Nutrition for the Aging Athlete

By Bob Seebohar | Oct. 22, 2019, 5 p.m. (ET)

older athletes and nutrition needs

Biological degradation. Not the most pleasant phrase but one that I like to use to describe the aging process to get athletes’ attention.

There are many nutritional challenges that we face as we age, but by far the most concerning is the age-related loss of muscle mass, termed sarcopenia, or the “S” word.

Why is sarcopenia so important to discuss? Not only does the loss of muscle mass impact athletic performance, but it can also decrease functional capacity and reduce overall health and activities of daily living. Peak muscle strength and size is typically the highest in the second and third decade of life, and then begins to decline in the fourth to fifth decade. Athletes typically see a slower progression of sarcopenia than sedentary individuals, but this depends on two main factors: daily protein intake and physical activity (specifically strength training). 

Yet another person telling you that strength training is important, especially as you enter your 40’s. However, that is not the main focus of this article. Let’s just leave it at yes, you should incorporate a periodized strength training program year-round, no matter what. Hopefully this provides you with more support to move some heavy things throughout your training plan.

Now back to the main matter at hand: nutrition. Sarcopenia cannot be prevented but can be slowed, specifically through the strategic addition of protein into your daily nutrition plan. In my time practicing as a Sport Dietitian, over 20 years, it is clear that most endurance athletes usually eat less protein and more carbohydrates in their daily nutrition plan. Don’t get me wrong, carbohydrates are very important when periodized correctly to account for health, performance, and training load changes, but when carbohydrates are too high, it usually means protein gets the backseat. This is not the ideal scenario when trying to slow age related muscle mass loss.

As mentioned previously, most endurance athletes do not eat enough protein throughout the day. If they do, the quantity and timing of consumption is usually not well implemented to maximize protein synthesis. There are daily protein recommendations that the government sets for the U.S. population, but those are very low for aging athletes. In nutrition speak, it is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/PRO/kg). For an 80-kilogram (176 pounds) male, it would be 64 grams of protein per day. For a 60-kilogram (132 pounds) female, it would be 48 grams of protein per day. These numbers are extremely low, especially for the athlete in or beyond their fourth decade of life.

When adjusting for an endurance athlete, research provides an increase to 1.2-1.4 g/PRO/kg, but this is still fairly low to slow the progression of sarcopenia. Most current research related to sarcopenia and athletics states that the protein intake should be a bit higher to account for advancing age and the loss of muscle mass. Daily protein intakes of 1.6-1.8 g/kg is recommended. For that 80-kilogram male, this would equal 128-144 grams of protein per day and for the 60-kilogram female, 96-108 grams of protein per day. These numbers better represent the daily ranges for the aging athlete who is participating in endurance training.

Get your protein

To put this into practice, it is best to space out your protein intake throughout the day evenly, rather than having a small amount here and a large amount there. The former will maximize daily protein synthesis, which is wanted when trying to combat the aging effects of sarcopenia.  Aim for 25-35 grams of protein per meal and 10-15 grams of protein per snack throughout the day. You may have to pay more attention to nutrition labels to make sure you are on track, but after a few days you will likely get the hang of it.

With a more focused effort on consuming enough protein rich foods throughout the day, combined with a structured strength training plan, it is possible to slow the progression of the “S” word.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RDN, CSSD, CSCS, METS II is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a USAT Level III Certified Coach, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, and the creator of the Nutrition Periodization and Metabolic Efficiency Training concepts. He owns eNRG Performance and is the co-founder of Birota Foods in Colorado. Contact him at bob@enrgperformance.com or www.enrgperformance.com or www.birotafoods.com.

References:

Desbrow, B. et al. Nutrition for special populations: young, female, and masters athletes. Int J Sports Nutr Exer Metab, 29, 220-227. 2019.

Paddon-Jones, D. & Rasmussen, B.B. Dietary protein recommendations and the prevention of sarcopenia. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 12(1), 86-90. 2009.