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Play On - Jeff Bercovici

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Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Bercovici

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Bercovici, Jeff, author.

Title: Play on : the new science of elite performance at any age / Jeff Bercovici.

Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017061532 (print) | LCCN 2017050323 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544935327 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544809987 (hardback)

Subjects: LCSH: Physical fitness for older people | Sports for older people.

| Exercise for older people. | Aging—Physiological aspects. | Sports sciences. | BISAC: SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Anatomy & Physiology (see also Life Sciences / Human Anatomy & Physiology).

Classification: LCC GV482.6 (print) | LCC GV482.6 .B47 2018 (ebook) | DDC 613.7/0446—dc23

LC record available at

Cover design by Martha Kennedy

Cover photograph © Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

Author photograph © Tony Conrad


For Robyn

You were always the jock in the family


Overtime Starts Now

I’m halfway through the most grueling four minutes of my life, wondering how I’m going to survive the next 120 seconds, when my tormentor, a deceptively personable southerner named Joel, breaks into my suffering with what I assume to be a stupid joke. My assumption is wrong, but it will be another two minutes before I realize that.

Not to psych you out or anything, Joel says, but a bunch of coyotes are watching you.

Hilarious, I manage to croak, and go back to watching the numbers on the digital readout in front of my face crawl upward.

Why shouldn’t there be coyotes watching me, though? They’re a common-enough sight, prowling for rabbits and the occasional unwary house cat, here on the dusty outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. I can imagine what they would see: a 38-year-old man, shortish of stature and slight of build, hanging by all four limbs from a black steel apparatus, grimacing and wheezing like he’s on the brink of multisystem organ failure. An easy if stringy meal for a pack of scavengers, once they peel off the sweaty sausage-casing of compression apparel.

Granted, this particular spot is an unlikely venue for a wild-animal attack. I’m in a 31,000-square-foot, $10 million state-of-the-art training and wellness facility operated by a company called Exos. Formerly known as Athletes’ Performance, Exos owns a chain of these clinics, scattered mostly across the Sun Belt, in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas, and Pensacola. Its locations correspond roughly to the regions where professional athletes spend their increasingly brief off-seasons. This facility is the flagship.

Although its clients include large corporations and the U.S. military, Exos is best known for getting some of the world’s strongest and fastest people in peak shape before their competitive seasons begin. On this July day, the campus is hosting a contingent of 30 or so NFL players, here to put a scalpel edge on their fitness before reporting to their teams’ respective training camps in three weeks’ time. This being Phoenix, they had to get their outdoor work out of the way early, before the temperature broke triple digits. At seven this morning, notebook in hand, I watched from a minimum safe distance as LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills, Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints, Prince Amukamara of the New York Giants, Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, and other genetically blessed multimillionaires performed football-specific fitness drills—sprinting between different-colored cones while Brett Bartholomew, Exos’s lead NFL trainer, called out directions; accelerating laterally from a standstill while being dragged in the other direction by bungee cords; and so on. The players were clearly working hard, but it was a different sort of hard work than the kind you see dramatized in those Gatorade and Nike commercials. There were no faces contorted in agony or voices screaming out Give me one more! The emphasis was on detail, not all-out exertion. Afterward, Bartholomew explained that getting players ready for a season doesn’t have much to do with the stuff they obsess about at the combine—40-yard-dash times, bench-press repetitions, that kind of thing. With actual veterans, it’s about taking care of their bodies and doing everything the right way, he says.

Now it’s midday and the torrid desert sun is directly overhead: 108°F and 9 percent humidity. The players were sent home hours ago with orders from Bartholomew to spend the afternoon taking a nap, lying in a whirlpool, doing yoga, playing video games—anything but exercising more. Remember, our muscles have currency just like our bank accounts, he admonished them before dismissing them to the cafeteria to pick up their personalized recovery smoothies, each one tailored to its drinker’s body composition and sweat chemistry. (To make sure the athletes are drinking enough fluids, the bathrooms are decorated with posters, conveniently hung over the urinals, showing what pee looks like at different levels of hydration.) It seems like everyone has listened, except for Kaepernick, who proceeds to spend the next four hours in the facility’s airplane-hangar-sized weight room, chiseling new creases into his already famously buff, tattooed torso.

