The Coast News Group
Professional surfer Ricky Whitlock works with Carlsbad native and fitness trainer Paul Hiniker. Photo by Bill Reilly
Rancho Santa Fe Lead StorySports

‘New era’ of fitness helping to extend athletes’ careers

COAST CITIES — While the list of professional athletes playing past the average retirement age of 33 may contain a few exceptional examples, not only in organized sports but in extreme sports also, it appears that list is expected to grow in the years to come. Much of this trend can be attributed to a new era of fitness and training, diet and continuing opportunities from an industry that fans earnestly support even in tough economic times.

Carlsbad native and sports fitness trainer Paul Hiniker works with athletes in the extreme sports industry, including professional surfers Taylor Knox and Ricky Whitlock and professional skateboarders Danny Way and Pat Duffy.

Hiniker attributes the longevity of athletes’ careers to major sponsors entering the extreme sports industry. Today athletes can earn a six and seven figure-a-year income, he said.

“So if athletes aren’t performing or if they’re injured, they’re not getting paid,” Hiniker added. “All of sudden you have relevance in these more extreme sports to where people want to invest the time to keep their bodies conditioned and stay in condition and to be able to perform at a higher level.”

Carlsbad native Paul Hiniker (top) helps professional surfer Ricky Whitlock recover from a broken back. Photo by Bill Reilly

Hiniker, who holds a bachelor’s of science in sports medicine, is an elite trainer at Frog’s in Encinitas and is the designer and producer of an exercise DVD called “Surf Exercises,” said each of his clients goes through an assessment before beginning a training program. “We don’t just throw them into a random program and say, ‘OK, this is an exercise for surfing so we’ll do this exercise.’ We identify the imbalances and their weaknesses and we progress the program from there,” he said.

Knox, 41, who first starting surfing at 8 or 9 and began entering contests 19 years ago, still competes today in the Association of Surfing Professionals tour, where the surfers he competes against are mostly under 20.

He started training with Hiniker about six years ago.

Knox is the first to admit he’s not getting any younger, and credits the fitness regime he has with Hiniker for keeping him surfing on the competitive circuit.

“It’s still fun for me to compete,” Knox said of his motivations to continue in the sport. “But it’s also an art form and there’s always something to work on with surfing; there’s always something to get better at, and that’s fun,” he said.

Scott Minto, director of the Sports MBA program at San Diego State University, said this is, in essence, a new era for athletes because of their access to nutritionists, to physical therapists and having every possible advantage through their high school and college playing days. “Their bodies are lasting longer; if they avoid freak injuries like tearing a ligament…they can play for an extremely long time,” he said. “They stay in great physical condition 12 months out of the year and you’re going to see more and more of that.”

“Some sports, you get to a point where you get too old, or you’re too beat up from it and then you’ve got to quit,” said Knox. “You don’t see too many 50 year old skateboarders because it’s pretty harsh on the body. Surfing is something you can…keep doing into your 60s, 70s; 80s, maybe.”

Knox comes from the New School-era of surfing in the 90s, a class of surfers that includes Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Tom Curren. Guys, Knox said, who ended up retiring at 29 because the industry told them they were too old.

But that’s changed, Knox said.

“It’s great,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been treated fairly…I’ve been getting opportunities because of my age. In the past, where you’d get older and you’d lose opportunities, I’m getting more now.”

T.J. Moreno is co-founder of Activ8 Athleticism in Carlsbad where he helped to train members of the San Diego Sockers last season, including team captain Aaron Susi, who announced last month that he is returning to the Sockers for one more season.

This will be Susi’s 16th season in PASL (Professional Arena Soccer League). In June, he’ll turn 38.

“Someone like Susi, who’s been training his body correctly for a very long time, that’s what enables him to keep going,” Moreno said.

“As far as dealing with athletes, an age is just a number,” he said. “It’s really what’s going on with their body and where they’re at mentally, more than anything.”

Moreno said that when it comes to training players at the professional level, years spent playing has to be taken into consideration, including the wear and tear on their bodies. “If they’re older athletes, what we need to keep them going is maintaining their body so it doesn’t break down throughout the course of the season,” he said.

“With these young guys and these older guys, you can’t technically train them the same way,” Moreno said. He added that the athletes need a certain amount of training, but they don’t need the level of training that a 21-year-old would need, especially in duration, intensity and frequency.”

A lot of the work that goes into that is maintaining the athlete’s flexibility, mobility and stability of their joints, Moreno explained. “As long as we can keep them on the field playing, that’s half the battle; as long as you keep them performing, that’s the other half of the battle.”

He said that diet and how much rest an athlete is receiving also allows the duration of their career to keep on going at a high level.

With PASL being a young league, (it’s entering its fifth year) Kevin Milliken, the league’s commissioner, said they aren’t yet able to establish the average length of a player’s career, but that most of the players can play into their late 30s and early 40s, something he attributes to the league’s “very low injury rate.”

“We have a lot of players that are offered more money to go to the MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League), but choose to stay, because they believe they can stay healthier in our league,” Milliken said.

“The average (sports) career is relatively short,” said Minto. One of the issues that come up is life after sports, he added.

“Teams are facing a lot of pressure now to make sure athletes can operate financially after they retire, because you hear so many stories about athletes who go through all their money and spend it frivolously and don’t end up having any kind of hope after they’re done because they’ve spent through all their money, thinking it would last forever.”

But the longer an athlete stays around, particularly with one team, it’s an advantage for him because he’s gotten well-established in the community, Minto explained. “Somebody like a Trevor Hoffman was able to set the record for saves…having success over a extended period of time it makes them very, very valuable in the eyes of the fans and the franchise,” he said. Hiniker said it’s never too late to get started on a fitness program. “Everybody from your top-notch golfer to motocross rider — you’re everyday average person — is going to benefit…it doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or 80, everybody can benefit from having a program properly formatted for them; everybody benefits from exercise.”