Meet my nutrition athlete Christine. She is in the 70-74 age group and she recently placed first in her age group at IRONMAN Lake Placid, in a time of 16:16:37. She was the oldest female finisher of the day and earned a slot to the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona (she declined the slot in order to focus on IM 70.3 WC).
Meet my nutrition athlete Stacey. She recently earned a spot to IRONMAN Kona at IM Switzerland by placing third in the 55-59 age group in a time of 13:07:58.
These two inspiring ladies are among several older female athletes who I have the honor to work with on nutrition, along with several Trimarni coaching athletes who race in a 50-plus age group category. Although it's easy to classify age based on when you were born (chronological age), these ladies, among many other female athletes, are showing us that sport can play a positive role in the aging process and that age is just a number. What can you do with your body at your age?
Although aging may negatively affect the physiology of the body relating to athletic performance, now more than ever, more older female adults are pursuing a sport as a way to exercise. Whether it's to improve health, maintain fitness, socialize or to stay competitive, consistent physical activity can offset some of the negative effects of aging, all while improving self-confidence, psychological well-being, mood and reducing risk for disease.
Most athletes will experience a decrease in max power, max oxygen consumption, muscle strength, bone mass and flexibility/range of motion throughout the aging progress. While the statement of "use it or lose it" works for many, the aging body is not immune to illness, injury or other health setbacks, which may prevent the older female athlete from maintaining a consistent exercise regime. Although there are many normal consequences of aging, a lifelong habit of exercise can certainly slow the aging process and improve quality of life.
As it relates to the nutritional needs for the older female athlete, we need to pay close attention to energy expenditure vs. energy intake, macro and micronutrient needs and fluid intake, as well as the physiological changes that are occurring in the aging body as the diet and training will need to be tailored to each older female athlete.
However, I feel it's important to address a few of the other nutritional needs that should be discussed with the older female athlete to maximize performance all while keeping the body in good health.
Food and drug interactions: The older female athlete may require the use of medications due to a chronic or temporary health condition. When determining the dietary needs and fueling regimes of the older female athlete, consider that diuretics (ex. blood pressure medications) may cause urinary losses of sodium, potassium and magnesium and NSAIDs may cause iron losses and kidney issues. Banned substances and other medications should be discussed with the older female athlete in order to optimize health without side effects (and fair play in sport).
Fluid needs: The older female athlete has less body water than the younger athlete. Thirst sensation decreases and the older kidney cannot concentrate urine as well, which means more water is needed to remove waste. Less sweat is produced, especially if adequate hydration is not available. This brings challenges to dialing in sport nutrition needs during training/racing, especially in hot or humid conditions.
Daily diet: There are many reasons why an older female athlete may struggle to eat a well-balanced diet on a daily basis. Reasons may include, decreased appetite, caretaker responsibilities, increase fullness, eating alone, wanting to eat out in order to socialize, inability to purchase healthy food options, food aversions, digestion issues and constipation. It is important to take the time getting to know your athlete, so that you treat her as an individual and tailor the diet to her lifestyle and health needs.
Nutrient timing: Maximizing performance through the timing of nutrition is critical for all athletes. Seeing that the aging body may not respond to training stressors as well as the younger body, it is important to structure the daily diet so that nutrition is always consumed before and after workouts in order to reduce the stress response of exercise and to delay fatigue, while helping the body keep good form and focus. Additionally, the timing of nutrition (protein post workout) can help with tissue rejuvenation, which can help the older female athlete, who is at risk of losing bone/muscle throughout training. It is important to take a lot of time with the older female athlete, working on the daily diet and timing nutrition with training, as the foundation of great performances start with the daily diet.
Sport nutrition: The older female athlete requires carbohydrates, fluids and electrolytes similar to the younger athlete. Sport nutrition education is important when working with the older athlete as proper application of sport nutrition products will help with digestion and absorption, to delay fatigue and to optimize metabolic needs during training/racing. Depending on the sport and duration of the older female athlete, different sport nutrition products/strategies should be applied. Many older female athletes overconsume nutrition products during training in order to "get through" workouts and under-consume adequate energy (and nutrient-dense foods) in the daily diet. It is critical to help the older female athlete structure her daily diet in a way that supports the current training load, prior to working on the application of sport nutrition.
Body image concerns: The older female athlete may suffer from body image concerns, similar to her younger counterparts. Therefore, it is important to de-emphasize weight and body composition, such as "you would perform better if you were leaner/lighter." It is important to promote healthy eating behaviors to the older female athlete as her focus should not only be on performance but also on disease prevention. The older female athlete should feel comfortable talking about her body image, food and weight concerns with a coach and sport RD, thus trust is extremely important. Health and well-being should always be ahead of athletic performance. Because many older female athletes come from an era of fat-free foods and dieting, it is important to discuss the health consequences of disordered eating behaviors when applicable, even among the older adult population. Eating disorders affect females of all ages and there is no age discrimination for body image concerns. Many female athletes do not grow out of their struggles with food and the body.
For the older female athlete, be mindful that the body becomes less resilient with age. There are more GI, cardiac, bone and muscle effects of training with an older body. Therefore, proper nutrition and fueling/hydration are critical to the body's ability to withstand training stressors, while keeping the body in good health.
Although sport participation provides general physical activity, it also provides an opportunity to travel, make friends and to interact with like-minded individuals, of all ages. Competition is not just for young athletes. Sure, you may not be in your 20s but there's a good chance that you are now moving a lot faster than the people who you grew up with.
Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, LD/N is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition LLC and holds a master of science in exercise physiology, is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and a 11-time IRONMAN finisher. She enjoys public speaking, writing, plant-strong cooking and traveling. Learn more at trimarnicoach.com.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.