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Jeff Bercovici on Fitness, Freshness, and Redefining “Peak Age”

by Brendan Dowling on May 16, 2018

Jeff Bercovici’s Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age is an in-depth exploration of how elite athletes have managed to prolong their careers in recent years, transforming how our culture views fitness in the process. Through interviews with numerous sports scientists and athletes, Bercovici guides the reader through the latest scientific breakthroughs and training strategies that enable older athletes to not only maintain their competitive edge, but in many instances tower over their competitors. Play On has been met with wide acclaim—Publisher’s Weekly hailed it as “an energetic romp through sports gerontology” and four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan singled it out as an “an utterly fascinating and entertaining blend of science and storytelling.” Brendan Dowling spoke with Bercovici via telephone on May 7th, 2018. Photo credit: Tony Conrad.

Can you talk about how your own personal experiences led you to studying elite athletes?

I got interested in this question because I’m an amateur athlete—a very average amateur athlete, but a very enthusiastic one. In my early thirties I started playing a lot of soccer with this adult league in Brooklyn. I was loving it.  It was the first time since I was a teenager that I was playing team sports in an organized way and pushing myself to get better. I was playing two or three times a week, practicing on my own, and it was really exciting. But it was also the first time that I discovered what it means to push yourself athletically when you’re in your thirties, when you’re a little older. My body was breaking down. I was just getting one injury after another. They kept getting worse and worse and finally I injured my back. I herniated two disks, and it resulted in this really rare nerve syndrome that required emergency surgery, otherwise I was going to start to have serious long-term consequences from it.

So I had a long time when I couldn’t play, and I was having to content myself with watching sports. Around this time, it seemed to me that all the biggest stories in the sports world had to do with athletes who were either my age or older. The talk was always about how amazing they were by continuing to dominate years and years past what had long been considered the peak age of their sport—Roger Federer and Serena Williams in tennis, Tom Brady in football, plus Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon around that time. There was just a long list. I was reading these articles about what these athletes were doing and catching these tantalizing glimpses of this new science, whether it was someone talking about their new training regimen or the experimental therapy they had gotten to rebuild cartilage.

I started clipping these articles out and doing some research on my own to ask what’s real here? What seems to be pseudoscience or hype? Of the stuff that’s real, what’s available to me now that I might be able to use in building myself back up from this big injury? What isn’t available to me right now, but might be in a few year’s time as the march of science and medicine continues?

In terms of your research, how were you received by these different trainers and scientists? Were they open with sharing their methods and research?

It was all over the place. It really depended on who I was talking to and how I got in touch with them. There were some sports scientists in particular who were really open. They had been working in this field for a long time and they loved to talk about their work. They love their work and feel that there are some misconceptions around this topic and would love to have what they think the real story is more widely known.

One of my favorite people to talk to is Trent Stellingwerff. He’s a sport scientist up in Canada who coaches and manages the performance programs of a number of their Olympic athletes, one of whom happens to be his wife, Hillary. She’s a middle distance runner in her thirties and just competed down in Rio a couple of years ago. Because he manages these people through their careers and into their thirties, it’s very important to him to have some myths dispelled around the inevitability of athletic decline and how fast it happens. He sees how the outdated notions around decline affect the livelihood of athletes who sometimes feel themselves being forced out of their sports years before they really need to be.

There were some teams who were secretive about what they’re doing because they feel like they’ve invested a lot of money in it and they want to maintain their competitive advantage. The truth is a lot of the most interesting science here isn’t necessarily the proprietary stuff anyway. If you’re coming at it from my angle, which is somebody who wanted to use stuff in my life, a lot of the most immediately useful stuff is totally public domain.

How has the thinking behind training elite athletes evolved over the last twenty years?

