— by Pip Taylor
It’s no secret that endurance sports, triathlon included, are kinder to slightly older athletes than some other sports. Proof of that comes not just from the pro ranks, which boast athletes in their late 30s and even 40s, but by the super competitive, hard racers nudging into their 50s, 60s and beyond. This is because the sport requires grit, mental fortitude and stamina, as opposed to pure speed, outright strength or fast-footed agility that you see in other sports, such as swimming, gymnastics, team sports and sprinting.
Although maturing athletes might excel and continue to see improvements, there is no getting around that age does take its toll on performance and physicality. With good nutrition, correct training and some good genetics, though, you can mitigate, or slow, some of these declines.
As we age, we experience a natural decline in muscle mass – in fact, after the age of 30, without adequate training and nutrition, we start to lose muscle on a daily basis. A loss of muscle mass, ultimately, also leads to a slump in strength and power output. Even more alarming is that, as young as 25, our maximal VO2 and aerobic power also starts to slide. But before you throw in the towel and give up chasing that PB, the heartening news is that much of this slide in physical prowess is actually simply due to disuse rather than aging itself.
In other words, in the general population, aging tends to signal a slowing down – an inclination to prefer to rest up a little more, rather than push the training volume. Or put more simply – use it or lose it. This also explains the ripped physiques accompanying those hard racers in the more mature age groups – they are the ones that have refused to slow down, showing that it is indeed possible to retain fitness, strength and muscle mass as you age, even if maximal power and speed do slow.
Nutrition is a key component to get the most from your body, no matter your age. There are a few subtle dietary changes that are important and will help sustain athletic success well into your twilight years.
Up the protein: Protein has been shown to be critical for not just building but retaining lean muscle mass, with a higher protein requirement for older athletes than their younger counterparts. At the same time, caloric needs decrease slightly, even at the same workload. This means that it is critical that calories consumed are from nutrient-dense sources that add to function and health, as opposed to “empty” calories.
Recovery is king: As we mature, we don’t recover as well as in our youth. This might mean that training programs need to be adapted, with more time between hard sessions, but your nutrition can also give you a helping hand. To maximize training adaptations, optimize recovery and help maintain muscle mass, fuel up with carbohydrates and protein immediately post-workout.
Hydrate: When it comes to race day, as well as key workouts, keep in mind that with a decrease in lean muscle mass, total body water is lower. Our natural thirst sensation can also decrease with age, which makes hydration and fluid replacement a major consideration, especially when training or racing in the heat. You may need to be more disciplined in drinking to a plan rather than just being guided by thirst alone. As for every athlete, replace fluid lost during training/racing with 1.5 times that amount as soon as possible. And, when it comes to heat, older athletes are also slower to acclimatize and more susceptible to the detrimental effects of heat on performance. Take this into consideration when planning race schedules and race-day nutrition plans.
Tick off the essentials: Get plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and quality fats and proteins – not just for optimal physical performance, but more cognitive function and general wellbeing.
Some specific vitamins and minerals are required in larger amounts:
- Recommended calcium intakes are slightly higher (1,200 mg per day for 51 years plus as opposed to 1,000 mg for 19 to 50-year-olds, and may be even higher for menopausal athletes) to maintain bone health. Three to four servings of dairy per day (or calcium-fortified foods) should meet these needs.
- Vitamins D and B12 needs can also be elevated due to decreased gut absorption (gut function also slowly declines as we get older). While it should be possible to obtain all micronutrients in sufficient quantity if you are eating well, if caloric needs are reduced (as they can be with age) then deficiencies can quickly sneak up. If in doubt, speak to your health-care provider and ask whether any tests are warranted.
Pip Taylor is a pro triathlete and nutritionist from Australia