short game. My short game is better than it’s ever been because I’m forced to use it a lot more and to be creative.” 

On June 8, Brady stepped onto the practice field with his fellow Buccaneer teammates for the first mandatory minicamp of the 2021 off-season. The QB was firing on all cylinders, dropping back to pass, and throwing perfect spirals to his wide receivers. 

It was a practice that wouldn’t have garnered headlines had it not been for the fact that Brady was recently recovered from off-season knee surgery. Which reveals another aspect of why athletes are competing longer: advancements achieved in sports medicine. 

“Surgical procedures and rehabilitations have just improved drastically,” said Best, a former collegiate hockey player, who, as a youngster growing up in Canada, once competed against someone named Wayne Gretzky. “A great example is a total knee or hip replacement. When I trained 35 years ago, it was almost the kiss of death if you were 60 years old and needed such a procedure. Because those replacements weren’t lasting very long. 

“Now, we’re seeing 15- to 20-year life spans,” Best continued. “Patients are out of the hospital the same day in some instances. So, our surgeries have become less invasive, the rehabs have improved, and the recovery is more optimized.” 

The Bradys, Mickelsons, and Williamses of the professional sports world don’t have the market cornered on longevity.  “We can learn from them,” Perry said. “They set an excellent example as role models for everyone, not just kids. It’s a good take-home message for everybody. We can use technology to our advantage as well to live longer, quality lifestyles.”