Six years ago, it appeared that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s football career was coming to an end. The striker declared his retirement from international participation after Sweden’s early departure from Euro 2016. He was 34 years old and looking a little worn out for an excellent athlete as reported by The Guardian
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.
“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.
Technology or psychology?
There have, of course, always been athletic outliers.
Is it improved nutrition, technology or psychology?
Or are sports stars just better at looking after themselves?
I’m only six months younger than Ibrahimovic.
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.
Reaching a peak
“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.
“If an hour of intense exercise falls between a day at a desk and a session in the pub, you’re asking for trouble” 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.
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 anymore,” says Jeff Bercovici, author of Play On: How to Get Better With Age.
We’d all be a bit more supple if we could surround ourselves with physios, trainers, cooks and nannies.
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.
Can’t match your 5km personal best from a decade ago, or lift the same in the gym?
“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.
Working out solutions
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 southeast London.
“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 the 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.
“The key, he adds, is flushing the chemicals out of muscles that cause pain if left to linger.”
Coldwater 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.
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.
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.
Factor in ageing
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.
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.
Diets and protocols
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.
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.
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 certain frailty in an interview with the Guardian: “Every day I wake up, I have pain everywhere,” he said.
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Source: The Guardian
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