With nothing better to do, I sign up for a training session with Joel Sanders, a veteran strength and conditioning coach. A rangy, earnest 30-year-old from Savannah, Sanders focuses mostly on Exos’s civilian clientele, like the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who, once a quarter, brings his favorite portfolio companies’ CEOs here for a long weekend of boot camp–style workouts, hot and cold pools, organic meals, and deep-tissue massages. Joining me for the session is Dan, a tall drink of water who turns out to be a recently graduated college basketball player staying in shape in hopes of getting a call from an injury-stricken NBA team in preseason.

At Joel’s instruction, we start by loosening up on foam rollers, seesawing back and forth over them to knead out our legs and backs. I take this opportunity to ask Joel the question on my mind: What’s the difference between me and Dan? Besides, obviously, the 10 inches in height and all the other inborn athletic traits that made him an NBA hopeful and me a natural-born journalist. No, what I’m wondering about is the significance of the 16 years that separates us in age. What’s the difference, athletically speaking, between someone at 22 and that same person at 32 or 42 or 52?

Put your hand on your chest, Joel instructs me. I do so. Now, take your middle finger and tap your chest as hard as you can. I do that, too: tap, tap, tap. Keep your hand there. Joel reaches out, grabs my middle finger, pulls it back, and lets it go. Without me doing anything, it snaps back against my chest: THWAP!

The difference between tap and THWAP!, he says, is power. In physics terms, power is units of work divided by units of time. In layman’s terms, it’s the ability to deliver force quickly. If you can lift a 100-pound dumbbell and carry it across the gym, you’re strong. If you can pick it up and hurl it across the gym, you’re strong and powerful. When you admire the explosive first step of a point guard, the 140-mile-per-hour serve of a tennis player, a running back’s burst through the hole, a volleyball hitter’s thunderous spike, what you’re admiring is power. More than anything else, it’s power, Joel says, that separates young athletes from old ones. It’s what we’re here to work on.

We begin with a dynamic warm-up: Elastic bands around our knees, we shuffle forward and backward, side to side. We run in place on our toes, then drop into sudden squats, activating our quads and glutes. Moving like inchworms, we walk our hands out in front of us, then walk our feet up to them until we’re bent double. Sweating lightly now, we start the workout proper. Joel gives us each a rubber medicine ball—Dan’s big, mine little—and has us jump and hurl it toward the faraway ceiling a dozen times, then twist and slam it on the floor a dozen more. We do shoulder presses, cable rows, single-leg squats, and Romanian deadlifts. It’s a good workout, hard but fun. I manage not to embarrass myself in front of Colin Kaepernick, who is still over in the far corner of the gym, doing something complicated with kettlebells. I think we’re done.

One more exercise, Joel says. He leads me over to a machine standing by the wall of windows. This, Joel says, is the VersaClimber. Every athlete who works out at Exos hates it. In fact, I will learn later, athletes everywhere loathe it. When the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strength coach needed to get his team ready for the NBA’s endless playoff schedule during its championship 2016 postseason run, it was the VersaClimber he turned to. Forward Tristan Thompson said bonding over their shared hatred of the VersaClimber helped cement the team’s chemistry. Mark Sisson, an elite Ironman competitor and fitness guru, calls the VersaClimber the greatest piece of fitness equipment ever invented, one that would be more popular except it’s too intense an experience for most people. The few that have used it inevitably quit because it’s so hard. The way it works is simple as can be: you put your feet on the pedals, grip the handles, and make a climbing motion. A digital readout shows how far you’ve ascended in place. My goal, which Joel tells me should be doable for someone of my fitness characteristics, is to climb 400 feet in four minutes.

Four minutes. How hard could that be? (At age 61, Sisson was doing four intervals of 1,000 feet each.) I start. Within 30 seconds, I realize: four minutes could actually be extremely hard. Within a minute, I think, I don’t know if I can do three more minutes of this. After another 30 seconds, I’m not thinking anything because all the glycogen in my body is rushing to my muscles to replace my zonked-out stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), leaving none left over to power my frontal cortex. Then, at around the two-minute mark, Joel makes his joke-but-not-a-joke about the coyotes. I barely clock it. I can’t explain why this particular activity is so much more unbearable than literally any other I’ve ever done, except that there is no respite for any part of me. When you’re cycling up a steep hill, say, your quads and glutes may be begging you to quit, but that’s just your legs. On the VersaClimber, there is nowhere to hide, no part of your body in which your consciousness can hole up and wait it out. But it’s only four minutes, right? By the time I pass three minutes, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to finish in some form, but it’s even odds I will immediately punctuate that accomplishment by throwing up a stomachful of neon-yellow electrolyte beverage. Finally, the clock reaches 4:00.

