According to metrics, Poland and Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski is the best footballer on the planet. Using the same criteria, Cristiano Ronaldo is the world's second-best, which, in view of the Portugal and Juventus player’s consistently stellar performances, he would surely consider debatable. Zlatan Ibrahimović, meanwhile, is the saviour of the Swedish national team and also mixes things up in Italy's Serie A for AC Milan.
Lewandowski's age is 32, Ronaldo is 36, and Ibrahimović 39.
So, what is going on in the world of football? Are good players getting older? Are older players just getting better? Is it all just a coincidence? Or is this the start of a trend that will change football for ever?
It almost certainly isn’t all just a coincidence. Footballers – even those at the very pinnacle of the game – will, in future, enjoy careers that last much longer than in the past. And this very definitely has something to do with one word we hear increasingly often: biohacking.
Broadly speaking, biohacking covers anything people do to optimise their health, performance, quality of life, and life expectancy. They sweat in infrared saunas, they meditate, they measure their heart-rate variations and the length of their deep sleep. They pop nutritional supplement pills by the dozen, and some even book mysterious self-discovery retreats in the Amazon Delta. Celebrity biohackers on this fast-growing global circuit include Americans Dave Asprey, Ben Greenfield and Tim Ferriss.
Andreas Breitfeld is the best-known biohacker in Germany. In his Munich lab, Breitfeld makes some of the most exciting gadgets and tools accessible to the layman – from a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and headband that measures brainwaves while you meditate, to red-light therapy panels (they help the body’s cells heal) and an inhalation device for exclusion-zone water (structured H2O in our cells that, advocates argue, optimises energy delivery).
Now, the success of these biohacking stars justifies their means: the first professional footballer biohackers have emerged. Alongside Lewandowski, Ronaldo and Ibrahimović, Norway and Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland, 20, and Germany and Bayern Munich midfielder Serge Gnabry, 25, are the most prominent proponents of new-fangled methods for self-improvement. In Gnabry’s case, his agent Hannes Winzer is somewhat of an influence. The co-founder of ROOF, one of the world’s top-five player agencies, Winzer is himself a keen biohacker. He sees its contribution to professional football as the best way to secure marginal gains. “It’s that one-to-two per cent that ultimately makes a real difference,” says Winzer. “To win that tackle in extra time or find the extra pace before scoring the deciding goal. These are the little details that get you those extra wins, those extra titles.”
Winzer seeks inspiration from Breitfeld, and himself tests some of the more experimental devices from the biohacking guru’s laboratory. “But I only recommend to my players what works for them and what they feel comfortable with,” Winzer explains. “You shouldn’t and cannot force things. Football is a traditional, conservative sport, both in terms of the way it thinks and the structures within it. Let’s just say it isn’t all that fond of innovation.”
However, in the long term, Winzer thinks biohacking methods in top-level football are inevitable. “In some areas, such as recovery, it’s a no-brainer," he says. “The data – the research and the results – are conclusive. That a professional should improve their sleep by protecting their eyes from blue light in the evening, for example, won’t be unusual in a couple of years’ time. It will be taken for granted.”
Robert Lewandowski: Dessert comes first
Anna Lewandowska – a medal-winning karate expert, fitness trainer, and the wife of Polish striker Robert Lewandowski – has turned her husband’s diet upside down: no cow’s milk, no wheat, and almost no sugar. “And as it aids digestion, I eat the pudding first, then the starter, then the main course,” the winner of the 2020 Best FIFA Men’s Player award explains. First the cake, then the soup? “Yes, because you digest carbohydrates quicker than protein.”
What can an amateur learn from Robert Lewandowski?
Andreas Breitfeld: “Cake before soup? There could be something to it, providing two other conditions are met. First, you burn calories like a world-class athlete. Secondly, you’ve just been training, because that’s when the glycogen stores in your liver and muscles are empty. They’ll soak up any sort of carbohydrate, even short-chain ones like sugar, so you could even wolf down some junk dessert, too. After that, you can happily eat high-grade protein and good fat.”
