Life Begins at 40: How High-Tech Therapies Are Extending Sporting Careers
November 15, 2021
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40-year-old tennis players Roger Federer and Serena Williams, 44-year-old American footballer Tom Brady, 49-year-old surfer Kelly Slater, 51-year-old golfer Phil Mickelson… some of the world’s most successful athletes are still winning well into their middle age. German sports scientist Andreas Breitfeld explains how high-tech therapies (known as biohacking) are extending sporting careers. By Ryan Herman.
Widely considered the greatest quarterback of all time, at 44 years old, Tom Brady is also one of the oldest. He has successfully prolonged his career during a period in which fitness, diet and sports science have helped sports stars stave off retirement. Brady was also one of the first athletes to bring a sports training concept known as biohacking to the wider public.
What exactly is biohacking? Andreas Breitfeld runs Breitfeld Biohacking in the German city of Munich. He explains how athletes are able to enhance their performance by using methods such as cold therapy, infrared light, sleep therapy, strict diets and supplements. “We use the word ‘hacking’ because it involves trying to understand the system, which, in this case, is the body,” Breitfeld says in reference to computer hacking. “Then we try to find interventions to make that system run better.”
Although American sports scientists first started experimenting with biohacking a decade or so ago, Breitfeld says it wasn’t until five years ago that the concept went mainstream. “That’s when Brady and [sports clothing brand] Under Armour were talking about recovery using infrared rays, and subsequently launched a range of infrared sleepwear. It is built around the idea of giving back energy to the body during sleep.”
Breitfeld admits that biohacking has now become something of a catch-all expression to cover a range of treatments and fitness programmes. “Most of the ideas have been around for years, except now we have the science to support it,” he adds.
“For example, one of the keys pillars of biohacking is taking an ice bath. In track and field they started jumping into ice-cold baths straight after races around ten years ago. Nobody was sure if it worked, but the trainers recommended, so they did it.”
Nowadays, myriad athletes from all sports see the positive impact of exposure to cold on different areas of the body. Breitfeld uses the example of professional soccer. “When players have more than one big soccer match in a short space of time, they will do everything possible to shut down the inflammatory processes that are an automatic response to any kind of serious workout. This is to ensure they can get back to their best as quickly as possible.”
He points out how Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, uses a cryo-therapy chamber – a cold-temperature chamber that he sits in after competition to increase physical recovery and maintain his immune system. Ronaldo is 36 years old and has no plans to retire any time soon. Another player who swears by cryo-therapy is Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who recently signed a new contract with AC Milan, aged 41.
Nutrition is another key area of biohacking. “We have realised there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to diet,” Breitfeld says. “However, a lot of sports teams use a ketogenic diet – high fat, low carbohydrate – which was originally designed for kids who suffer from epilepsy. For endurance athletes, like Tour de France cyclists, training the body to use fat as a prime energy source is a no-brainer. We see ketogenic as the way to improve metabolic flexibility and to maintain a high level of performance for hours on end.” One of the most high-profile advocates of ketogenics is 36-year-old NBA player LeBron James.
Athletes are able to enhance their performance by using methods such as cold therapy, infrared light, sleep therapy, strict diets and supplements.
There are other biohacks that may raise eyebrows as well as sporting performances. Take FC Bayern Munich’s 32-year-old striker Robert Lewandowski, for example. He broke a Bundesliga record last season by scoring 41 goals but has a diet biohack that would have top chefs incandescent with rage. His wife, a fitness trainer, created a back-to-front menu of dessert first, then starter, then main course. The basic logic is that humans digest carbohydrates quicker than protein.
Teammate Serge Gnabry plays the piano. His neuro-trainer says it improves his sense of rhythm and re-energises the synapses.
Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland is one of the best young soccer players in the world right now. His biohack involves wearing glasses that shut out the blue light from mobile phones and TVs, thereby increasing his levels of the natural hormone melatonin, and ensuring a good night’s sleep.
And when players from NBA franchise Golden State Warriors started spending hours floating in a soundproof tank, containing huge amounts of Epsom salts, it coincided with winning three NBA Championships. The salts do wonders for muscle relaxation and recovery.
Breitfeld says another emerging idea is the use of legal peptide hormones. He cites the example of a substance called BPC-157 which is legal under World Anti-Doping Agency rules and has incredible capabilities for speeding up healing.
But even as revolutionary diet, fitness and recovery all help athletes push the boundaries of what their bodies can achieve, some of the old, tried and tested remedies are still the best. “If you took a survey of sports stars and asked what’s the best thing for them after training or after a match, they will still tell you the same thing,” Breitfeld says. “You can’t beat a good physiotherapist.”
They may be middle-aged but they’re still winning.
Roger Federer (40)
Swiss tennis player
20 Grand Slam titles, and still gunning for more. This incredible champion may have passed the 40-year mark but he’s still capable of reaching the business end of major tournaments. He attributes his longevity to getting between 11 and 12 hours of sleep every night.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (41)
Swedish soccer player
This striker’s career is all the more remarkable, given he suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury at 35. Along with hours in the gym with his taekwondo coach, Ibrahimovic uses a cryo-therapy chamber to improve recovery and has a personal dietician who weighs everything he eats down to the last gramme.
Oksana Chusovitina (46)
Almost 30 years after making her Olympic debut, and having competed against rivals younger than her own son, this gymnast finally announced her retirement during the Tokyo Olympics this year. “I’m alive. I’m happy. I’m here without any injuries, and I can stand on my own,” she said.
Phil Mickelson (51)
Thanks to his win at the 2021 PGA Championship, just shy of his 51st birthday, this Californian became the oldest golfer in history to win a major. His secret to longevity? He goes without food for 36 hours at a time. “I don’t have inflammation and I wake up feeling good,” he says. “It’s been a sacrifice worth making.”
Tom Brady (44)
A strict diet of all-natural and whole foods, bed by 9pm, no alcohol, no weight lifting, and lots of flexibility exercises. These, say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, are the reasons why he can still compete with players much younger.
Serena Williams (40)
US tennis player
40 years old in September 2021, the younger Williams sister is surely the greatest female athlete of all time. Many believe her persistence is down to a desire to increase her Grand Slam singles tally (currently 23) in order to eclipse Margaret Court’s record of 24.
Kelly Slater (49)
He may be on the cusp of his half century, but this ever-young athlete has been ranked top of the World Surf League 11 times, most recently in 2011. He still competes regularly.
Kazuyoshi Miura (54)
Japanese soccer player
The oldest player in any professional league, this Yokohama FC forward served 89 times for the Japanese national team. His fitness regime is legendary, and he rarely gets injured. Adoration from fans and his senior position at the club means he is consistently offered a new club contract at the start of every season.
Valentino Rossi (42)
Italian motorcycle racer
Winner of seven MotoGP world championships, The Doctor, as he is known, plans to retire at the end of the 2021 season. Many attribute his lengthy career to his consistent ability to change riding styles and adapt to new technologies.