A long-lasting and successful career in sports can be mainly achieved through solid regeneration, says sports scientist Ingo Froböse. Swimmer Michael Phelps, Froböse argues, is a discernible role model.
DW: Professor Froböse, at what age are athletes considered ‘old' nowadays?
Ingo Froböse: That depends mainly on the particular kind of sport. A gymnast, for example, is considered ‘old' much sooner than in other disciplines because you commit to career-oriented training as early as at the age of four. As a result, gymnasts often deteriorate physically in their mid-20s. It is different, however, with endurance sports. Marathon runners or triathletes can easily stay competitive until their mid-30s and beyond because these disciplines require a certain amount of training experience. Speed and reflexes are features that usually begin to regress from the age of 25 onwards. Endurance, on the other hand, can be maintained much more effectively over a long period.
Do these criteria also apply to swimming disciplines?
In swimming, long distances require superb endurance in order to stay competitive at a higher age. Endurance activities are the most sophisticated kind of training. In the long term, however, endurance provides the ability to generate energy in a very efficient manner. For example, if experienced professionals swim 400 meters, they need to exploit only 80 per cent of their energy resources. That's why world-class swimmers are fully able to compete at a higher age, especially in long-distance races.
At age 31, Michael Phelps is among the most experienced swimmers participating in the Rio Olympics. Even as a teenager, he excelled particularly in long distance competitions. Is he an exceptional athlete?
Michael Phelps is an extraordinary athlete. His physical appearance alone makes him exceptional, given his enormous wing span resembling that of an orangutan (laughs). He generally enjoys favorable anatomical characteristics. Moreover, Phelps's coach has apparently worked very carefully over the years. Avoiding injuries is among the crucial challenges in an athlete's career. This can be individually influenced by genetics, but committing to responsible training is nearly as important.
What kind of training do older athletes such as Michael Phelps have to pursue in order to stay competitive in the long-term?
Phelps's training habits nowadays are certainly different than 12 or 13 years ago. Back then it was not necessary for him to focus on his speed as much as on his endurance. Today he benefits from substantial endurance resources. Older athletes generally commit to shorter - though more intensive - training sessions, which also allows them to take a sufficient number of breaks. I think this is the right approach for experienced athletes in order to maintain their endurance at the highest possible level and to stay competitive.
Do experienced athletes have other advantages over their younger competitors?
Older athletes usually have a more advanced ability to concentrate. Short training sessions in particular require a high degree of concentration. Experienced sportsmen have a better understanding of how to maintain their physical health. That's why Michael Phelps has surely become less concerned about his training habits compared to his early career stages.
Phelps had retired from professional swimming after the London Olympics in 2012. Later he struggled with alcohol and underwent a therapy. However, he relaunched his career two years ago. What are your expectations towards him?
If an athlete wants to succeed at the Olympics, two years of solid training usually is enough. I am convinced Michael Phelps will be in the best possible shape. He may struggle at short distances, but I believe he will overall perform superbly despite competing with younger swimmers.
What can professional athletes do in order to avoid injuries in the long-term?
Individual athletics training is among the major factors. The awareness of its importance has risen considerably over the last few decades. Well-directed athletics training generally lowers the risk of injury in the long-term and increases the chances of performing well at a higher age. Experienced athletes nowadays generally benefit from sharply improving training conditions.
Football players, however, seem to suffer from increasing fixture congestion.
I've never understood why football clubs undertake such a large number of preseason tours to any part of the globe. An overly busy schedule makes it less likely for athletes to have a sufficient amount of rest. Regeneration, however, is an essential part of sports, regardless of the discipline. The amount and quality of breaks determines whether an athlete is able to pursue a long career.
What's most important when it comes to taking breaks?
First of all, breaks should be long enough. Older athletes are advised to give their bodies enough rest as well as to responsibly choose the quantity of competitions they participate in. It's essential to be aware of what amount of strain one's body is able to tolerate. Increased commercialization has undoubtedly made this task more difficult. I know a number of athletes who were on their last legs in their mid-20s because they neglected physical regeneration. All of us, though - including the media and supporters - have to acknowledge that athletes need to take breaks. Being well rested is the number one rule if one wants to enjoy a long career in professional sports.