What Serena Williams’ Retirement Teaches Us About Athletic Longevity: Part Two

Apr 24, 2023

In Part 1 of this blog, we raised the general question that Serena Williams’ professional longevity provokes. Now in her 40s, she’s recently retired—at least for now!—at an age that exceeds traditional expectations in the sport.

We made the point that contemporary fitness experts say it’s down to three factors:

  • Better training
  • Improved nutrition
  • Enhanced recovery techniques

The next question is: Are their insights relevant for the average recreational athlete such as ourselves – whose ages may range from relative youth to relative old age – and can we learn from them?

We think the answer is: absolutely.

You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to gain insight from what follows. The point is that any kind of extreme or semi-extreme exercise has physical consequences.

Structured, Polarised & Concurrent Training

Today, a more structured approach has been adopted by many athletes and coaches. High-intensity exercise leads to burnout. According to Dr. Brickley, whose views we referenced in Part 1 of this blog series, most athletes now favour what’s known as polarised training, which is less intense.

“Polarised training still improves performance, but with less likelihood of injury or burnout,” he was quoted as saying. He added: “Athletes may also use concurrent training, which combines both strength and endurance training in the same session. This kind of training is especially useful, considering most types of sports combine both strength and endurance.”

You only have to look at the longevity of Ms. Williams’ tennis career, or other impressive athletes of the era, for proof.

The Role of Recovery

Recovery – both immediate and long-term – is also key for extending athletes’ careers. During the recovery period, the body adapts to repair and strengthen itself, while the rest period also gives athletes time to recover psychologically. Recovery techniques have improved in leaps and bounds in recent years, and now include hydrotherapy, active recovery, stretching, massage and ice baths.

Sleep is another important aspect of rest and recovery when it comes to sports performance.

“Athletes who are sleep deprived are at risk of losing aerobic endurance and may experience subtle changes in hormone levels, which can lead to higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) as well as a decrease in human growth hormone, which is active during tissue repair,” explained Kris Swartzendruber, a training expert, from Michigan State University.

Good nutrition is also a key ingredient for a long athletic career, however old we are

“It’s well known that as we age, we need to maintain our muscle mass differently,” explained Dr. Brickley. “This may require adjustments to protein intake depending on the changing demands of exercise.”

Many professional athletes opt for personalised diets, which accommodate their genetics, immune function and digestive system to boost performance and enhance recovery.
While the recreational athlete rarely has either the interest or resources to take nutrition quite this analytically, the principle that sound nutrition is key to longevity remains valid.

Final Thoughts: It’s All In The Mind

Finally, older athletes could have the psychological advantage over younger pros. Novak Djokovic, 35, is known for being one of the most mentally tough athletes in the world, which could be linked to his years of experience.

Djokovic has previously spoken about his use of mindfulness, which he claims is as important as training the physical body.

“I believe in the power of the mind, very much so,” he was quoted as saying in 2015, on the eve of his campaign for a third title at the Monte-Carlo Country Club. “If we all trained our minds as much as we are training our muscles and physical body, I think we would achieve and maximise our potential.”

It’s certainly something to aspire to, professional athlete or not.



Researched, resourced and written by experts, Everything Retirement is designed to get you where you want to go and enable you to become who you want to be. With clarity, insight and – above all – honesty, realism and actionable answers.