How you should adjust your nutrition as you age

One of the fastest growing age-group categories in endurance events is that of the master’s athlete (those above the age of 40).

And it’s no wonder, as long as the body allows you to do triathlon, race organisers enforce no age cap on competing in events and we’re seeing more and more individuals give triathlon a go later in life.

The oldest recorded person to finish the Ironman World Championships in Kona was Hiromu Inada at 85 years of age. But if you’re racing and training triathlon as you get older, there are some important factors to consider.

What are the implications of ageing on performance?

Credit: Jenny Hill / Unsplash

Many changes can occur in the body with age and these may be related to cardiovascular, muscle, bone, and neurological health. These changes may impact bone density, flexibility, strength, body composition, and thirst perception.

Not only do these changes have implications for training and performance, but how they affect someone is individual to them, which is why a personalized approach is needed when dealing with dietary and hydration needs.

Medications used to treat health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, osteoarthritisanxiety, and depression may also be more competitors common in older athletes versus younger athletes. Any athlete using these medications needs to be aware of whether they are listed as a banned substance for competition.

The effects of menopause on performance will be a consideration for some female athletes, as well as hormones and changes in agility and muscle mass as we age.

Do energy needs differ in older athletes?

The energy requirements of older athletes could decrease as the metabolic rate drops slightly as we age. This could make it more difficult for masters athletes who may be aiming to reach a specific race weight or body composition. Any reduction in muscle mass will also impact metabolism.

Masters athletes should take a periodised approach to their diet to help achieve their goals. A simple way to do this is to aim for an energy intake that meets their needs on training and performance days, while reducing this on days off or days involving a lower level of activity.

What about carbohydrate intake?

Carbohydrates and protein are key for masters athletes (Credit: Merve Sehirli Nasir/Unsplash)

Carbohydrate intake is similar for all athletes within the realm of their overall energy intake. Older athletes may be less adept at storing glycogenbut this can be improved with a good endurance training program.

Digestive issues may be a consideration for some athletes, so choosing higher fiber options such as wholegrains and oats are the best option.

Why is protein so important?

Protein needs Increase with age as muscle mass starts to decline. Older athletes should aim for an intake of around 1.2g/kg bodyweight.

Including foods (beef tofu, dairy, eggs, salmon, chickpeas) and shakes (try Elite All Blacks Clear Whey Protein Isolate) with a good content of leucine is important as this amino acid triggers muscle protein synthesis. It’s also important to spread out protein intake across the day.

If an athlete is trying to reduce energy intake to become leaner, then recovery should be made a priority as protein helps maintain muscle mass.

Some masters athletes may benefit from the use of creatine to help increase muscle mass gain and strength alongside strength training. However, this may not work for everyone given the associated water retention affecting body weight.

Do micronutrient needs differ with age?

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Micronutrient absorption can decrease with age and one of the most important is vitamin D. This nutrient is required for the uptake of calcium in the body which is critical for bone health.

Absorbing enough vitamin D‘a key concern for women during menopause who lose bone density at a higher rate. Vitamin D supplementation is recommended for all people during the winter but for some older athletes, it may be required further around the year given the reduction in absorption.

Other nutrients including vitamin B12, iron, and magnesium could also impact performance by a way of bone health, fatigue, and energy metabolism. Food should always be the first source of nutrients and antioxidantsbut in some cases, a sports-approved multivitamin and mineral may be helpful such as Elite All Blacks Gold AZ Multivitamin.

How can masters athletes ensure adequate hydration?

Finally, appropriate hydration is important given some Older athletes may experience changes in thirst perception, kidney function, and sweat response. This means drinking to thirst may not be a reliable way to hydrate during and after training and competition.

Measuring an athlete’s sweat rate is a common way to establish hydration requirements and this can be done in a range of different scenarios for those competing overseas in the heat. This will provide athletes with the information needed to measure their fluid needs during training and competition to reduce the risk of dehydration or over-hydrating.

Nutrition is a key factor in the performance outcomes of any athlete regardless of age. However, considerations do need to be made by some older athletes to protect their overall health while still maintaining their desired body composition and performance goals.

This is relatively easy to achieve with a little knowledge and careful planning but may require the input of a registered sports nutritionist.

Top image: Romilly Lockyer/Getty Images

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