Erling Haaland: Orange-tinted specs
Improved performance starts with sleep, and this advice has been picked up on by an increasing number of elite sportsmen and women. Erling Haaland is one of the first professional footballers to use ‘blue-blocker’ glasses – orange-tinted lenses that protect the eyes from blue-light frequencies (smartphones, computer screens, TVs, LED lights etc) – in the evening. Blue light prevents the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep patterns. A lack of melatonin has an impact on recovery.
What can an amateur learn from Erling Haaland?
Andreas Breitfeld: “Blue-blocker glasses are an extremely effective starter biohack. They’re guaranteed to work, although they’re better with younger rather than older people, because natural melatonin production declines from about the mid-forties. You get the best results with orange-tinted glasses two to three hours before going to bed, then you change them for red ones in the final hour. There are huge differences in quality. We once subjected the range to professional testing. The gold standards are TrueDark, Innovative Eyewear, Ra Optics and BLUblox.”
Zlatan Ibrahimović: The Ice Man
The ever-young old star is a great believer in Wim Hof-style cold therapy, as he posted to his Instagram in December, when his followers saw him dive into fresh snow in his Milan garden wearing nothing but swimming trunks. Like many others, including Cristiano Ronaldo and the Leicester City football team, the Swede believes in the magic powers of the cryotherapy chamber – a kind of domestic anti-sauna in which the temperature can drop to -160°C. You spend about three minutes a day in this mobile deep-freeze. The cold sends the body into shock and blood vessels contract, only to expand later and flood the body with blood full of anti-inflammatory substances.
What can an amateur learn from Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Andreas Breitfeld: “The cold is great. It’s worth everyone’s while getting involved with the cold. A wonderful place to start is Josephine Worseck’s book The Healing Power of the Cold. Timing is essential for sports stars. Put simply, to gain muscle mass you shouldn’t go into the cold straight after working out. But you should if you want to recover quickly. Taking a cold shower for at least three minutes in the morning has amazing health benefits on many levels. It can be a bit less for beginners, or you can alternate between cold and warm water. Give it a go. Grin and bear it. It works wonders.”
Serge Gnabry: Piano vs football
Germany’s Serge Gnabry has an intense working relationship with neuro-athletics trainer Lars Lienhard. Their sessions may look odd – the player shakes his head and does special finger, hand and eye exercises – but they work. The innovative discipline of neuro-athletics improves coordination, spatial awareness and dexterity. Gnabry pays attention to the quality of his sleep, seeks inspiration in the biographies of successful personalities, and takes piano lessons. “Serge used to be injury-prone,” his agent Hannes Winzer says. “Now he plays about 40-50 games a season and is very rarely out. That isn’t a coincidence. Serge is incredibly hard-working. He has learnt to see his body as a temple.” And what has playing the piano got to do with all this? Winzer continues, “Learning the piano improves your sense of rhythm and means reconnecting and re-energising synapses, and that makes Serge a better footballer.”
What can an amateur learn from Serge Gnabry?
Andreas Breitfeld: “Hannes Winzer is very good in the way he gets [his players] into biohacking. I like the idea of the piano lessons – making music helps connect different parts of the brain. We’re talking about an improvement in balance and left-right co-ordination, and compensating between the strong and weak foot. You could say playing the piano is a demanding form of neuro-athletics training.”
Cristiano Ronaldo: Sleeps as often as six times a day
Cristiano Ronaldo’s sleep pattern before big games is the stuff of legend. The Juventus star takes six 90-minute naps over the course of 24 hours (and wears a fresh pair of pyjamas for each one). He eats a total of six meals on each of those days, too: breakfast, two lunches, a snack and two dinners. And, of course, the Portuguese perfectionist doesn’t deny himself the benefits of cryotherapy. According to newspaper reports in 2013, Ronaldo splashed out on a cryotherapy chamber for his home, costing €45,000 (just short of £39,000).
What can an amateur learn from Cristiano Ronaldo?
Andreas Breitfeld: “Polyphasic sleep is wonderful. It’s been well- researched. The downside is nobody can keep it up. It’s difficult to combine disappearing six times a day at an exact time with even a vaguely normal working life or a halfway-bearable family existence. Seven to eight hours of regular sleep at night is enough. And you sleep best when the bedroom is completely dark and cool.”