How Pro Athletes Like LeBron James and Tom Brady Are Playing Longer (and Better) Than Ever

athletic recovery
 Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe

The fitness world has come a long way since the late 1980s, when Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons dominated the popular home-video market and StairMasters and Nautilus machines were newfangled attractions in burgeoning gym chains. Fat was irredeemably evil, the surgeon general had only recently issued a report on the dangers of secondhand smoke, and a certain guy named Tabata was still a decade away from inventing HIIT. In 1988, personal training was such a wildly new concept that the The New York Times actually launched an investigation into the curious rise of “highly disciplined, one-on-one workouts, not just for professional athletes and celebrities but for ordinary people who can afford them.”

Meanwhile, the undisputed king of professional sports was Larry Bird, a pasty basketball player from Indiana who had a blond mullet, chewed tobacco, crushed cans of Bud—and, by 1986, had never seriously lifted a free weight in his life. At the time it didn’t matter. He not only guided his Boston Celtics to the NBA championship that June but also capped the season by winning his third consecutive MVP award. Then, the last month of ’86, something ominous occurred that affected his life and career:

He turned 30.

It’s an age that feels so inconsequential today. LeBron James is over 30. So are soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Remember when the New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady turned 30 (or, heck, 40)? Neither does he. Since then, he’s racked up league MVP awards, showed up at the Super Bowl more times than any fan can readily count, and thrown more touchdowns than Hall of Famer Joe Montana threw in his entire career.

San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan turned 30, and then appeared in seven All-Star Games and two NBA championships. Jaromir Jagr played in the NHL until he was 45, capping a nine-team NHL career in which he scored the second-most goals in league history (behind only Wayne Gretzky). (And that doesn’t even include the four and a half seasons he spent playing in Russia and the Czech Republic.)

But not long after Bird turned 30, he started missing games. His Achilles tendons became painfully tender. His back acted up. His body began to fall apart in front of sports fans’ eyes. On the court he grimaced with every twist and twinge; on the sideline he lay on his stomach to relieve the pain. In the locker room, he crammed his torso into a quarter-inch-thick fiberglass body brace. He tried to fight back from his injuries with immobilization and bed rest. (Both bad ideas, as we now know.) Before Bird’s final season, surgeons extracted a disk from his spinal column to relieve the pain but the operation didn’t help much. In 1992, at the age of 35, he announced his retirement at the Boston Garden.

“My back problems cost me at least three or four years [of my career],” Bird told reporters in 2012. “After I hurt it, I always played with spasms. I kept playing because I always wanted to play for one more championship. That was just me.”

To be sure, Bird wasn’t an outlier in his era. Michael Jordan retired—for the second (though not final) time—at age 35. Troy Aikman left the NFL at 34. Baseball star Don Mattingly bowed out at that age, too. The reality is that their retirements didn’t seem unusual—they were “old.” Yet if those guys were playing today, the timing of their exits would no doubt feel premature.

So what, specifically, has changed?

Any casual sports fan can give at least a partial answer: Today’s athletes are eating better, resting better, and training smarter than ever before. But that hardly explains why 41-year-old Vince Carter, the NBA’s oldest player in the 2017-2018 season, can dunk over guys 20 years younger than he is, or how Jagr keeps the team’s strength and conditioning coach at the gym past midnight.

So what are the specific training techniques that athletes have adopted that have prolonged so many careers?
 With that question and more in mind, we launched a formal investigation into longevity training, reaching out to team doctors and sports scientists, academic physiologists and elite strength coaches—and, of course, the age-defying athletes themselves. Some of theses experts, like Marcus Elliott, M.D., director of the “applied sports science” firm Peak Performance Project, are at the bleeding-edge of forward-looking fitness technology. Others, like legendary NFL strength coach Johnny Parker—who, in the ’80s, tracked down Soviet coaches so he could pick their brains about plyometrics and periodization—are decidedly more old-school, but no less inquisitive.

New-school, old-school—they still agreed on the fundamentals. So we compiled their wisdom into six lessons, crucial techniques, and habits that have helped prolong the careers of aging stars.

Best of all, the lessons apply to you, too. Whether you’re a lifter, a runner, or an all-around sports nut, you’ll find something here to keep you performing at the very highest level. Because age, science and real-world results are now telling us, is just another number.

1. In the Weight Room, Focus on Bar Speed—Not Weight

The sobering truth of aging: No matter who you are, it slows you down. (Even Usain Bolt’s fastest times are all from his early and mid- 20s). And if you play a sport that demands speed and explosiveness, you’re not going to have a job for very long if you’re slow. That’s why, as athletes get older, strength coaches have the same mantra: Forget maxing out in the weight room and focus on “the rate of force development.”
In other words: bar speed.

“When I’d see a guy squatting incredible weight, I’d tell him, ‘Lighten up and move the bar faster,’ ” says Johnny Parker, a courtly Mississippian who was an NFL strength and conditioning coach from 1984 to 2007 and won Super Bowls with both Bill Parcells’ New York Giants and Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I’d stop a player at or before he was squatting double body weight. You don’t need to squat any more. And if you train ballistically—which is going down under control and then up as quickly as possible, really rattling the plates—you’ll maximize the rate of force produced. That’s the best way to preserve your speed.”

