Nutrition is a vital component of an athlete’s health and performance. 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 downhill.” 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 and strength and reach our full fitness potential as we age.
The Aging Athlete: Physical Changes
As the body ages there is a natural loss in muscle mass. Referred to as sarcopenia (Greek for “loss of flesh”), this comes with associated reductions in strength, physical performance, and bone mass. In addition, with age we experience increases 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 among individuals, but a person may lose 3–8 percent 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 (e.g., growth hormone, IGF-1, testosterone, and estrogen). The muscles become 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 writes here about sarcopenia and why it is so vital that with advancing years we make time to carry out regular strength training. As Scott explains, “no exercise will fully offset the ravages of time, but nothing will delay it as much as strength training.”
Proper nutrition can help as well.
Nutrition and the Aging Athlete
Couple your strength training with the nutrients below, which have been shown to support muscle mass with aging, and you may be surprised at what you can still achieve!
It has been shown that the aging muscle has a blunted response to muscle protein synthesis with protein intakes. The US RDA is 0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight per day (g/kg/day). However, a minimum of 1.2 g/kg/day is recommended for the elderly (those over 65 years old). We already know protein requirements are increased with training, but it is even more important to meet daily protein requirements with aging. For the Uphill Athletes who sign up for my custom nutrition plan, I suggest a daily protein intake of approximately 1.4–1.6 g/kg. This intake of protein is to be be evenly spread in four intervals throughout the day, with a minimum of 20 grams per meal of a high-quality protein food source (e.g., lean meats, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu).
A low-dose daily supplementation of 3 grams of creatine per day in combination with resistance/strength training has the potential to support gains in lean mass and strength in aging muscles. 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 is important to monitor yourself if using this supplement.
Five Portions of Fruits and Vegetables
It may seem like a tired message, but most still do not meet the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables, particularly berries and green leafy vegetables, are rich in antioxidants known for their anti-inflammatory properties. Eating plenty of both will help protect both longevity of health and sport performance.
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 approximate intakes of 2–5 grams 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, and mackerel. (If you are vegetarian/vegan, you can choose a sustainable algae omega-3 supplement; you do not get the required beneficial omega-3 from food sources such as flaxseeds and walnuts.)
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: vitamin D3. Geographical location, skin color, the timing of training (early or late in the day), and 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.
Practicing good nutrition, maintaining fitness, and engaging in 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?
-by Rebecca Dent, Uphill Athlete High-Performance Dietitian
As our resident High-Performance Dietitian, Rebecca Dent is available for phone consultations about diet, and she can create a Custom Performance Nutrition Plan for you.
Further reading in the scientific literature:
- “Potential Roles of n-3 PUFAs during Skeletal Muscle Growth and Regeneration”
- “Protein and aging”
- “Nutrition to mitigate aging”
- “Effectiveness of Creatine Supplementation on Aging Muscle and Bone: Focus on Falls Prevention and Inflammation”
- “Effects of Vitamin D3 on muscle function and performance”
- “Aging is accompanied by a blunted muscle protein synthetic response to protein ingestion”