During a Stryd “For the Love of Running” webinar, registered dietitian Sakiko Minagawa presented nutrition guidelines for endurance athletes. She identified the day-in, day-out nutrition needed for athletes, including masters triathletes, to perform at their highest levels.
What was almost comical, however, was the number of questions focused on race day nutrition.
I thought about this scene after the webinar. Most of us recognize the importance of daily nutrition. However, in truth, we spend more time investigating the latest dieting fad or fueling strategy while grabbing whatever is convenient for a meal.
“Eating well and being active” is a ‘one-two-punch’ for healthy living of older adults, according to the website Eat Right. In fact, what we eat before, during, and after training can be part of our competitive strategy as an athlete.
Nutrition is a key component to health and sports performance.Sakiko Minagawa, MS, RDN, LD
For the masters endurance athlete, paying attention to nutrition is even more important than for the younger person. Changes to our bodies that occur with age make what we eat increasingly important.
How Our Bodies Changes With Age
As we age, we must change what we eat and drink, how we rest, and how we spend our leisure time and train for endurance sports like triathlon.
“People who did the equivalent of 30-40 minutes of jogging per day, five days a week showed biological markers of a person seven years younger.”From a report cited in “Six Principles of Triathlon Training for Seniors“
How are we to change the way we eat, sleep, and play? By considering the most important changes to our bodies that occur with age.
Loss in lean body mass and bone mass
At around age 50, our skeletal muscles lose cells and become smaller and stiffer according to Dr. Vonda Wright in Masters Athletes: A Model for Healthy Aging. Without intervention, the reduced muscle mass and increased stiffness results in lower strength, reduced power, and more frequent muscle strains and joint pain.
Decrease in total calorie needs
Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the energy (measured in calories) necessary for normal body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature.
Lean body mass (muscle) has a higher RMR than fat. Therefore, any loss of lean body mass, including that related to age, will reduce the calories required to maintain a given weight.
Decrease in nutrient absorption
For a significant portion of the senior population, age means reduced production of stomach acid. This may seem like a good thing given the barrage of advertising for medications to treat heartburn and acid reflux. However, less stomach acid can affect absorption of nutrients from food sources.
Decreasing absorption of nutrients, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and magnesium, affects bone health, blood pressure, and other metabolic processes.
How Age-Related Changes Affect Nutrition Needs of Masters Endurance Athletes
The changes with age explain why proper nutrition is one of six keys to triathlon training for seniors and even more critical to get right than for younger athletes.
The physiological changes mean that we need fewer (net of exercise) calories, higher amounts of protein, and greater amounts of key nutrients.
Sakiko Minagawa challenges us to do this by eating smarter and more efficiently. We must minimize so-called empty calories while consuming more nutrient-dense foods in the proper proportion.
Following are guidelines for older adults from government and private sources.
Nutrition for the General Population of Older Adults
In the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture update dietary guidelines every five years based on the current nutrition science.
The greater number of people living longer has led to specific guidelines for older adults. MyPlate for Older Adults published by Tufts University is based on the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans but targeted to those age 65 and over. Check out their short, informative video with these recommendations and the following guidelines from nutrition professionals.
Greater amounts of protein
It is important to pay attention to protein intake, avoiding skimping. Muscles of older adults require greater amounts of amino acids to achieve the same muscle-building effect that occurs in younger athletes.
The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (1.3 ounces per 100 pounds) of body weight per day for adults over 18, or about 65 grams (2.3 ounces) of protein for a 180-pound adult. Research suggests that adults over age 65 require greater amounts.
More anti-inflammatory foods
Fish oil (through fish, like salmon and sardines, and supplements) and certain plant (e.g. flaxseed) and nut-based oils (e.g. olive, avocado, and walnut) are recognized for their anti-inflammatory properties. According to sports nutritionist Dr. Nancy Clark, “healthy plant and fish oils provide a health-protective anti-inflammatory effect. Given that diseases of aging such as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis are triggered by inflammation, consuming canola, olive, avocado, walnut, and fish oils that reduce inflammation is a wise choice.”
Vitamins and minerals
The reduced ability with age to absorb nutrients from food means that we need to eat foods higher in certain nutrients. Prioritize fruits and vegetables high in vitamin D (e.g. salmon, eggs, orange juice) and calcium (e.g. green leafy vegetables, broccoli), though balance is also important.
Water is necessary for regulating body temperature, transporting nutrients throughout our bodies, lubricating joints, and other bodily processes. However, as we age, thirst becomes less reliable as an indicator of hydration level. With the less sensitive thirst response, we are more likely to become dehydrated and, therefore, need to pay more attention to staying hydrated.
It is helpful to remember that water can come in many forms. These include the obvious ones, including coffee, tea, milk, and soup. Water can also be consumed in fruits and vegetables. Registered nutritionist and chef Ian Harris points out that “vegetables such as celery, cucumber, iceberg lettuce, tomato and zucchini contain over ninety percent water”. In addition, “melons such as cantaloupe and watermelon have some of the highest water content, at more than 90 percent.” Many other commonly available fruits contain over 80 percent water.
