40 is the new 30 at least on the playing field One evening last June, in a more publicized but less fraught equivalent of Hamilton’s ordeal, seven pitchers age 40 or older took the mound in major-league baseball games. In fact, 40-year-olds are playing a more prominent role in almost every professional sport, from ice hockey to ultimate fighting, not to mention the swollen ranks of masters athletes competing in all kinds of races and activities. It’s as though 21st-century professional athletes and weekend warriors are living out the Dorian Gray fantasy: Through a combination of scientific training, disciplined diet, and advanced sports medicine, they are overturning immutable laws of biology, and they are reversing, or at least fighting to a draw, the aging process. The new old pros are busy making 40 the new 30. The truth behind the headlines, while encouraging, is complicated. Overall, athletic performance clearly declines with age. At the same time, late-career athletic productivity is showing an unprecedented rise. To explain the apparent contradiction, let’s start with the bad news.

In 2005, Ray C. Fair, a Yale University economist, published a statistical analysis examining the age of peak performance among major-league baseball players. Fair determined that the age of peak production for hitters was 28, and that pitchers achieved optimal production at 27. Data from the National Football League and National Basketball Association tells a similar story. The Fair study further determined that, at age 40, a ballplayer’s average decline from peak performance stood at 9.8 percent when measured by on-base -percentage plus slugging percentage (or OPS), and 14.9 percent when measured by earned run average. In other sports, the decline is less dramatic: At 40, the average decline from peak for sprinters is 3 percent; distance runners, 4.1 percent; and swimmers, 2 percent.

While these numbers seem modest–if not actually encouraging–from a citizen athlete’s perspective, they are huge for elite performers. The average middle-distance runner who notched a 4:00 mile at his peak, for instance, slows to 4:12 at age 40. On the track, that translates to a gap of about 100 meters. “It’s irrefutable: Certain physical changes accompany advancing age,” says orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes (PRIMA) program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Power, flexibility, balance, and VO2 max all either level off or decline from peak levels.”

Various studies in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Sports MedicineJournal of Physiology. The researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado at Boulder determined that athletes could still maintain peak endurance performance until age 35. This was followed by modest decreases until age 50, with more dramatic declines thereafter. Three factors contribute to this decline: lower lactate threshold, lower exercise economy, and lower VO2 max. Of these factors, VO2 max proved the most important.
have detailed the different aspects of this decline: Starting around age 30, maximum heart rate decreases six to 10 beats per minute per decade, thigh muscles start to lose density, intramuscular fat increases, and the number of type-2 fast-twitch muscle fibers decreases. Lung function and capacity, anabolic hormone levels, and the number and quality of neural pathways also show inexorable drops with advancing years. Among all the physiological changes connected with aging, none correlates more closely with athletic performance than the decline in VO2 max, which measures the body’s maximum cardiovascular performance. The latest data suggests that VO2 max decreases by approximately 10 percent per decade, starting at around 30, according to a groundbreaking study published this year in the
When the researchers tried to determine the precise physiological mechanisms by which VO2 max declined over the years, however, they came up with a surprising discovery: There didn’t seem to be any. “The decreases in performance and VO2 max in aging athletes are associated most closely with reductions in exercise training intensity,” the study concluded, “i.e., … reductions in energy, time, and motivation to train.” In other words, older athletes don’t perform as well as they used to partly because they don’t train as hard as they used to. They work out less, in turn, not because of bodily limitations, but because of psychological and societal factors. At this point, the contradictory knot starts to unravel: While age-related physical decline from peak performance stands as scientific fact, athletic extinction proves to be a layered story open to a host of culturally influenced interpretations and different endings. The good news begins.

“Of all the variables limiting performance in the older athlete, physiological changes aren’t enough by themselves to prevent him from staying near the top of his game,” says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois. “It’s not as if some light goes out in the body at 43, or at any other age. Athletes who remain competitive past the age of 40 do so because of a complex set of reasons, not because of the number of fast-twitch fibers.”

Dr. Wright, the PRIMA director, puts the matter plainly. “Whoever said performance depends on a predetermined chronological age?” If an athlete maintains consistent high-level training and avails himself to advances in nutrition and injury prevention, he can remain productive at the highest level. “In fact,” she says, “he might outperform younger players who lack his experience, savvy, and feel for the game.”

