The questions come when Tom Brady throws with a little less zip and Peyton Manning plays with heavily taped ankles. Are the future Hall of Famers showing their age, physically breaking down? Or are they struggling through a tough stretch, gutting out another NFL season?
Tough to know. Maybe a little of both. Aging athletes have proven to be an unpredictable commodity, especially the two elite quarterbacks who will meet for the 14th time Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Over the years, Brady, 36, and Manning, 37, have fought through serious injuries, adjusted to ever-changing receiving corps, endured tough losses, and continued to set records. Through 10 games, Manning is on pace for a career year with 34 touchdown passes and 3,572 yards, positioning himself to reclaim the record for TD passes that Brady set with 50 in 2007.
Brady and Manning have been so good for so long, so meticulous about preparing their bodies and minds for the NFL grind, that their career arcs look dramatically different from most other players. Yet, while they continue to lead title-contending teams well past 30 — the age around which quarterbacks achieve peak performance levels, according to studies — they cannot avoid the inevitable decline.
Asked if he thought of himself as a trend-setter, trying to stay at the top of his game until 40, Brady said, “We’ll see. I don’t think I’m quite at that point yet. Maybe if you ask me in another five years, I’ll have a better answer.”
Training, talent, injury history, physiology, genetics, and mind-set are key factors in how quickly athletic ability declines. Some critical variables —
As older competitors push performance boundaries, science investigates and the sports world recalibrates their expectations.
Dr. Michael Joyner, who studies elite athlete physiology at the Mayo Clinic, said the performances of older athletes raises a lot of questions about what’s normal and shows what the minimal rates of aging are.
“If you look at when people first become world-class and when they drift out of world-class, there’s usually about a four- to eight-year window when they’re really at the top of their game,” said Joyner. “That window has been extended a bit recently because there’s a lot more money, more sports, better sports medicine, better equipment.
“If what happened to Peyton Manning [with his neck injury] happened 30 years ago, he’d be done. Now, he’s out there torturing people.”
In a recent study of octogenarian endurance athletes, including a former Olympic champion cross-country skier, researchers saw cases where “80 is the new 40,” according to lead author Scott Trappe, director of Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory.
The study subjects were lifelong athletes who continued to exercise on a regular basis and demonstrated the same aerobic capacity as people half of their age. Considering what the results mean for professional athletes who are 35 and older, Trappe said, “It certainly moves the goal line of what’s possible in terms of human physiology.”
And, he noted, the goal line has been moving from 30 to 35 to 40 in terms of what is “old” in professional sports.
Still, when asked if fans might see the Brady-Manning rivalry extend another four or five years, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “I don’t know. From my history with players, I can say some guys you take a look one year and then the next year they’re the same. Then you take a look at them the next year and it’s not a gradual decline, it’s a steep decline.
“Then there are other players that decline gradually and you see it’s not quite what it was, but it’s still pretty close. There’s just no way to know or predict exactly how that’s going to go.”
Brady and Manning appear poised to fare better over time. As the Broncos’ win over the Chiefs Sunday night demonstrated, even a hobbled Manning can be better than a younger, healthier quarterback. The same can be said for Brady.
Making the commitment
For everyone, physiological aging starts in the early to mid-30s. Although athletes can delay some effects with intense training, they cannot prevent the age-related drop in maximum heart rate and maximum oxygen consumption.
The body simply works less efficiently as it ages. For the average person, studies show the decline is about 10 percent per decade. For a well-trained athlete, the decline is roughly 5-7 percent per decade.
In their mid-40s, people lose muscle mass. Again, by training at the same intensity throughout their careers, athletes can slow down the loss. But for most athletes in their 30s, it’s a daily struggle, mentally and physically, to maintain such high-level training.
“I admire guys who are older than me who are still doing it, because I’ll be the first to tell you there are bad mornings, bad nights, bad shootarounds,” said 36-year-old Dallas Mavericks shooting guard Vince Carter.
“If you’ve been around, you figure it out. You do what you need to do. That’s the difference between some of the guys who want it and try to last and those who don’t really care.”