Watch your salt intake
According to registered dietitian Sally Kuzemchak, those over age 50 are more likely to be “salt sensitive”. We need to pay even greater attention to salt intake. However, you don’t have to forego taste. Herbs and spices make effective salt alternatives.
Consuming a balanced diet with nutrient-rich foods such as whole grain, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy should be our first choice for nutrient needs, according to Sakiko Minagawa. However, given the importance of avoiding bone mass loss, active seniors may benefit from supplements such as protein powder, vitamin D, calcium, and/or a multivitamin to meet the nutrient needs not provided by food. Prior to taking supplements, review any plans with a dietitian and/or physician to avoid any potential negative consequences from overdosing or interactions between supplements and medications.
Choose Organic for These Fruits and Vegetables
The fruits and vegetables in the table below quickly absorb herbicides and pesticides. Therefore, it is best to choose organically farmed forms of these whenever possible.
|Strawberries||Spinach||Kale, collard & mustard greens|
|Bell & hot peppers||Cherries||Peaches|
Source: Dr. Livingood.com
More Nutrition Guidance for Masters Endurance Athletes
Active seniors, including triathletes, need even greater amounts of amino acids to achieve the same muscle-building effect that occurs in younger athletes. Dr. Nancy Clark recommends that the masters athlete consume 1.4 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.6 to 0.7 gram per pound of body weight per day) spread throughout the day. This effectively means doubling the amount of protein recommended for the general population.
For a masters athlete who weighs 150 pounds (68 kg), this means 95 to 110 grams of protein per day. Distribute your protein intake throughout the day. Consuming 25 grams four times per day is a good goal.
In addition, the masters athlete should consume an additional 40 grams of protein after hard exercise for muscle repair and recovery as soon as possible after finishing the session. Think whey protein smoothie since whey protein is high in the amino acid leucine, which triggers muscle growth.
Some research also suggests potential benefits of protein consumption before sleep for overnight muscle protein synthesis. Sakiko Minagawa recommends foods such as Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk which are great sources of protein as a pre-bedtime snack. These help with recovery and adapting to exercise training.
The active senior triathlete, especially one who sweats a lot during endurance training, needs to pay special attention to staying hydrated. Follow the guidelines for drinking healthy water-based beverages and eating fruits and vegetables high in water content. Pay attention to the color of your urine and consume enough water in whatever form so it is consistently light-colored.
While we need to avoid excessive salt intake, the endurance athlete needs to make sure he/she does not become electrolyte deficient during training, especially in high temperatures.
Meal Guidelines for Active Seniors
MyPlate for Older Adults provides the following guidelines:
- 50% of the plate should contain several servings of various colored fruits and vegetables. These can be fresh, frozen, or canned but look for low sodium and low added sugar varieties.
- 25% of the plate (at least three ounces) should contain whole-grain pasta, breads, cereals, or rice. These are important sources of nutrients and fiber.
- A serving of low-fat or fat-free dairy (milk, yogurt or cheese) fortified with vitamin D to provide protein and much needed nutrients.
- Vary protein choices with more fish, beans and peas (see the chart below), and milk. Many of these protein sources also contain significant amounts of important nutrients such as vitamin D and calcium.
- Consume plenty of fluid from sources such as water, coffee, tea, soups, and high water content fruits and vegetables.
- Oils used for salads or food preparation should be liquid oils.
Endurance athletes in training should adjust these guidelines to accommodate their special needs for higher protein intake, more water consumption, and additional vitamin D and calcium. “Kill two birds with one stone” by eating more fish such as swordfish, salmon, tuna; milk; yogurt; eggs; and cheese since these are good sources of both protein and vitamin D.
A Healthy and Surprisingly Good Tasting Recipe High in Protein and Fiber
Besides hummus, I had not found recipes with chickpeas that both my wife and I enjoyed. That changed with the following recipe from Bon Appétit.
- 1 lb. dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, drained
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, crushed
- 2 – 3 x 1 inch strips lemon zest
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
Combine chickpeas, onion, garlic, lemon zest, oil, and a couple big pinches of salt in a large pot. Add 2 quarts of water and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally and replacing any water that evaporates, until chickpeas are tender, about 2 hours. Taste and season to taste. Let cool.
If you make this recipe, share your thoughts in the Comment below.
Involving an Expert
Older athletes should avoid extreme or fad diets. However, you may be impatient to lose weight or increase athletic performance. Eating whole, unprocessed foods following the balanced, healthy eating patterns described in the USDA guidelines is best.
Consult a dietician for additional nutrition recommendations for your specific health and sports performance goals.
Thank you to Sakiko Minagawa, MS, RDN, LD for contributing to this post.
Share Your Questions and Comments
As an endurance athlete, what is the most important lesson about nutrition you have learned?
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This post. originally published on April 7, 2020, was updated on September 19, 2023.