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Beyond Serena Williams: Why Athletes—and the Rest of Us—Are Getting Better as We Get Older: Podcast

Play On author Jeff Bercovici explains how to get stronger, faster, smarter in middle age and beyond.

Did you ever notice that elite athletes seem to be getting...older? You're not imagining things. In 2016, Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts at the ripe old age of 39. A year later, Tom Brady did the same thing at the same age for the New England Patriots (boo). This year, tennis great Roger Federer became the oldest man to be ranked number one (he's 36). His female counterpart, Serena Williams, has won more Grand Slam tennis titles than anyone and was ranked number one in 2017 when she was 35. She also faced off against her 36-year-old sister Venus in that year's Australian Open final.

The new book Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age, explores and analyzes why today's professional athletes aren't just sticking around longer but are often getting better as they get older. And it's not simply pros, says Jeff Bercovici, the San Francisco bureau chief of Inc. and a former staffer at Forbes. The rest of us are upping our games as we move into middle age and beyond, he writes, increasing our "healthspan," or years at or near the top of our physical condition even as we live longer. Rich in detail and humor (Bercovici memorably documents his ordeals at some of the nation's top conditioning clinics), Play On is ultimately a book about self-improvement and taking control not just of your life but your body and mind, too.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Bercovici talks to me about everything from blood-doping, by which athletes seek to increase their endurance, to Silicon Valley's current penchant for "blood boys" (don't ask).

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Bercovici

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  • Eidde||

    Doe it involve improved diet and exercise?

    It's diet and exercise, isn't it?

    Darn.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    No, it's performance enhancing drugs. Most professional athletes are on some kind of PED.

  • Eidde||

    Oh, well, that's OK then, as long as it's not something too arduous.

  • Careless||

    Seriously, if you use serena in the title, you'd better be mentioning steroids

  • AlmightyJB||

    I was hoping it was a lifetime of masturbation.

  • SIV||

    More like the Elizabeth Bathory method.

  • damikesc||

    Its drugs, aint it?

  • CE||

    Yeah, steroids was my first thought.

  • Libertymike||

    Ah, Serena Williams, at last count, has won 23 Grand Slam titles, leaving her one behind Margaret Court's 24.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    In 2016, Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl for the Indianapolis Colts at the ripe old age of 39.

    So, in Nick's universe, does this mean that Andrew Luck went to the Broncos, or are they stuck with Tim Tebow at QB?

  • Libertymike||

    Good proofreading. I missed it.

    So, two big mistaken assertions of fact.

  • CE||

    And Manning wasn't exactly peaking at age 39. He was much better the year before, but was carried by a great defense to a title.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Nick must be getting old and senile or something.

    That is one of the best jobs of unintentionally disproving the thesis of your piece within the piece I've ever seen.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The rest of us are upping our games as we move into middle age and beyond, he writes, increasing our "healthspan," or years at or near the top of our physical condition even as we live longer.

    Don't I wish. I turned 40 this year, and the last year or two I've had a lot more pain in my lower back and knees than I ever used to have (I used to have none). I can also tell that I've lost a step in flexibility, and speed and quickness. For no apparent reason: my physical habits haven't changed, my diet hasn't changed. The only thing that's changed is me. I hate getting old.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    You gotta take care of yourself. Get MRIs of your back and knees so you know exactly what the problem is. For your knees, it is probably a meniscus issue. More often than not, those kinds of issues respond to regenerative therapy (PRP or stem cells). It is not cheap, but totally worth it. For your back, it could be a bulging disc or disc degeneration. Those are also treatable. Don't just tough it out and suffer. Go take care of your problems. You should not be in pain.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Yeah, I've seen an orthopedic doctor about my knees. He didn't do an MRI, but did do a CT scan. Couldn't see anything wrong with them structurally speaking. I basically have "runner's knee." Probably caused by a combination of overuse (I do Tae Kwon Do - lots of jumping and stress on the knees) and overly tight quad muscles that cause the patella to not track properly. Not much they can do about it really. I had a cortisone shot in each knee last November to relieve the inflammation I had and they felt completely normal for ~6 months, and still aren't as painful as they were.

    I've been seeing a chiropractor for my back for almost a year and it seems to help. The issue there is, the L5 vertebra is actually rotated a little bit. On the initial X-ray it almost looked like the L5 and S1 vertebrae were rubbing against each other, but they think that was an optical illusion because in the words of the doctor "If those were really interfering with each other like that you wouldn't be able to walk without severe, crippling pain." So they've been slowly straightening out my spine (it was also bent ~5 degrees to the left) as well as trying to get the L5 turned back into alignment. It's a lot better than it was. I didn't mean to imply that I was in any kind of severe, life altering crippling pain, it's more of a nuisance than anything.

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Not mentioned in the piece : be rich enough to have A+ medical care, daily massages, and a personal chef.

  • CE||

    I was in my best shape at age 30. At 40 I wasn't too bad. After 45 it's all downhill.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Just a thought. This expression would be better if reversed.

    When we are young, everything should be 'downhill', as in easy.

    Then we 'bottom out', and after that life is all uphill until we ascend to the death zone above 8000 meters.

  • JeremyR||

    Actually, in baseball, since they banned PEDs, careers have gotten much shorter. Players now age pretty badly after 32 or so.

  • lap83||

    "In a wide-ranging discussion, Bercovici talks to me about everything from blood-doping, by which athletes seek to increase their endurance, to Silicon Valley's current penchant for "blood boys" (don't ask)."

    ...don't tell? Prediction: in 20 years, the blood boy/creepy old vampire man relationship will be a celebrated lifestyle choice

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Did Reason merge with AARP? Soon Nick will bitching about Social Security because his check is late.

  • SIV||

    Fact Check: The Truthometer is pegged.

  • CE||

    Maybe the older stars are dominating because the younger players aren't as good, and there's more money to be made by hanging on than stepping into the broadcast booth or coach's chair....

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