Indeed, factoring in intangibles such as wisdom, judgment, tactical acumen, and refined technique turns the argument around, especially for sports such as baseball, cycling, golf, running, swimming, and big-wave surfing, which rely so heavily on those qualities. If you make productivity–i.e., consistent high-quality performance–rather than peak performance the standard, the evidence weighs even more heavily in favor of the more mature athlete.

Consider major-league baseball. There were only six players age 40 or older on major-league rosters during the 1997 season. In 2007, there were 21 players who were 40 or older, according to Bill Carle, of the Society for American Baseball Research. While these older ballplayers aren’t putting up the same numbers as they did in their prime, they’re performing dramatically better than older players of the past. Prior to 1982, for example, batters 35 or older never hit more than a combined total of 232 home runs in a season. In the 2000s, –admittedly the steroid era–batters 35 or older have hit at least a combined 565 homers each season, with a high of 756 in 2004.

Finally, while the scientific studies attempt to calibrate rates of age-related physiological decline, they often fail to measure factors mitigating those declines among elite athletes: scientific training and nutrition; improved equipment and advances in injury prevention; vastly improved rehabilitation from injuries; the fact that, in contrast to athletes of earlier generations, contemporary jocks have been privy to the laws of optimal health for their entire careers; and, most important, the psychological sea change that athletes no longer buy into the myth of a certain arbitrary age signaling decline. Older athletes are no longer slowing down.

“The male athlete in his forties potentially occupies that beautiful place,” says Paul Chek, training advisor to Hamilton. “There’s a sweet spot for men between the ages of 40 and 45. If they’ve been smart and careful, their bodies are only just starting to decline. At the same time, they have finally gained some wisdom. If you can keep him healthy and motivated, then the 40-year-old is the most dangerous athlete you’ll come across.”

“I look at my career as following two lines on a graph,” says Hamilton. “One line shows my physical systems, stuff like VO2 max and fast-twitch muscle fibers, either flattening or very gradually declining. The other line shows the intangibles–maturity, experience, judgment, passion, perspective–steadily rising. The two lines cross at an interesting place, and I regard that place as my peak. It’s not a point, but a plateau. Your peak isn’t really a product of your body, but of your enthusiasm. I intend to live on that plateau for a long, long time.”

Extending your performance plateau On the morning after our interview at the cafe in Paia, Hamilton stands on a corner of Baldwin Beach Park, preparing to give me a lesson in stand-up board paddling. “It’s the best core workout,” he says. “It’s also good for balance and flexibility.”

About a decade ago, Hamilton had been fooling around with stand-up paddling, which is the traditional, native-Hawaiian style of surfing: Paddle out, flip around, catch a wave, and ride it in using the paddle for balance and steering. Hamilton added his own wrinkle: Paddle on flat water for a workout. A non-weight-bearing exercise, paddling sharpens the sense of balance, which erodes with age. It also simulates the motions of big-wave surfing and takes Hamilton out on the ocean. “I’m learning every moment that I spend on the water,” he says. “The tides, the winds, the slant of sunlight. Every detail works to my advantage on the next big wave.”

Hamilton lifts the 12-foot-long board out of the bed of his pickup. He has chosen an especially wide board for me, but I’m still nervous.

“Don’t worry,” says Hamilton. “If you can stand, you can do this.”

Of course it isn’t that simple, and I’m anxious. By Hamilton’s lights, that’s a good thing. Fear is a healthy, constructive emotion, he maintains. In fact, as part of a training regimen that’s Herculean in its intensity and encyclopedic in its breadth, Hamilton sets a goal of being frightened once a day.

“Even if Laird didn’t ride big waves, he’d be a legend because of his fitness,” says Chek. “I’ve been working out with some of the best athletes in the world for 20 years. No false modesty–Laird is the only guy I regard as an equal.” Chek has created fitness programs for a diverse clientele ranging from snowboarder Shaun White to the Chicago Bulls to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

A typical week during the summer–when the big waves subside and Hamilton and his family move to their second home in Malibu, California–is based around his workout staples: two hours of nonstop circuit training, with an emphasis on lunges, presses, squats, and powerlifts; three to 10 miles of stand-up paddling, usually performed with partners such as Chris Chelios, the 46-year-old NHL star, or Don Wildman, the 73-year-old founder of Bally Total Fitness, both passionate converts to paddling; hill climbing with 50 pounds strapped to a mountain bike; and running on the beach while harnessed to a 100-pound log. During the winter, which is big-wave season on Maui, Hamilton spends less time in the gym and more time on the water or on his bike.