The problem with explosive movements— whether it’s ballistic lifting or, especially, plyometric exercises—is that they can strain your joints, particularly if you’re an older athlete with mobility issues. As Jeremy Holsopple, athletic performance director for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says, “It’s hard to do explosive things on an ankle that has zero degrees of dorsal flexion…or a knee or hip that has some arthritic changes.”

Holsopple was hired by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban specifically for his sports-science expertise, and when he works with his team’s aging star, 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, he puts his knowledge into practice. “We do high-force outputs with Dirk, but we keep fast-twitch muscles firing in a way that’s not breaking down the joints,” he tells me.

Nowitzki and Holsopple still do plyometric drills, but they lessen the load with a new high-speed isokinetic squat machine, a specialized piece of equipment that maintains a consistent resistance throughout the concentric (raising) phase of the lift and applies virtually no resistance during the eccentric (lowering) phase. This means that on an isokinetic machine, Nowitzki has to push just as hard at the top of his lift as he does at the bottom (a normal squat gets easier as you get more leverage on the bar), and once he starts moving downward he has to deal with only his own body weight.

“The whole movement’s very aggressive, but it doesn’t feel that way on his ankles, knees, or lower back,” Holsopple says. “It lets us do something that’s high force without the wear and tear.”

2. Maximize Your Use of Free Weights

Isokinetic squat machines can be great for targeted explosive exercises, but when it comes to building up the entire body, exercise science still has no replacement for traditional free weights.

“I’ll tell you one thing that’s definitely helped players,” Parker tells me. “The age of the fitness machine is fading into history.”

That’s because machines target only limited groups of large muscles, whereas Olympic-style lifts train the body’s kinetic chains, which include the easily ignored but crucial muscles that stabilize and assist.

“The reason traditional methods like free weights are tried and true is they prepare those support structures,” says L.A. Lakers strength coach Tim DiFrancesco. “There’s nothing you can substitute for that.”

A lot of athletes have been told incorrectly to avoid beneficial exercises like the deadlift, and there’s a reason for that: Deadlifting with bad form is a tried-and-true way to eviscerate your lower back. (There are different types of deadlifts. If you’re struggling with the classic deadlift, try an option like the hex-bar deadlift, which one NFL trainer discovered was the most important exercise for determining overall strength.)

But lifting weights with good form incorporates critical support muscles like the erector spine, rotator cuff, and smaller hip muscles, which sitting isolating on a machine won’t always do as effectively. Strengthening these muscles can mean fewer lower-back, shoulder, and knee injuries, and a career with fewer of those injuries almost always means a longer career.

To ensure you’re giving your body a solidly built base, DiFrancesco recommends sticking to the basics: squat, deadlift; lunges for the lower body; and bench presses, pushups, rows, and pullup variations for the upper body.

3. Hit Your Hips Horizontally

Of course, when it comes to bulletproofing the body’s support structures over time, power and Olympic lifts aren’t the whole story. Bill Foran, the Miami Heat’s strength coach since 1988—the franchise’s debut season— has seen a major evolution in approaches to training the core and hips in the decades since he came on board.

“Back in the day, if you squatted deep and you did lunges deep, you were doing enough hip work,” Foran remembers. “But that’s vertical hip work. We’re finding athletes need to do horizontal hip work as well.” Foran has his Heat players perform bridges, lateral shuffles with resistance bands, and hip raises with a sandbag or a barbell placed across the waist for resistance. “When you develop the hips, they correct above and below,” he explains. “When you have strong, mobile hips, you have stable knees and a stable back. When your hips are weak and stiff, your back and knees become mobile, and that’s when injuries happen.”

4. Train Your Tendon Fibers as Hard as Possible

Not too long ago, the conventional wisdom was that tendons couldn’t be trained. They were considered “hypovascular,” meaning they didn’t have sufficient blood flow to recover from microtears like muscles.

Now we know better. Recent studies have consistently found that tendons can, in fact, be trained, and that—with the right training interventions—they can increase in rigidity and explosive potential.

“It’s been a big paradigm shift,” says the Mavericks’ Holsopple. Holsopple has his players train their tendons with high-load isometrics, holding positions while supporting 1.5 to 2 times their body weight. This approach not only strengthens the tendon, researchers believe, but also actually reconstitutes the material of the tendon. Holsopple’s ultrasound scans of his players’ tendons have revealed the same thing.

“It will actually change the fiber combination we see,” he says. “It’s been tremendously helpful. It helps us with both strength and durability.”

For the oft-injured Achilles tendon, Holsopple puts his players on a leg-press machine and has them hold a single-leg calf extension at the midway point (neither flat-footed nor fully contracted) for five seconds. It’s a simple high-load isometric exercise that when repeated pays real dividends.

“Everyone should do it,” he says. “When it’s possible to load the tendon structures three times a week, that’s an ideal scenario.”

5. Consider Your Legs Way More Important Than Your Arms

Here’s what happens when you age: Your tendons and ligaments get creakier. Your muscles become less supple. Your testosterone levels drop. Your maximum heart rate and oxygen consumption drop. You become slower, less explosive, and have less endurance.

