Derek Jeter reached 3,000 career hits on Saturday (with a home run, no less), almost 2 weeks after his 37th birthday, making him the fourth youngest player to achieve this milestone. Although the late 30s typically mark the beginning of the end for athleticism—physiologically, the human body performs at its peak between the ages of 20 and 35—Jeter certainly isn’t slowing down, and many athletes continue to pummel records at 40 and beyond. What determines whether an athlete shines brightly late in the game or slowly fades away? We spoke with Dana Cavalea, strength and conditioning coordinator for the New York Yankees; Gary Guerriero, co-owner of U.S. Athletic Training Center; and Mark Verstegen, founder of Athletes’ Performance and Core Performance, about the four factors of peak performance and what it takes to maintain athletic greatness.
When it comes to chasing the pennant, the championship, or any elusive milestone, pro athletes train with a game-day mentality. Guerriero trains his clients using “periodization,” a method of consistently introducing new movements and exercises in progressive cycles leading up to a target date. Instead of doing the same routine month after month, the athlete changes his or her program at regular intervals. This prevents plateauing and ensures that the body continues to be challenged, which will ultimately lead to increased fitness gains.
Here’s how it works: First, the individual identifies the most important part of the year, when they want to be in ideal athletic condition. For elite athletes, this may be the start of the season, the Olympic Games, or post-season play; for us amateurs, it could be a 5-K race, a summer triathlon, or the start of slow-pitch softball season. After pinpointing this date, Guerriero says, work backwards and develop a program. He usually maps out 3-week training blocks and gives the athlete extra days off during week 4. “After that, I vary the program, which helps keep them from plateauing,” he says. It’s this consistent change that keeps both the individual’s muscles and his or her mind from getting tired.
Elite athletes train hard, but they also train smart. Attention to correct form, proper technique, and sufficient recovery time translates into increased strength and power without as much risk for injury. “If you’ve been taught at a young age that the focus is on quantity versus quality of your work, your body is going to break down significantly faster,” says Verstegen.
One of the most important factors of injury prevention is a proper warmup. “Movement preparation is a dynamic way of warming up that prepares your mind and your body for exercise,” says Verstegen. His 5- to 7-minute movement prep program incorporates exercises like hip rotations, reverse lunges, and lateral squats, which increase core temperature and activate muscles that will be used in the training session. By increasing blood flow throughout the body and preparing the nervous system for strenuous activity, performance potential increases and injury potential decreases. (Video: Reverse lunge)
As players age, the threat of injury increases and fatigue takes its toll. Some athletes don’t take steps to alleviate daily pain, which can hinder their performance. “From deep-tissue massages to effective sleep strategies, recovery is incredibly important for every athlete, particularly aging ones,” says Verstegen. Pool workouts are another important component of injury prevention, adds Cavalea. Water workouts are low-bearing and promote blood flow, healing, and repair of tissue. (Search: Effective ways to soothe muscles)
With 162 regular-season MLB games—that’s at least 1,458 innings—it’s commonplace for a pro to find himself on the DL. “When it comes to [baseball] injuries, it’s either hamstring, elbow, or shoulder,” Cavalea says.
After sustaining an injury, following a customized rehabilitation plan is the player’s first step to getting back in the batter’s box. When an injured player visits Guerriero, the trainer measures flexibility, strength, agility, balance, and quality of soft tissue, from which he identifies the weak link and works to strengthen it.
“Mindset is one of the most underrated assets in sports,” says Verstegen. “We talk a lot about physical quotient, or PQ—a player’s physical characteristics and raw talent…but EQ, a player’s emotional quotient and day-to-day mindset, can be a key differentiator, and in many cases can either compensate for lack of physical traits or provide the durability needed for a long and seasoned career.”