Each exercise, including the exotic ones, is specifically tailored to the demands of big-wave surfing. Log pulling, for example, builds the explosive power that Hamilton relies on at the start of a big-wave ride. Stand-up paddling enhances his balance, and long bike climbs build endurance: important on days when 80-foot waves imprison you underwater. In between workouts, he remains in perpetual motion, working around the house, chopping wood, hauling, and cleaning.

“When you’re training, you eat better, sleep better, think better, and have better sex,” he says. “The challenge for me is not to overdo it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more systematic. I pay attention to cycles and seasons. You can’t play the Super Bowl every day.”

Now, at Baldwin Beach Park, Hamilton leads me to the water. “Basically, you just want to plant your feet wide on the middle of the board,” he says. “Remember to breathe and don’t be afraid to dig in with the paddle. The board is like a bicycle: It’s easier to keep your balance when you’re moving.”

Clutching the paddle, I crawl up on the board, stand, wobble, and fall off. I try again and again. Seldom-used muscles throughout my body fire as I struggle to maintain my balance. After a few minutes, Brett Lickle joins Hamilton on the beach. Finally, on perhaps attempt number 12, I’m able to stand on the board for 10 to 15 seconds. I even take a few shallow strokes with the paddle. Hamilton beams.

“Terrific!” he says. “You got the idea. Next time you try it, you’ll be good to go.” I wade into shore, pushing the board in front of me. Hamilton hops on it and with a few smooth strokes cuts over two five-foot swells, heading out to where the larger waves roam.

On the beach, Lickle reassures me. “You did fine,” he says. He falls silent for a moment, watching Hamilton paddle. The wound on Lickle’s left leg is on the mend but still shows as a jagged, livid scar. “I think I’ve finished my business with the big waves,” he says. “I’ll surf for the rest of my life, but I’m done with the 80-footers.”

Out on the water, Hamilton catches a 10-foot breaker, gliding into shore with slow, graceful loops, his body at one with the board and the wave, moving the paddle as if it were an extension of his hands.

“With Laird, of course, it’s different,” says Lickle. “He still hasn’t taken his best ride.”

40 is the new 30 at least on the playing field One evening last June, in a more publicized but less fraught equivalent of Hamilton’s ordeal, seven pitchers age 40 or older took the mound in major-league baseball games. In fact, 40-year-olds are playing a more prominent role in almost every professional sport, from ice hockey to ultimate fighting, not to mention the swollen ranks of masters athletes competing in all kinds of races and activities. It’s as though 21st-century professional athletes and weekend warriors are living out the Dorian Gray fantasy: Through a combination of scientific training, disciplined diet, and advanced sports medicine, they are overturning immutable laws of biology, and they are reversing, or at least fighting to a draw, the aging process. The new old pros are busy making 40 the new 30. The truth behind the headlines, while encouraging, is complicated. Overall, athletic performance clearly declines with age. At the same time, late-career athletic productivity is showing an unprecedented rise. To explain the apparent contradiction, let’s start with the bad news.

In 2005, Ray C. Fair, a Yale University economist, published a statistical analysis examining the age of peak performance among major-league baseball players. Fair determined that the age of peak production for hitters was 28, and that pitchers achieved optimal production at 27. Data from the National Football League and National Basketball Association tells a similar story. The Fair study further determined that, at age 40, a ballplayer’s average decline from peak performance stood at 9.8 percent when measured by on-base -percentage plus slugging percentage (or OPS), and 14.9 percent when measured by earned run average. In other sports, the decline is less dramatic: At 40, the average decline from peak for sprinters is 3 percent; distance runners, 4.1 percent; and swimmers, 2 percent.

While these numbers seem modest–if not actually encouraging–from a citizen athlete’s perspective, they are huge for elite performers. The average middle-distance runner who notched a 4:00 mile at his peak, for instance, slows to 4:12 at age 40. On the track, that translates to a gap of about 100 meters. “It’s irrefutable: Certain physical changes accompany advancing age,” says orthopedic surgeon Vonda Wright, director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes (PRIMA) program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “Power, flexibility, balance, and VO2 max all either level off or decline from peak levels.”