It’s useful to go back even farther than that. If you go back fifty years, the professionalization of sports hadn’t really happened yet in the way that it has today. Athletes in a lot of sports still had a job in the off season; they had the physiques of fit, regular people. As the money around sports got bigger, it became a full-time job for them, and then an incredibly lucrative full-time job for them. This mentality of bigger, faster, stronger evolved where training became a full-time job and athletes from every sport started becoming hyperfit and all bulked up. It became a competition to see who could be the fittest and the strongest. What happened was, for some reason, you were seeing injuries getting more and more common, but careers weren’t getting any longer even though these athletes were notionally getting stronger.

Some sport scientists had been sounding the alarm about athletes being overtrained and how they were building up fatigue in their bodies, which was causing them to perform worse and causing them to get injured worse. So in American sports, Greg Popovich, who coaches the San Antonio Spurs, was the first to test this notion by resting some of his healthy players during the season. He’d give players a night or two off and see what would happen. It was a lot more controversial than it sounds from this side of history. The fans hated it and complained about it. The league fined the Spurs because they thought it was illegal gamesmanship that was hurting the league. But Popovich had so much success with this—the Spurs for years and years had one of the lowest injury rates in the league, had the oldest roster in the league, and were one of the winningest teams in the league.

It almost overnight became apparent to all the other teams that this is the best way to manage your athletes. They obviously were over-fatigued. Instead of trying to maximize fitness, if you balance fitness with freshness—meaning the players have enough recovery time and enough rest—the results are so much better. So we’ve gone from that era in which that notion was new and controversial to now that’s almost become the new conventional wisdom at the highest level of sports. You’ll hear athletes like Roger Federer and Shalane Flanagan, instead of talking about how hard they work out in the gym, now they literally brag about how much sleep they get. We hear almost as much about athlete’s recovery regimens as we do about their workouts.

In addition to it helping them avoid injuries, it’s particularly beneficial for older players. Older athletes need more recovery time, and now that that’s built into the notion of what fitness means. It’s a much more favorable environment. So you see someone like Roger Federer, who takes the clay season off from tennis, and people don’t say, “Oh what’s the matter? Doesn’t he care about winning?” They say, “That’s obviously the smart way to do things now.”

Or Des Linden, who just won the Boston Marathon this year—she’s, I think, thirty-four. She took five months off training last year. I think it’s increasingly apparent to everybody that the fact that she took all that time off and rested her body and got fresh, she didn’t win despite that, she won because of that.

So there’s a been a change in our cultural perception of training and what it entails?

I think it’s a change in the notion of fitness. Literally fitness means you fit, your athletic needs fit your athletic training.  In the NBA there was a long period of time where everybody wanted to look like LeBron James does now. But there’s a reason power lifters don’t all play in the NBA. There’s a reason that Usain Bolt doesn’t dominate every soccer game. You need to actually be fit for your sport, and that doesn’t always mean faster, stronger, harder.

Out of all the different things you tried during your research, what was the one that was most intriguing to you?

I’m going to say two. There was one thing called Kaatsu, which is a device that uses blood flow restriction to amplify the effects of strength training. The idea of blood flow restriction has existed in the bodybuilding world for a long time. Basically you cut off the blood supply returning to your muscles by tying these bands around your arms and legs. For some reason,  the additional quantity of blood in the capillaries of your muscles while you’re doing the exercise causes this enhanced muscle building response afterwards.

So you do very small amounts of very easy exercise and your body responds as though you’ve lifted really strenuous heavy weight. That was intriguing to me because A, It’s just really weird to do. They had me doing bicep curls with a couple of water bottles and said, “Do a set of twenty bicep curls, but you won’t be able to finish, so don’t feel bad.” Obviously I can curl two tiny water bottles twenty times. And I did eight of them and I was like, “I can’t do this.” (laughs) So that was pretty cool.

It’s also really intriguing technology because you can immediately see the implications for rehabbing injury. An athlete being able to maintain their muscle mass while they’re rehabbing a serious skeletal muscular injury is huge. And that’s exactly what’s happening in a lot of sports with Kaatsu.

