Nutrition for the Aging Athlete

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by Rebecca Dent, High Performance Dietitian

Nutrition is a vital component of an athlete’s health and performance, and as we age, there are foods and supplements we can take to prolong our performance.

Often in my practice, I hear the echoing of ‘I’m getting old’, ‘it’s my age’ ‘you get to [insert age]and all of a sudden everything starts to go down hill’. Usually at this point my excitement sparks, knowing that emerging science is showing that we don’t necessarily have to succumb to the ticking of time and give in to the degenerative physiological effects that ensue. We can leverage some control, it is possible to continue to build muscle, strength and reach our full fitness potential as we age.

As the body ages there is a natural loss in muscle mass referred to as sarcopenia (Greek for ‘loss of flesh’) with an associated reduction in strength, physical performance and reduced bone mass. In addition, with age we experience an increase in total body fat and visceral fat with changes in body fat disruption, usually seen around the middle. Muscle mass starts to decline around the age of 40, rates will vary between individuals but a person may lose 3-8% per decade with an increase in decline around the age of 65.

These changes come as a result of several factors including a reduction in hormones (i.e. growth hormone, IGF-1, testosterone and estrogen), the muscle becomes less responsive to anabolic stimuli from resistance training and protein intakes, and in addition with age comes an increase in inflammation.

Uphill Athlete Coach, Scott Johnson talks here about sarcopenia and why it is so vital that with advancing years we need to make time to carry out regular strength training. Scott explains that ‘no exercise will fully offset the ravages of time, but nothing will delay it as much as strength training’.

Couple your strength training with the nutrients below, that have been shown to support muscle mass with aging and you may be surprised at what you can still achieve!

Protein – It has been shown that the aging muscle has a blunted response to muscle protein synthesis with protein intakes. The US RDA is 0.8g/kg/day but a minimum of 1.2g of protein per kilogram of body is recommended per day in the elderly (65+years). We already know protein requirements are increased with training but it is even more important that daily protein requirements are met with aging. With Uphill Athletes signing up to my custom nutrition plan I suggest approx. 1.4-1.6g/kg protein per day. This intake of protein is to be be evenly spread in 4 intervals throughout the day, with a minimum of 20g per meal of a high quality protein food source (e.g. lean meats, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu).

Creatine  – A low dose daily supplementation of 3g of creatine per day in combination with resistance / strength training has the potential to support gains in lean mass and strength in the aging muscle. Creatine is one of the most researched supplements with sound evidence to support its efficacy of use. Creatine is found naturally in red meat but creatine supplements are synthetic and therefore suitable for vegetarians/vegans. (Note: Creatine causes water retention and associated weight gain in some individuals. It’s important to monitor yourself if using this supplement.)

5+ Portions of Fruit & Vegetable  – It may seem like a tired message but most still do not meet the recommended daily intakes. Rich in antioxidants known for their anti-inflammatory properties, particularly berries and green leafy vegetables, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables will help protect both longevity of health and sporting performance.

Omega 3  – Preliminary research suggests that omega 3 supplementation, again due to its anti-inflammatory effects, may help to aid muscle growth with age. Exact doses are yet to be determined but approx. intakes of 2-5g of EPA/DHA per day have been shown to be beneficial. You can obtain this from a daily omega 3 fish oil supplement or combined with eating oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel. (If you are vegetarian / vegan you can choose a sustainable algae omega 3 supplement as you do not get the required beneficial omega 3 from food sources such as flaxseeds or walnuts).

Vitamin D3 – Vitamin D3 status should be routinely assessed. With age comes the reduced ability of the skin to convert vitamin D2 to the functional compound used by the body D3. Geographical location, skin colour, time of day training (early or late), indoor training will also influence levels. Vitamin D3 is important for muscle function and insufficient levels may have a negative impact on muscle strength and performance.

Good nutrition practices, maintaining fitness and regular strength training not only lengthens our ‘lives lived well’ but also broadens the possibilities of what we are capable of achieving physically, even with the passing of time. Now isn’t that worth the investment?

Further reading in the scientific literature:

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