Various studies in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Sports MedicineJournal of Physiology. The researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado at Boulder determined that athletes could still maintain peak endurance performance until age 35. This was followed by modest decreases until age 50, with more dramatic declines thereafter. Three factors contribute to this decline: lower lactate threshold, lower exercise economy, and lower VO2 max. Of these factors, VO2 max proved the most important.
have detailed the different aspects of this decline: Starting around age 30, maximum heart rate decreases six to 10 beats per minute per decade, thigh muscles start to lose density, intramuscular fat increases, and the number of type-2 fast-twitch muscle fibers decreases. Lung function and capacity, anabolic hormone levels, and the number and quality of neural pathways also show inexorable drops with advancing years. Among all the physiological changes connected with aging, none correlates more closely with athletic performance than the decline in VO2 max, which measures the body’s maximum cardiovascular performance. The latest data suggests that VO2 max decreases by approximately 10 percent per decade, starting at around 30, according to a groundbreaking study published this year in the
When the researchers tried to determine the precise physiological mechanisms by which VO2 max declined over the years, however, they came up with a surprising discovery: There didn’t seem to be any. “The decreases in performance and VO2 max in aging athletes are associated most closely with reductions in exercise training intensity,” the study concluded, “i.e., … reductions in energy, time, and motivation to train.” In other words, older athletes don’t perform as well as they used to partly because they don’t train as hard as they used to. They work out less, in turn, not because of bodily limitations, but because of psychological and societal factors. At this point, the contradictory knot starts to unravel: While age-related physical decline from peak performance stands as scientific fact, athletic extinction proves to be a layered story open to a host of culturally influenced interpretations and different endings. The good news begins.

“Of all the variables limiting performance in the older athlete, physiological changes aren’t enough by themselves to prevent him from staying near the top of his game,” says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois. “It’s not as if some light goes out in the body at 43, or at any other age. Athletes who remain competitive past the age of 40 do so because of a complex set of reasons, not because of the number of fast-twitch fibers.”

Dr. Wright, the PRIMA director, puts the matter plainly. “Whoever said performance depends on a predetermined chronological age?” If an athlete maintains consistent high-level training and avails himself to advances in nutrition and injury prevention, he can remain productive at the highest level. “In fact,” she says, “he might outperform younger players who lack his experience, savvy, and feel for the game.”

Indeed, factoring in intangibles such as wisdom, judgment, tactical acumen, and refined technique turns the argument around, especially for sports such as baseball, cycling, golf, running, swimming, and big-wave surfing, which rely so heavily on those qualities. If you make productivity–i.e., consistent high-quality performance–rather than peak performance the standard, the evidence weighs even more heavily in favor of the more mature athlete.

Consider major-league baseball. There were only six players age 40 or older on major-league rosters during the 1997 season. In 2007, there were 21 players who were 40 or older, according to Bill Carle, of the Society for American Baseball Research. While these older ballplayers aren’t putting up the same numbers as they did in their prime, they’re performing dramatically better than older players of the past. Prior to 1982, for example, batters 35 or older never hit more than a combined total of 232 home runs in a season. In the 2000s, –admittedly the steroid era–batters 35 or older have hit at least a combined 565 homers each season, with a high of 756 in 2004.

Finally, while the scientific studies attempt to calibrate rates of age-related physiological decline, they often fail to measure factors mitigating those declines among elite athletes: scientific training and nutrition; improved equipment and advances in injury prevention; vastly improved rehabilitation from injuries; the fact that, in contrast to athletes of earlier generations, contemporary jocks have been privy to the laws of optimal health for their entire careers; and, most important, the psychological sea change that athletes no longer buy into the myth of a certain arbitrary age signaling decline. Older athletes are no longer slowing down.

“The male athlete in his forties potentially occupies that beautiful place,” says Paul Chek, training advisor to Hamilton. “There’s a sweet spot for men between the ages of 40 and 45. If they’ve been smart and careful, their bodies are only just starting to decline. At the same time, they have finally gained some wisdom. If you can keep him healthy and motivated, then the 40-year-old is the most dangerous athlete you’ll come across.”

“I look at my career as following two lines on a graph,” says Hamilton. “One line shows my physical systems, stuff like VO2 max and fast-twitch muscle fibers, either flattening or very gradually declining. The other line shows the intangibles–maturity, experience, judgment, passion, perspective–steadily rising. The two lines cross at an interesting place, and I regard that place as my peak. It’s not a point, but a plateau. Your peak isn’t really a product of your body, but of your enthusiasm. I intend to live on that plateau for a long, long time.”

Extending your performance plateau On the morning after our interview at the cafe in Paia, Hamilton stands on a corner of Baldwin Beach Park, preparing to give me a lesson in stand-up board paddling. “It’s the best core workout,” he says. “It’s also good for balance and flexibility.”

