Sporting immortality is more than just climbing Everest – it is the length of time one is able to sustain their position at the summit. Many one-season wonders and overnight sensations have had their moment in the limelight, but it takes more than a flash of inspiration to be whispered in the same breath as those inducted in the pantheon of all-time greats.
Adaptability, dedication and a willingness to change has enabled the cream of the crop to extend their stay at the pinnacle of their discipline. They continually turn up on the biggest stages time and time again and have proved that age is just a number. They have thrived at a time when nature suggests their physical proficiency should be fading and discovered ways to stay strong, maintain fitness and avoid injury.
The likes of Portuguese goal-machine Cristiano Ronaldo at 32 years of age has surpassed the irrepressible Lionel Messi as the world’s greatest player with his unparallel lethal instincts firing Real Madrid to a third Champions League trophy in the past four years, alongside leading his country to a first-ever triumph in a major tournament at Euro 2016.
The former Manchester United marvel is not the wing wizard and dribbling magician he once was, but he has become a deluxe poacher, ending each of the last five Champions League campaigns with the most goals to his name.
Up until his career-threatening injury in April, fellow football icon Zlatan Ibrahimovic was defying logic by spearheading Manchester United’s season single-handedly.
The charismatic Swede became the oldest player to manage at least 15 goals in a single Premier League season at the age of 35 years and 125 days, as well as netting twice in their League Cup final win. Even in his Paris St-Germain swansong (aged 34), Ibrahimovic break the record for the number of goals scored by a PSG player in a single season.
Away from football, the renaissance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the tennis-sphere has been nothing short of miraculous. The pair have shared the four Grand Slams and picked up 13 titles between them in a spectacular season. Unfortunately it appears the battle for the year-end world No.1 will come to a premature end with the Swiss star pulling out of next week’s Paris Masters, virtually ensuring that his old rival will end 2017 at the top of the tennis world.
Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt dominated his competition for almost a decade, setting world records in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay, whilst undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather at 35 still remained as sharp as ever, taking his unblemished record from 42-0 to 50-0 over a five year span.
We have analysed these athletic freaks and delved into the secrets that have facilitated their longevity and enabled them to extend their careers beyond the norm.
To avoid burnout, those that have been on their respective circuit for a lengthy period of time will change their schedule to afford their body ample time to recover and consequently peak for the big events. Despite a six month absence from the tour in 2016, Federer still decided to skip this season’s entire clay court swing, in order to focus on his goal of winning a record breaking eighth crown at Wimbledon. The 19-time Grand Slam champion achieved this feat without dropping a set and clearly benefited from avoiding the red dirt – notable for its slow conditions and long drawn-out rallies.
Likewise, Ronaldo’s minutes on the pitch have dwindled since the appointment of Zinedine Zidane, but this strategy has seen ‘CR9’ avoid the injuries and fatigue which had begun to plague him at the latter stages in recent campaigns. To understand the science behind the madness, Zidane spoke of Ronaldo’s desire to manage his ageing body. “It’s not because he’s not physically fit, but because he wants to reach the final phase of the season, when everything is at stake, in his best form,” asserted the Frenchman.
Diet & Fitness Regime Modifications
Changes to diets, workouts and physical regimes will help extend the careers of top-level athletes. Ronaldo called time on carrying out muscle building in his upper body and instead worked on his fast-twitch fibres and muscles that would enable him to keep the electric pace that has defined large parts of his career. By becoming leaner and adapting his body to the limitations that age inevitably brings, Ronaldo has been able to keep producing a consistent level of performance.
State Of Mind
While the body can depreciate, athletes actually get better mentally with age because they’re always learning from experience. Just a glimpse of Usain Bolt showcasing his mastery of being his usual relaxed self before a big race is evidence that he thrives on the big occasion and simply loves the pressures that come with the overwhelming expectation.
Most professional athletes enjoy the sport they play, but to become untouchable, you have to train, practice and eat well daily and then some – it is a relentless cycle of devotion. Such perseverance can result in burnout from a young age – Bjorn Borg stopped playing professional tennis at age 26, for example.
Adapt Or Die
Sports are continually evolving – think scientific methods or technology breakthroughs. The very best always have a willingness to adapt and learn, no matter what has gone before them. If an elite athlete fear they’re becoming obsolete, they will make the necessary changes in order to oust the rest of the pack.
A 35-year-old Federer had to switch to a more modern tennis racket than the ones he used for much of his career. The larger head size has noticeably given him greater power and improved his backhand tremendously.
Overtime, an athlete will also change their career goals too. They ask themselves what is important to them and prioritise accordingly.
Remember, if you love what you do and don’t want to let age prevent you from continuing to do it, you can take actions to prolong your career. As perfectly put by the professor of former Pakistan number one women’s tennis player, Saba Aziz: “It’s the hardware that breaks down, not the software. So, if you’re taking care of your body, there’s no doubt you’ll be better at an older age.”