Total feet climbed: 399.

Joel places a steadying hand on my back as I step off the pedals and stagger drunkenly around the machine. He hands me a sports drink, eases me to the ground, and has me put my legs on a vibrating platform to help with muscle recovery. Just take it easy for a few minutes, he says. My head lolls to the side, and that’s when I see Joel wasn’t joking after all. They were watching me. Coyotes, half a dozen of them. With a capital C. That is, members of the Arizona Coyotes, the local NHL team. Sitting in a semicircle in the stretching area, loosening up with foam rollers, they witnessed my whole ordeal, and they’re still eyeing me with curious looks. For my workout to have held the attention of these professional athletes, who see exercise-induced suffering every day, I must have looked even more alarming than I felt. I imagine what they must have been thinking: Who is this little dude who’s about to die in our gym and what is he doing here?

What am I doing here?

Actually, that’s pretty easy. I went to Exos on a mission to understand a certain subset of elite athletes: the ones who continue to perform and compete at the very highest levels long after the age when most of their peers have faded away. I want to know what makes them different from everyone else, what secret sauce allows them to defy the conventional wisdom that high-level sport is a young man’s (or woman’s) game. I want to know how they work out and recover, how they eat and sleep, how they stay healthy and heal from injuries, what’s in their DNA and their mitochondria, how they think and learn and strategize and motivate themselves to keep getting better through the seasons and decades. In the answers to those questions, I believe, lies the key to something so many of us desire more than almost anything else: the ability to stay healthy and vital and competitive as we get older; to feel like we possess a measure of control over how we age; to experience the passage of years as an unfolding of new possibilities rather than a long hallway of closing doors.

My quest has led me to training camps, tournaments, research centers, hospitals, antiaging clinics, medical conventions, and technology conferences. I’ve interviewed Super Bowl champions, Olympic gold medalists, World Cup soccer players, big-wave surfers, and backcountry skiers, geneticists, biomechanics experts, inventors, sports psychologists, orthopedic surgeons, elite Special Forces operators, and people whose professions, like the self-taught health gurus who minister to the bodies of Tom Brady and Serena Williams, defy categorization. My goal was to find out everything they could tell me about the latest advances, and advances still to come, in areas from nutrition to brain science to virtual reality.

Age and sports: you can’t separate them. Try talking about one without the other and it will be a short conversation. If you’re over 30, you’ve probably had the experience of watching a sporting event and hearing commentators endlessly discussing whether an athlete some years younger than you is over the hill yet. An average afternoon of ESPN will feature a dozen different euphemisms for old. Does Johnny Veteran still have enough gas in the tank? Is there any tread left on his tires? Has he lost a step? Does he still have his fastball? Just as the home run sluggers of baseball’s juicing era will have asterisks next to their names in the record books, older competitors are constantly reminded of what makes them different. There’s practically a law that any magazine profile or TV introduction of a top player over 30 must contain the qualifying phrase at the advanced age of . . .

It’s not an arbitrary fixation. At their core, sports are about challenging our physical limits—through effort and grace, talent and grit, teamwork and individual brilliance. Age is the final and most stubborn of those limits, if a relative one. Old means different things in different sports. Ultra-endurance athletes often don’t peak until after 40, while gymnasts rarely last past 22. A 30-year-old NFL star might be pushing retirement or just entering his prime depending on what position he plays. Still, at every point of one’s career, the specter looms. A lucky player can avoid getting hurt, traded, or cut, but nobody avoids getting older. Father Time is undefeated, as the saying goes.

Recently, however, it seems as if it’s Father Time who might be losing a step. In the last few years, without a ton of fanfare, we’ve entered a golden age for older athletes. Everywhere you look across the sports world, individuals are competing, and winning, at ages that as recently as a generation ago would have been considered downright geriatric. Take the events of a single year, 2016. In January, 39-year-old Peyton Manning became the oldest quarterback ever to start, and win, a Super Bowl. (The following January would see another 39-year-old, Tom Brady, match his feat.) In tennis, Serena Williams, defending her Wimbledon title, became the oldest woman, at 34, ever to win a Grand Slam tournament. She would break her own record the following year. In basketball, the San Antonio Spurs fielded the oldest team in the NBA, led by 40-year-old Hall of Fame lock Tim Duncan, and proceeded to win 67 of their 82 regular-season games, including going 41-1 at home. In his 25th NHL season, 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr led his team, the Florida Panthers, in scoring, moved up to third place on the all-time goals list, and didn’t even think about retiring. At the British Open, in a showdown critics compared to the legendary Duel in the Sun between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, 40-year-old Henrik Stenson edged 46-year-old Phil Mickelson on the strength of a 63-stroke final round, tying a major tournament record. At the Rio Summer Olympics, marathoner Meb Keflezighi became, at 41, the oldest American distance runner ever to compete at the games. Cyclist Kristin Armstrong, who turned 43 in Rio, became the first Olympian ever to win gold three times in the same cycling event. (Her first win came at age 35.) Thirty-four-year-old sprinter Justin Gatlin became the oldest man ever to medal in the 100-meter race. Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer in history, also became the oldest ever to win gold in an individual event, at age 31. His record fell after a mere three days, however, when fellow American Anthony Ervin, 35, took gold in the men’s 50-meter freestyle race.

