Nutrition for Older Athletes

article by Clare Wood, sports dietitian

As we get older, there is no excuse to stop being active, plus there are many reasons to start, or continue. Being physically active can actually help keep you younger, and you know what they say, 50 is the new 30! There are, however, physiological changes that take place in the body as we age that need to be considered. Clever nutritional strategies can counteract these changes to ensure you get the best out of your body.

The term 'Masters Athletes' refers to those who compete in categories over 30-35 years of age. Different sports have different minimum starting ages, and variable range categories. For example, in cycling master's athletes start at a mere 35 years old, while golf doesn't consider you a master until age 50! So, check with your preferred sporting body for more details. The changing body of the older athlete often occurs at around 40 years old, and can include cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, musculoskeletal and neurological changes which in turn can impact exercise performance. Some of the physical changes that occur at an older age include reductions in strength, changes to muscle mass and body fat levels, loss of bone density, and flexibility. But all is not lost, only if you don't use it will you lose it. So read on...

Energy Requirements and Weight Management

Resting metabolic rate decreases each year as you age, mostly due to declines in muscle mass and reduction in exercise duration and intensity. However, energy requirements for the older athlete will be higher than their inactive counterparts. Getting adequate energy for your training regime is paramount to ensure the best performances are achieved. In the short term, a deficit in daily energy intake will lead to a loss of some body-fat, however, longer-term deficits will cause loss of important metabolically active muscle mass. Which in turn will reduce your energy needs further and potentially affect athletic performance. The periodisation of nutritional intake can help with meeting energy goals on high activity days by increasing intake and buffering it around training times, and on the flip side, reducing energy intake on rest days. Remember, your energy budget needs to allow for adequate protein for muscle repair, carbohydrates for glycogen fuel, and all the micronutrients required for optimal health and recovery.

Nutrient Intake

Protein needs in young populations are higher for strength-based athletes than endurance athletes and even less for inactive individuals. Protein needs are also higher for older athletes compared to their inactive counterparts. There is inevitable muscle deterioration as you age, and to alleviate this it is recommended that daily protein intakes should be ~1.2g/kg. Older athletes may find it difficult to meet these needs due to lower energy demands compared to younger athletes. So, clever meal planning with high quality and regular protein intake, coupled with strength training is a must to maintain muscle mass. Using dairy foods, nuts, seeds and eggs, as part of meals or as recovery snacks, will help achieve this.

Carbohydrate and glycogen functionality is similar in older athletes compared to young athletes. Glycogen uptake and storage, and usage of insulin may be affected by medical conditions such as diabetes, in older populations, but generally, the carbohydrate recommendations for training and performance are the same for all athletes. Meeting these targets however, needs to be managed within a lower energy budget; therefore careful meal planning is essential. The use of high quality, high fibre carbohydrates are optimal for digestive health and weight management. Including foods such as oats, legumes, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, grain breads along with plentiful fruits and vegetables will assist with meeting these needs.

older athletes have unique nutritional needsolder athletes have unique nutritional needs

Fats in the diet are essential for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and a focus on healthier fats (unsaturated and omega-3) are also beneficial for improved cardiovascular health. Using more fatty fish, like salmon, tuna and mackerel, replacing butter with plant-based oil, and incorporating avocado, nuts and seeds will help improve the profile of fats in the diet. Older athletes will utilise fats similarly to younger athletes. In general, fats should be kept fairly low in the diet, less than 30% of the energy budget, but even lower if you are looking to reduce body fat levels. Fats won't directly impact athletic performance, but ideally reduced amounts pre-exercise will help gastric emptying for stomach comfort during the more physical types of exercise.

Micronutrients that are important in ageing include calcium and vitamin D for bone health, vitamin B12, potassium, plus the anti-oxidant vitamins C & E. Deficiencies of micronutrients in older athletes are possible due to changes in requirements, reduction in the ability to metabolise and absorb them, plus the possible presence of chronic disease states or injuries accompanied by increased medication use. Regularly eating nutrient-rich colourful foods will increase the likelihood of maximising micronutrient intake, which in turn helps avoid any deficiencies as well as reducing inflammation.

Hydration

Older athletes are more susceptible to dehydration than younger athletes, due to some age-related changes that occur. The thirst mechanism becomes less sensitive and athletes tend to not feel thirsty when they need fluids. Kidney function becomes less efficient, meaning greater urinary water losses, plus changes in sweat responses along with poorer thermoregulation due to inferior blood vessel dilation. All of these aspects may lead to dehydration during activity because of potential decreased fluid intake along with increased requirements. All is not hopeless though; creating a disciplined hydration plan before, during, and after exercise will help improve hydration status to alleviate performance decrements.

Recovery

Recovery goals are very similar for all athletes. Eating a carbohydrate/protein meal within 30-60 minutes post-training will aid in rapid nutrient uptake to the blood, muscle refuelling and rehydration. See some more detailed information about recovery here. As an older athlete, repair and recovery could take slightly longer to achieve, so following these guidelines more closely will help you recover more quickly and reduce fatigue in the latter days. Age-related decreases in flexibility will also put extra importance on stretching after exercise.

Medications and Supplements

Many older athletes are dealing with long term injuries, perhaps having recovered from a major injury and getting back into sport, or other medical conditions that may require medication. Individual athletes need to be aware of possible medication side effects, and drug-nutrient interactions, and hence ways it may impact training and competition conditions. Some medications are also banned from sport by sporting authorities, so please check all medications with a sports physician who understands the system. An application for a Therapeutic Use Exemption may be required to continue with the use of certain necessary medications.

Supplements may be required for dietary deficiencies, which can be monitored with regular blood testing. Minimal research has been done on supplements for master's athletes. However, there is some accumulating evidence around creatine supplementation and its potential to increase ageing muscle mass. Seek guidance from a Sports Dietitian for an individual recommendation of supplements.

References

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