The other thing I found so intriguing, especially because of my injury history coming into this, is there are all these tech companies that are saying that they can use different systems for measuring the way athletes move, whether that’s motion capture or force plates that measure the force athletes put into the ground when they jump. The companies capture the athletes’ motion and data, and then they analyze that data to find patterns that they say helps uncover how these athletes are going to injure themselves in the future. They then change your training program so, in theory, you don’t develop these injuries. It’s early enough in this science that I think there’s a certain amount of skepticism—these companies are challenging each other’s claims at their predictive power. But its super interesting stuff and it’s compelling enough that you see sports teams paying millions of dollars because if they can avoid even a few injuries to some superstar players, it completely changes the economics of the sports, not to mention the athletes’ lives.

A lot of the book deals with the physical attributes that lead athletes to sustaining long careers, but you also talk about the psychological ones too. What’s the difference between how successful and non-successful elite athletes mentally approach their sport?

There are a few differences. One of the biggest ones, and it sounds almost like a cliché to talk about, is that the athletes who succeed and remain at the top of their sport for fifteen and twenty years after turning pro, one of the things they tend to share is the ability to sustain a sense of joy and fun around what they do. It’s harder than it sounds, because when you consider who becomes an elite athlete in the first place, a lot of it has to do with this ability to take the game and treat it like a job. They have to treat every part of their lives like it’s their job and adhere to a routine with a sense of discipline that doesn’t come easily for people who are seventeen and eighteen years-old, the age you are when you would first get a college scholarship or turn pro.

It’s the ability to be able to have that grim sense of discipline and determination around your sport, while also simultaneously maintaining the joy in it, plus the idea that you don’t just love playing your sport, you love every part of your job. It’s really rare, but you see it in people like Roger Federer and Tom Brady. John McEnroe said about Roger Federer, “He loves tennis more than anyone I’ve ever met,” and John McEnroe has literally met every great tennis player in the last forty years. That’s not a meaningless statement.

Tom Brady, after his last Super Bowl, said, “There’s two things I love to do, play football and prepare to play football.” That’s not a normal way to be. For somebody who’s been playing football for twenty years to say, “Yeah, I love memorizing playbooks,” that’s a very different type of psyche. Yet that is actually what you see in players who remain the best for long  periods of time.

What can the lay person take away from the book?

So much. Just in the sense of what we were just talking about—there’s some really interesting mental strategies and habits that allow older athletes to maximize their performance and even give them some advantages over younger athlete. Older competitors tend to be much better at things like regulation of unwanted emotions. Often in talented younger athletes, you’ll see things like they melt down in high stress situations, or they have a problem with choking that they need to overcome. That’s something that athletes get naturally better at over time, but they also learn certain techniques, whether it’s meditating, positive self-talk, or the ability to set goals so that when the competition takes an unexpected turn, you still have tools to motivate yourself with. Those are all things athletes can learn.

I also think there are some really specific training strategies that allow athletes to do the most important thing, which is to meet your fitness goals while also maintaining freshness. That would be things like polarizing your training, which is this way of organizing your training where you’re separating intense training from high volume training. So on your easy training days—your recovery days—you’re not generating fatigue in your body that limits your ability to go hard later. That’s a concept I’ve brought into my own fitness program that seems very helpful.

Even though the book is about elite athletes, so much of the book is about the science behind how you can effectively use your body as long as possible.

And I don’t think it’s even limited to the physical. I think a lot of the concepts in here translate into any field you want to perform in. As I was doing this book, which was the biggest undertaking I’ve ever done, I was using a lot of these concepts having to do with sprint and recover, ways to structure your training, so that you periodize your performance and achieve your peaks at the times you need to achieve them rather than peaking too early. I was using these things to help myself have the energy and focus and drive to finish the book. When I was talking to some of the sports psychologists, I would actually say, “What should I be doing now?” I’m on book week and I really need to finish it. (laughs)