It’s not a matter of a few outliers. In virtually every sport, athletes are sticking around for an extra victory lap or three rather than shuffling off to the metaphorical showers at the first sign of gray. Between 1982 and 2015 the number of NBA players 35 or older jumped from 2 to 32. In the NHL it went from 4 to 50 over the same span; in the NFL it increased from 14 to 38. In tennis, the average age of the men ranked in the top 10 has increased by more than five years since 1992. The average age of U.S. Olympic swimmers has gone up three years for women and four years for men. And all this is happening despite multiple trends that in theory ought to be shortening careers, from earlier specialization in youth sports to greater awareness of long-term concussion risk to longer competitive calendars and more travel. (Thanks in part to the metastasis of the NBA playoff format, before LeBron James turned 31, he had already clocked more playing minutes than Magic Johnson or Larry Bird did in their entire careers. No wonder his hairline is receding.)

By this point, the cynical sports fan has been screaming Steroids! for several paragraphs. The suspicion is not misplaced. Without a doubt, sophisticated doping regimens of the kind made infamous by Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong, and Marion Jones have played a role in extending the careers of elite athletes, especially the ones who have shown surprising late-career surges or miraculous bounce-backs from chronic injury. Although it’s difficult to quantify the prevalence of illicit activity, doping is likely only becoming more common as the increasing financial rewards of sports fame induce athletes to delay retirement. There’s a reason the shady medical practitioner at the center of so many doping scandals inevitably runs what’s referred to in the press as an antiaging clinic. That’s less of a euphemism than it might seem; in many ways, as we’ll see, the point of performance-enhancing drugs is no more or less than to make older bodies mimic younger ones in the way they heal from damage, recover from training, pack on muscle, and turn oxygen into fuel. But doping, as widespread as it is, is just a small piece of a much bigger and more interesting phenomenon—one that’s by no means confined to professional sports.

You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon I mean. Since you’re holding this book, I’d guess you’re part of it. I’m talking about the massive, decades-long shift in the way we—including the 99 percent of us who aren’t elite athletes—think about the relationship between age and physical activity. All over the developed world, but especially in the U.S., vast numbers of adults are integrating sports and fitness into their lives in a way that simply wasn’t the case a generation or two ago. It’s hard to comprehend from a modern vantage point, but 50 years ago, the notion of an average 40-year-old jogging for exercise or going to the gym to lift weights was a novelty. An adult athlete was someone who played golf or softball or perhaps, at the extreme end, tennis. In just a few short decades, participatory sports have come to saturate our culture. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, there’s not a day I step outside my house that I don’t see people my age and older wearing brightly colored workout apparel and minimalist running shoes and heart-rate-tracking watches, riding $5,000 racing bikes and kite boards, practicing with their Ultimate Frisbee or rugby teams, training for 5Ks or gran fondos or ultramarathons. The numbers bear it out. Participatory sports and fitness is an $85 billion business in the U.S., one that’s growing significantly faster than the rest of the economy. Participation in the World Masters Games has tripled since the first one was held in 1985; the 2017 edition drew more than 25,000 over-40 athletes all the way to New Zealand. Marathons get more popular with each passing year, with over-50 runners representing one of the fastest-growing cohorts. Adult recreational leagues in big cities are selling out as team sports supplant golf as a business-networking venue; Soccer Is the New Golf, declared a 2012 headline in Crain’s business magazine. This culture shift achieved its apotheosis in Barack Obama, the first post–baby boom president and the first to run a regular pickup basketball game out of the White House.