“It all depends on the individual,” said 32-year-old Broncos receiver Wes Welker, “how well they take care of themselves and how seriously they take the game. A lot of it is making the commitment and sticking to it.
“I do anything and everything I can to help myself go out there and perform. Hydrating right. Eating right. Massages. Stretching.”
Many players, coaches, and researchers say the most difficult part is the need for more recovery time. Once players reach their mid-30s, the body doesn’t repair stressed tissue as efficiently as it once did. The older the athlete, the longer it takes to recover.
“Everything I do from the time one game ends to the next game goes into getting ready for that next game,” said Welker. “It’s a race to see who can recover the fastest.”
Given the brutal hits in football, NFL players face the biggest and most obvious challenges.
The average career length for an NFL player is approximately 3.5 years. For an NBA player, it’s 4.8 years, for NHL forwards and defensemen, it’s 5.5 years, and for a Major League Baseball player, it’s 5.6 years, according to various studies.
For top-level players in the NFL, the numbers are significantly better. The average career length for a first-round pick is 9.3 years, and for a player selected to at least one Pro Bowl, it’s 11.7 years.
Regardless of sport, all high-intensity-training professional athletes face difficulties when their careers start to stretch beyond the 15-year mark. Brady is in his 13th season (not including the year he missed because of knee surgery), while Manning is in his 15th (not including the year he missed because of neck surgery).
“Athletes can maintain their training for a span of 10, 15 years, and when you do that, you can maintain your performance,” said Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Laboratory at the University of Texas. “I haven’t seen any study that shows athletes can maintain their training over 20 years and they can maintain their performance.”
It’s full-time work
Generally speaking, it’s easier for quarterbacks to compensate for age-related declines than players at other positions. Brady and Manning rely as much on savvy as on any particular physical skill. Quick thinking can compensate for a lack of speed, and experience can compensate for a body slowly breaking down during the season.
Speed, strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and hand-eye coordination all decrease as people grow older.
“Speed is the No. 1 thing that starts to go,” said Nick Winkleman, a strength and conditioning coach with Athletes Performance. “And if you’re a strength and power athlete, you’re going to find it significantly harder to make gains beyond that mid-30s mark.”
Longevity also depends, in large part, upon what players do during the offseason and between games. And there is ever-improving knowledge about that.
“Back when I got started, pitchers weren’t allowed to lift weights,” said former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who retired at 45. “We just ran and did our shoulder program.
“Maybe 10 years ago, weight training became popular among all players, pitchers especially. Until I was over 30, I felt like I could go pitch and not have to worry about it. As I started getting older, I knew that I needed to stay in the weight room to have an edge to compete.”
Brady is particular about everything from nutrition to sleep.
“The decision-making process from what time you go to bed to what you choose to do on your off day to what you choose to eat when you sit down for lunch, those are all important issues that ultimately affect the team,” said Brady. “I just try to be very conscious of what I do.”
For older athletes, daily routines outside of competition can be as important as pregame regimens. Winkleman considers stretching, massage, nutrition, and ice baths essential. Science backs similar approaches, largely because they aid recovery and prevent injury.
With advances in sports medicine, athletes are a couple decades removed from the days when players viewed weightlifting skeptically and ACL tears jeopardized careers. And they know more about how they should train, eat, and treat injuries.
“The current trend, especially in older athletes, is that they are using the ‘Formula 1’ approach,” said Tanaka. “They have a lot of support around them, like mechanics supporting Formula 1 racing. Many athletes have their own massage therapists, dieticians. They have a physical therapist. They have personal trainers. That’s helping them to better maintain their performance.”
When asked his advice on prolonging a career, NBA great Reggie Miller, who retired at 39, said, “Hire a chef.”
While former Celtic Kevin Garnett prefers to keep his daily routine private, he sees NBA players extending their careers.
“The beautiful thing about yesteryear is that we are able to learn from it,” said Garnett. “I definitely know that the athlete trains different from [the past]. They weren’t into their health like we are now. It’s about becoming a student of your body.”
And students of players like Brady and Manning.