And while you can’t change these biological facts, you can delay and soften their harmful effects by not easing up on your training.

For years, aging athletes did less work—particularly less power work—than their younger counterparts. Instead of explosive movements, they focused on static stretching. After all, why would older athletes risk injuries by going all out? Wouldn’t it make sense to slowly drift from the squat rack to the elliptical machine?

Short answer: Hell no.

Talk to age-defying pro athletes today, and they all praise high-intensity workouts, putting a massive emphasis on maintaining the power in their legs. Hockey legend Jaromir Jagr is famous for his lung- and leg-busting fitness routine. He sprint-skates wearing a 45-pound weight vest, with light weights taped to his ankles. On the road, he runs resistance sprints in hotel hallways, dragging the team’s strength coach, Tommy Powers, behind him for short, 10- to 20-meter bursts. He also utilizes a medicine ball to work on his core and resistance cables to build and maintain upper-body strength.

And if he stopped the rigorous training? He’d pay the consequences, he says.

“It’s like a truck, a heavy truck,” Jagr told The Wall Street Journal. “When you’re going, you kind of go—and fast. But once you stop, it’s tough to start again.”

And take 39-year-old Memphis Grizzlies forward Vince Carter. He’s not the kind of athlete you’d predict would have an extra- long career. When he first entered the league in 1998, he was more show pony than workhorse, becoming known more for his above- the-rim, acrobatic exploits than his hustle or determination. He was “Vinsanity”! Slam-dunk champ! A pure athletic talent!

But as he’s gotten older, he tells me, he’s increased his output in the weight room, particularly with his lower-body routine.

“I’m not as fast today, I don’t jump as high, but I just do more work now,” he says. “I lift more, I lift heavier. I was never a big squatter, but now I’m doing box squats, lunges, leg presses. You’re going to lose your lower body first. Everything I do is to make sure my lower body can sustain the season. I didn’t have to do that before.”

Bottom line: If you’re not 22 years old anymore, get used to squats, lunges, thrusters, and sprints.

6. Don’t Believe the Naysayers: Get a Fitness Tracker

Now for the tricky part.

To stay at the top of their games, aging athletes need to “train hard and train often,” as Hirofumi Tanaka, associate professor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas, says. But they also need to be very careful about overtraining. For every player who lazed his way out of pro sports by taking it too easy as an older athlete, there’s another who was such a beast in training that one day his aging body yelled, “Basta!” Ever wonder what caused Tiger Woods’ catastrophic downfall? His former swing coach has speculated that it was the golfer’s love of powerlifting and urban warfare–inspired training methods that led to his cascading series of injuries.

As longtime Denver Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess puts it: “It’s a lot harder to come back from over-training than it is to get back into shape from undertraining.”

But how can you tell what’s training hard and what’s training too hard?

Increasingly, data-tracking wearables are coming to the rescue. NBA, NHL, and pro soccer teams, in particular, have a fetish for them, hooking players up to GPS trackers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes, many from the Australian company Catapult Sports.

“You get to see metabolic output, exertion, oxygen consumption, miles run, peak heart rate,” says Riley Williams, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery and the medical director and head time physician for the Brooklyn Nets and New York Red Bulls. “It helps you assess their real exertion. Instead of just the old ‘No pain, no gain,’ we have normative data that tells us, say, when a 30-year-old midfielder might get a hamstring strain, or a [35-year-old] player will reach his fatigue limit, so we know we have to rest him.”

However, if you’re an amateur athlete with no medical or training staff at your beck and call to interpret the reams of complicated data a tracker collects, you may decide not to use one at all, but that would be a mistake. Sure, counting how many steps you take in a day isn’t an extremely useful athletic-performance booster, but staying at your maximum aerobic capacity is—and that’s something pro teams use heart-rate trackers to measure.

Just remember: The rule of thumb is that your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age, and your maximum aerobic threshold is that number multiplied by .85, or 85% of your max heart rate. In other words, if you’re an average 35-year-old with a max heart rate of 185 (220 – 35 = 185) beats per minute, and you want to bust your ass to improve while staying healthy and safe, make sure you don’t get too far above your max aerobic threshold of 157 (185 x .85 = 157) bpm for very long. “In general,” says renowned pro cycling instructor Neal Henderson, “80% of your training should be relatively easy to moderate, and only 20% should be intense.”

Mavericks strength and conditioning coach Holsopple conditions his athletes with long-striding, court-length runs that emphasize explosiveness but never push beyond the aerobic threshold. That’s a low-impact, cardio-building approach you can mimic with just a little data input.

Once you know your limits—and you’ve got strong hips, tendons, and legs—it’s finally time to actually have some fun.

“Some guys stop because they don’t want to play any more,” says Carter. “When I first started we didn’t have all the things you do now, but we did have cold tubs and weights and a lot of the same preparation, and some guys chose not to put in the work, and others were willing to do it because they enjoyed it.

“You know, every year I think, I could sit back and rest and enjoy the summer. But I know that if I did, I probably wouldn’t have a job when I came back.”