Studying the Aging Elite Athlete

Bercovici's new book looks at how athletes are defying peak-age performance.


Published:

Photo by Tony Conrad

Writers will bust a gut to practice their art, and journalists will stop at nothing to scoop a story. Jeff Bercovici, a Berkeley author and SF bureau chief of Inc. magazine, does it all (and more) in his first book Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age. Intrigued by athletes like Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Meb Keflezighi, LeBron James, and others who defy “peak age” limitations and continue year after year to dominate a sport, Bercovici subjected himself to scientific and pseudo-scientific experimentation. Additionally fascinated by stats that show increased age levels throughout professional and Olympic sports overall, he decided to enter the chase for the underlying reasons that led him on a wild journey and to top research centers, hospitals, training camps, conferences, and institutions.

The questions he asks—about genetic destiny, high-tech conditioning tools and techniques, the best training methods, coaches, surgeons, nutritionists, and more—are primarily answered by experts. Leading surgeons, scientists, inventors, and pioneers in sports science dominate the well-researched, 11-chapter book. But that doesn’t prevent Bercovici’s enthusiastic style from shining through. He’s a sports junkie prone to injury, and his personal incentive adds a vivacious gosh-wouldn’t-it-be-great-to-run-marathons-at-age-90 energy to the book’s solid and sincere investigative tone.

Bay Area readers will find connection in references to local teams (Warriors and others), scientists (Stuart Kim at Stanford University and many more), and athletes. Takeaway common sense conclusions in the book’s epilogue will benefit everyone and read as substantial in light of the research presented. For an aging athlete, Bercovici recommends reduced activity levels when injured or in recovery, stretching routinely, eating for muscle, and finding optimal training methods for your body and sport.

Appreciate Bercovici for being a writer who in pursuit of truthful storytelling will stand, clad only in underwear, in a shower-stall-size chamber that’s chilled to -220° F. Even listening to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” (while receiving whole-body cryotherapy at a clinic in Beverley Hills) doesn’t cancel his I’m-gonna-die response. But for readers of Bercovici’s book, especially if they follow the advice of experts and of the writer, they can thank him for leading them to a world with less pain and plenty of long-term, athletic pleasure.

Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age by Jeff Bercovici (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 260 pp., $27)                  

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