You can’t watch ESPN for 10 minutes these days without seeing middle-aged pro athletes performing in ways no one thought possible a decade ago. Thirty-nine-year-old Peyton Manning had the second-best season of his legendary career in 2014, throwing for more than 4,700 yards. Pro surfer Kelly Slater, 43, dominates rivals young enough to be his children. The New York Mets’ Bartolo Colon, 42, is the league’s winningest active pitcher despite being 100 pounds heavier and 22 years older than he was on his draft day.
These are not anomalies. In almost all sports, older athletes are maintaining their intensity for longer than ever before. In professional sports, says Dr. Michael Joyner, a specialist in healthy aging at the Mayo Clinic, “40 is the new 35.”
In part, they have science to thank: Injuries that once benched athletes for entire seasons, like torn ACLs or rotator cuffs, can now be treated in a matter of months. And new experimental treatments, some of them available only overseas and costing tens of thousands of dollars, speed the healing process even more. They’re also more disciplined, vigilant, and intense. After all, the economic incentives could not be stronger. At 39, for example, power forward Tim Duncan just signed a nearly $11 million contract for two more years with the San Antonio Spurs. With cash like that on the table, it’s no wonder that more pros are going to greater lengths to eke out another season or two.
While sci-fi procedures and custom nutrition plans help keep the body young, the 40-plus set thrives not in spite of, but in large part because of, their advanced age. All those years in the game may take a toll on the body, but they also mean finely tuned instincts and hard-earned wisdom. A young (or youngish) body and seasoned mind may be the most winning combination there is.
So how do these pros stay competitive so far past their sell-by dates? Here’s what we learned.