Sport360's Stuart Appleby looks at the impact sports science has had on elite sports people sustaining excellence well into their 30s
“Usually players of my age go to Qatar or China, with all due respect”. Those were the words of a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo following his €100 million switch from Real Madrid to Juventus last month, more than hinting his refusal to accept physical decline and dedication to continue at the highest level made him stand alone among other notable names who had chosen a comfortable, relatively care-free and lucrative path towards retirement playing at a lesser standard of competition.
During his medical testing in Turin ahead of his official unveiling, the Serie A side’s doctors revealed the Portuguese icon had the physical capacity of a 20-year-old. It has to be said that Ronaldo, a joint-record five-time Ballon d’Or winner, is a freak of nature and a one-off, but that statistic – derived from the results of muscle mass, body fat testing and overall top speed along with various other degrees of attribution – came as no real surprise.
Ronaldo’s pursuit of relentless perfection over a 15-year period has been underpinned by stringent physical work, yoga and stretching techniques, a superb diet and first-class rest and recovery. However, aside from an occasional social media post, we rarely see behind the curtain and how he prepares but his end-product on the pitch, is evidence no stone is unturned.
The benefit of having a close-knit team working with him, day in, day out, has been crucial to his overall longevity. It wouldn’t have been possible without his drive and desire, though. Ronaldo, who is arguably the world’s most recognisable sportsman, continues to be a pioneer for his generation and the next.
Putting talent aside, he has given professionals not just in football but across all sports the belief there should be no such career shelf life anymore, particularly for those post-30, and it is more than possible to extend the so-called end game. Time ultimately catches up with everybody, but there are more ways now to slow the clock than ever before.
In Ronaldo’s case, 33 is the new 23. He has reaped the benefits of knowing his body better now than he ever did and this is an important characteristic which is often synonymous with staying power at an elite level. Indeed, this actually moves things on to a wider point that sports people now, through the advancements in sports science methods and frequent time spent with physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches, performance management and sports psychologists, are in complete control of their own destiny and can design their brand accordingly.
Injury prevention and recovery techniques, such as cool downs, massage and ice baths have also significantly minimised the risk of time out of action, however, some competitors will always be more susceptible to pulling up with a problem than others – sparking a great deal of frustration.
“It’s about empowering the players to make decisions for themselves rather than ruling over them,” Matt Reeves, who is Leicester’s Head of Fitness and Conditioning, told BBC Sport after their famous Premier League title triumph in 2015/16. Reeves rightly sums up as experts, they are there to offer a guiding hand, but it largely boils down to the talent.
Greater levels of sporting professionalism have stretched to all corners of the globe, particularly in the Middle East and more specifically the UAE over the past decade.
The influx of foreign coaches and players, facility upgrades and an improved understanding of the role of support staff have had a big impact on raising the bar.
Hamish Munro, who is a sport scientist and strength and conditioning coach for Shabab Al Ahli Dubai’s under-21 side, has been working with the squad in the build-up to the new season, in the stifling UAE heat.
Having previously coached high-level footballers in China and in England’s professional leagues, Munro has seen first hand the development in sports science areas and how the stars of the future are already adopting the best habits possible to stay ahead.
“The modern-day footballer is a very well prepared athlete and a lot of that comes down to their strength and conditioning preparation,” Munro told Sport360.
“Guys are looking to maximise their physical output in order to compete at the highest level for as long as they can and prolong their careers. Every player now has individual programmes and they have to buy into it because that’s what football in 2018 demands.
“This hasn’t happened overnight and is the result of many years of practitioners and scientists giving players the same messages.”
He added: “We now have high level applied research and vast amounts of knowledge about the physical variables of football and it’s something the players can’t avoid and have to take onboard. They have to work harder than ever.”
These types of processes apply to other sports, particularly tennis.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – individual winners of the three men’s Grand Slam titles this year – are all in their 30s (an age bracket traditionally considered over the hill). Federer, especially, who turns 37 on August 8, has defied logic at times with the way he has managed his workload and produced arguably his best tennis so late on in his storied career.
Having ended his 2016 season prematurely in July after a crushing semi-final defeat at Wimbledon, the 20-time Grand Slam champion took the rest of the year off to fully recover from the knee injury in which he underwent surgery on a few months prior.
In the intervening period, Federer let his body recover over a sustained period for the first time in his career since turning professional in 1998, and then stepped up his rehabilitation and fitness at his second home in Dubai. Up until November 2016, he had barely picked up a racquet.
Top athletes, rightly so, tend to be a bit mysterious about the work they do behind-the-scenes, for fear of opponents getting a glimpse into their trades secrets. Federer is no different.
But, what we do know is that he completes intensive fitness sessions with veteran trainer Pierre Paganini, a man he trusts and has worked with for over two decades, focusing on balance, co-ordination, agility and core strength.
There is no doubt he takes a lot of credit for Federer’s return to World No1 this year and revival which will likely see him play on until at least the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, while his personal physio, Daniel Troxler, a man little known, has worked wonders on his overall conditioning and flexibility.
Troxler is a skilled operator and had previously helped Viktor Rothlin become Switzerland’s fastest marathon runner of all time.
Conversely, Matt Little, Andy Murray’s personal fitness guru, has had to go through a difficult period recently with his employer, helping the two-time Wimbledon champion back to action following hip surgery and a lengthy lay-off.
In a recent interview with journalist Helen Gilbert, from Relax Ya Self to Health, Little said his favourite saying and mantra is “slow down to get ahead”, referencing that there are no shortcuts in getting to the top and staying there, particularly apt given Murray’s long journey back to the court.
Like with the vast recovery options open to athletes nowadays, coaches also have far greater tools at their disposal to work with.
“The majority of coaches out there will tell you that athletes are getting bigger, stronger and faster because of the ever-increasing exposure to performance enhancing research, data and the facilities available,” Munro added.
“This has helped to develop coaches’ experience and make athletes completely ready to play or bounce back quickly.”
Serena Williams‘ return to a final at Wimbledon, just a handful of months after making her tour comeback following the birth of her first child, proved the incredible levels of fitness in women’s sport.
Like Serena, Shalane Flanagan also showed there are no such obstacles and won the New York City marathon last year, at the age of 36 and against a much younger field, for the first major victory of her career. Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, at 33, is another case in point of an athlete who seems to be always finding ways to elevate her level.
For contact sports, it can be a different story. The recent retirement of Wales legend Sam Warburton at 29, who after various surgeries and long lay-offs, decided to call it a day for his overall well being moving forward, went to show how sometimes athletes have to look beyond their playing career.
Comparatively, NFL quarterback icon Tom Brady, aged 41, has rewritten the rulebook by barely picking up a scratch in a sport where serious injury can occur.
This week, ahead of the first Test match between England and India, Alastair Cook outlasted James Anderson to win the team’s Bleep Test. Ten years ago, an intense assessment of that ilk would have been unheard of in cricket – a game which has been slow to uptake and embrace the fitness side – but there they were, two 30 somethings looking as fit as ever and the last men standing.
The stumps have shifted with sports such as cycling setting the benchmark. True enough, the recent edition of the Tour de France again demonstrated the valuable role support teams play for riders out on the roads.
Ultimately, sports performance is changing by the day and that is incredibly exciting for modern-day athletes. They have the chance to scale heights those born in bygone eras couldn’t have dreamed of.
Why wouldn’t you want to play the sport you love for as long as possible, providing the results are going in your favour? After all, you’re a long time retired, as the saying goes.