About a decade ago, Hamilton had been fooling around with stand-up paddling, which is the traditional, native-Hawaiian style of surfing: Paddle out, flip around, catch a wave, and ride it in using the paddle for balance and steering. Hamilton added his own wrinkle: Paddle on flat water for a workout. A non-weight-bearing exercise, paddling sharpens the sense of balance, which erodes with age. It also simulates the motions of big-wave surfing and takes Hamilton out on the ocean. “I’m learning every moment that I spend on the water,” he says. “The tides, the winds, the slant of sunlight. Every detail works to my advantage on the next big wave.”

Hamilton lifts the 12-foot-long board out of the bed of his pickup. He has chosen an especially wide board for me, but I’m still nervous.

“Don’t worry,” says Hamilton. “If you can stand, you can do this.”

Of course it isn’t that simple, and I’m anxious. By Hamilton’s lights, that’s a good thing. Fear is a healthy, constructive emotion, he maintains. In fact, as part of a training regimen that’s Herculean in its intensity and encyclopedic in its breadth, Hamilton sets a goal of being frightened once a day.

“Even if Laird didn’t ride big waves, he’d be a legend because of his fitness,” says Chek. “I’ve been working out with some of the best athletes in the world for 20 years. No false modesty–Laird is the only guy I regard as an equal.” Chek has created fitness programs for a diverse clientele ranging from snowboarder Shaun White to the Chicago Bulls to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

A typical week during the summer–when the big waves subside and Hamilton and his family move to their second home in Malibu, California–is based around his workout staples: two hours of nonstop circuit training, with an emphasis on lunges, presses, squats, and powerlifts; three to 10 miles of stand-up paddling, usually performed with partners such as Chris Chelios, the 46-year-old NHL star, or Don Wildman, the 73-year-old founder of Bally Total Fitness, both passionate converts to paddling; hill climbing with 50 pounds strapped to a mountain bike; and running on the beach while harnessed to a 100-pound log. During the winter, which is big-wave season on Maui, Hamilton spends less time in the gym and more time on the water or on his bike.

Each exercise, including the exotic ones, is specifically tailored to the demands of big-wave surfing. Log pulling, for example, builds the explosive power that Hamilton relies on at the start of a big-wave ride. Stand-up paddling enhances his balance, and long bike climbs build endurance: important on days when 80-foot waves imprison you underwater. In between workouts, he remains in perpetual motion, working around the house, chopping wood, hauling, and cleaning.

“When you’re training, you eat better, sleep better, think better, and have better sex,” he says. “The challenge for me is not to overdo it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more systematic. I pay attention to cycles and seasons. You can’t play the Super Bowl every day.”

Now, at Baldwin Beach Park, Hamilton leads me to the water. “Basically, you just want to plant your feet wide on the middle of the board,” he says. “Remember to breathe and don’t be afraid to dig in with the paddle. The board is like a bicycle: It’s easier to keep your balance when you’re moving.”

Clutching the paddle, I crawl up on the board, stand, wobble, and fall off. I try again and again. Seldom-used muscles throughout my body fire as I struggle to maintain my balance. After a few minutes, Brett Lickle joins Hamilton on the beach. Finally, on perhaps attempt number 12, I’m able to stand on the board for 10 to 15 seconds. I even take a few shallow strokes with the paddle. Hamilton beams.

“Terrific!” he says. “You got the idea. Next time you try it, you’ll be good to go.” I wade into shore, pushing the board in front of me. Hamilton hops on it and with a few smooth strokes cuts over two five-foot swells, heading out to where the larger waves roam.

On the beach, Lickle reassures me. “You did fine,” he says. He falls silent for a moment, watching Hamilton paddle. The wound on Lickle’s left leg is on the mend but still shows as a jagged, livid scar. “I think I’ve finished my business with the big waves,” he says. “I’ll surf for the rest of my life, but I’m done with the 80-footers.”

Out on the water, Hamilton catches a 10-foot breaker, gliding into shore with slow, graceful loops, his body at one with the board and the wave, moving the paddle as if it were an extension of his hands.

“With Laird, of course, it’s different,” says Lickle. “He still hasn’t taken his best ride.”

Wikio

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About EdR

Tant que les lions n’auront pas leurs propres historiens, les histoires de chasse continueront de glorifier le chasseur. (proverbe africain)

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