Say you’re an athlete and you’ve been doing this for a while – quite a while let’s say. Or you’re new to this tri thing, but you’ve got some life experience behind you. Masters athletes? Mature athletes? Experienced and wise athletes? Whatever your term of preference, athletic prowess is not limited solely to youth. A cursory glance at any training squad or competition will show you that performance gains, lofty goals, PRs, ripped abs and competitive spirit are very much a part of the higher age brackets, too. Despite this, there is no denying some of the physiological components of ageing, and what implications there might be when it comes to nutrition to help support health and performance right through the golden years.
As we age there are many changes that occur – including cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, thermoregulatory and neurological changes. These can impact bone density, lean muscle mass retention and body composition, thirst perception, flexibility and strength. If you are returning to activity after a hiatus – then it is likely a good start to first check in with your regular doc. Especially if you have a medical condition or are taking any medications that might interfere with hydration, fuelling or even safety while training or racing. The same applies for perennial athletes (of all ages) – get a regular medical check up. Think of it as another key training session to tick off before the season starts. You’ll also want to check your meds are approved, or you have the appropriate TUE’s in place if you are a masters athlete that might be subject to anti-doping rules – some of the most common heart medications need authorisation for use under these rules.
With each passing decade, humans gradually lose skeletal muscle – known as sarcopenia. To mitigate, or slow these losses, getting enough dietary protein is key. In fact, protein requirements increase as we age, and the best approach is to spread this intake out over the day. Aim for 20 to 30 g of high quality protein at each meal, plus an additional 10 to 20 g protein at snacks between meals. A good habit is to always follow a training session with a protein rich recovery meal or snack like yogurt with nuts, a milk based smoothie or protein shake, or a couple of eggs on toast.
When it comes to improving muscle strength, maintaining lean muscle mass, as well as bone health and density, creatine is a great supplement to consider for masters athletes. As a performance bonus it helps reduce fatigue in high intensity, short duration intervals and may also help support cognitive function.
Aging, presence of disease and some medications can all impact the ability to absorb and metabolise nutrients. Calcium and vitamin D are two worth mentioning. Adequate amounts of calcium – found in dairy sources, tofu, chickpeas, sesame seeds, small bones of canned fish – are needed to help protect ageing bones and loss of bone minerals, yet research shows that most adults are unlikely to meet calcium requirements. Older females, in particular are at risk, and this is where a supplement may also be warranted.
Similarly, vitamin D should be on radars. It is a key nutrient for bone growth and mineralization, immune function support and muscle function. As we age, though, the skin – where most vitamin D is absorbed from the sun – can decrease in absorbing capacity by as much as 50 per cent. For those that live in colder climates where much of the year sunlight can be reduced, or outdoor exposure limited, this poses an even greater challenge. Vitamin D levels should be checked with your doctor.
Another kicker of aging is that our ability to hydrate optimally might be off. Decreased perception of thirst, decreased kidney function, changes in hormones and changes in sweat response may mean decreased voluntary fluid intake during exercise and increased requirements. A good way to get a handle on individual fluid needs are some simple weigh-ins pre- and post-training and racing. Aim to consume 150 per cent of fluid losses in the couple hours after a workout or race.
Think of these as small challenges, considerations that can be added to your mix of maturity and experience as competitive advantage. Nothing here should put you off aiming for high-performance training and racing. It’s all about a little extra attention to what’s on your plate, something we could all benefit from no matter what age category we have printed on our bibs.
This story originally appeared in the July/ August issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.
Pip Taylor is a sports-performance dietician based in Australia.