Pain is another way to measure the trend. Sports injuries among postcollegiate adults have been growing at double-digit rates. Surgeries like anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstructions and meniscus repairs, once considered unwise for patients over 40, are now routine. The age group you see who considers themselves a sports medicine patient is a lot older than would even walk into a clinic fifteen years ago, says Nirav Pandya, an orthopedic sports surgeon in San Francisco.

In the last 10 years, this gradual sea change has become more like a tsunami. If the boomers popularized the idea of adults as athletic beings through pursuits like jogging and aerobics, the generations after them have completed the revolution, advancing the notion that anyone can be a high-performance athlete on their own terms. It’s no coincidence that the fastest-growing fitness sports are also the most intense and challenging. CrossFit, the high-intensity circuit-training chain/religion, has 5,000 locations in the U.S.; in 2014 more than 200,000 people entered qualifiers for the CrossFit Open, the sport’s equivalent of the Olympics. Some 1.3 million people have done Tough Mudder, a military-style obstacle-course race that challenges participants to run 12 miles while scaling climbing walls, slithering through mud pits, and hauling logs. About half of those racers are over 30. Triathlon enrollment keeps setting new records; membership in USA Triathlon has swelled more than 400 percent since 1998, to more than 550,000, and the number of triathletes over 50 has more than tripled in a decade. Weekend warriors are now the superstars in a new genre of spectator sports. More than 6 million people watched the 2015 season finale of American Ninja Warrior, a TV game show in which amateur athletes navigate obstacle courses designed to challenge their strength, agility, and endurance. After seven seasons and thousands of contestants, two men were finally able to complete the show’s ultimate challenge: 36-year-old cameraman Geoff Britten and 33-year-old rock climber Isaac Caldiero. An adaptation of a Japanese television show, Ninja Warrior’s popularity has inspired several knockoffs. All across the country, Ninja hopefuls train on obstacles they’ve re-created in their own backyards, hoping for an everyman’s shot at glory.

I’m part of this phenomenon, too, in a modest way. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I played all the usual sports, and was even decent at one or two. I was never graceful or coordinated, but I was fast as a jackrabbit, the kind of kid coaches kept around to demonstrate hustle for the more talented but less motivated. In high school, I self-segregated with the other creative nerds, and that was more or less that for my career as a jock for the next 15 years. I got back into sports in a big way at 33, when a friend invited me to join her co-ed recreational soccer team. It was a casual league, she promised me over beers. I’d just gotten divorced and moved into a depressing efficiency apartment in Brooklyn, and figured I could use some new friends and a hobby that didn’t involve a glowing screen. Are you any good? my friend asked. No, I told her, but I’m fast.

And I was, in that first game, for about three minutes. After that, I was gasping, cramping, waving weakly at the sideline in hopes a substitute would come on and end my humiliation. At one point, an opposing player I was marking cut hard with the ball. I tried to mirror the move, but my legs had other ideas. I buckled to the ground as though gravity had suddenly tripled. Lying there on the damp Astroturf, I understood the difference between 23 and 33 for possibly the first time. (I later found out the casual league was suspiciously full of former Division 1 players.)

Naturally, I was hooked. Over the next couple of years, I made it my mission not to be the worst player on the field, even when I was the oldest, which was often enough. The more I played, the better and fitter I got. Having started out in soccer feeling prematurely middle-aged, I now had the wonderful sensation of aging in reverse. Not bad for a 35-year-old, I’d tell myself after outracing some recent college grad to a ball in the corner.

Then, the nagging hip and back injuries started to pile up. I got X-rays and MRIs that didn’t tell me anything. A doctor friend told me my options were to stop playing or up my Advil dose. Was I too old for this, after all? But as I frequented more pickups and league games around the city, I encountered players in their 50s or even 60s who amazed me with their stamina and skill. What were they doing that I wasn’t? I’d always been a sports fan, but I started paying attention to players’ ages, rooting for the older ones on reflex. Watching the Olympics one Saturday at my then girlfriend’s house, ice packs strapped to both hips like a cowboy’s six-shooters, I grew excited when an announcer mentioned that Ryan Giggs, the Manchester United winger and English national teamer, was three years older than I. Aly! The captain of England’s soccer team is thirty-eight! I yelled upstairs.

That’s great, babe, came the reply. You’re not going to play in the Olympics. (We’re married now, obviously.)

My heightened interest turned into something more like obsession after I suffered two herniated disks in my back during an indoor game, ruptures so severe it required emergency neurosurgery to prevent the fast-spreading numbness and weakness in both legs