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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 (expressed 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 of body weight per day for adults over 18, or about 65 grams 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 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, low-fat/fat-free 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.
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.
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 low-fat 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. One can “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
- ¼ 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 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 generously with salt and pepper. 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. The safest approach is to follow the balanced, healthy eating patterns described in the USDA guidelines.
Consult a dietician for additional nutrition recommendations for your specific health and sports performance goals.
Thank you to Sakiko Minagawa, MS, RDN, LD, Peak Performance Sports Nutrition LLC, (Boulder, Colorado) for contributing to this post.
Triathlon training must change as we age to reflect the changes in our bodies. The consequences of improper training can be career-ending. Following an approach that recognizes six principles of triathlon training for seniors age 50 and over will ensure strong performance.
Meanwhile, many of the questions I receive indicate that most triathlon training programs do not consider the changes that occur with aging. This post is the beginning of an effort to address age-related needs for the senior triathlete.
Academic research has shown that decreased performance with age is not a given. Often, decreases have more to do with reduced energy, lower intensity in training, and less time spent training.
In one report, VO2 max, an indicator of the size of one’s athletic engine, was measured for elite athletes of various ages. The study showed a linear decline with age for athletes from age 18 to 103. No ‘cliff ‘ in performance was observed.
On the flip-side, triathlon training following the six principles outlined here will help senior triathletes continue strong and with minimal injury.
How Should Triathlon Training Change for Seniors?
Consistent exercise can slow aging. However, being consistent can be easier said than done. For some, lower energy with age makes it difficult to find the motivation for regular exercise. For others, jam-packed schedules make consistent exercise a challenge.
Also, the physiological changes that occur with age are the ingredients for more injuries. Never in our lives has the adage “working smarter, not harder” been more appropriate.
Physiological Changes with Age
King David understood what researchers today confirm – the human body is awesome. David wrote in Psalm 139:14 “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. “
Included in this wonderful design of the human body is the capability for self-repair of many types of tissue, including those of the muscles, tendons, and bones. Through repair, muscles become stronger during strength and endurance training. This same process promotes recovery from injuries.
However, in the typical aging process, our bodies become less efficient in making these repairs. Recovery from normal exercise and especially from injury takes longer. Tissues become stiffer. Taken together, these ultimately affect our athletic performance.
We need not give up, however. Recent research cited in Masters Athletes: A Model for Healthy Aging has shown that our ‘old’ cells can be re-programmed through physical exercise to behave like younger cells.
According to a report published in Preventive Medicine, 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.
The Aging Musculoskeletal System
Beginning 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. Accompanying this decrease in muscle mass is a reduction in strength and the power they are able to generate.
More frequent muscle strains and joint pain also result from reduced muscle mass and strength and increased stiffness. For example, knee pain, sometimes incorrectly attributed to osteoarthritis, often highlights weak quadriceps. Also, shoulder pain in swimming is often a consequence of ignoring the smaller muscles responsible for joint stability. Finally, hip injuries are often rooted in stiffness and weakness of the core and gluteal muscles.
Tendons stiffen with age, in part, because of decreases in water content, hormonal changes, and thickening of elastin fibril tissue. On top of this, overuse which produces micro tears in the tissue leads to further stiffening of connective tissues .
Overuse injuries, those caused by continuing to exercise fatigued and/or tight muscles, are the most common among senior athletes. So here’s the dilemma: We need to keep moving to be strong and flexible, but moving more can lead to injury. Hint: strength training and stretching are two of the six pillars of triathlon training for seniors.
Nothing good happens in running, or in most sports, when you get tight. Tight muscles never outperform loose muscles simply because their range of motion is restricted, meaning they can’t move the full length for optimal power.
Ryan Hall from Run the Mile You’re In
Our Cardiovascular System and Aging
The lower mass and stiffening of tissue observed in older muscles and tendons is also seen in the cardiovascular system. According to Dr. Wright, “a 70-year old heart has 30% fewer cells than the heart of a 20 year-old.”
With the stiffening comes less efficient delivery of much-needed oxygen to cells. With less oxygen, performance, metabolism, and energy levels suffer.
The good news is that through endurance training, oxygen consumption increases. Dr. Wright reports that “Through endurance conditioning, one is capable of modifying maximum oxygen consumption, diastolic filling, relaxation, and arterial stiffness.”
Aging and Nutrition
How do the changes in our bodies affect our needs for fueling before, during, and after training?
As reported in “What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition“, the physiological changes that take place with age mean that we need “fewer (net of exercise) calories, higher amounts of protein, and greater amounts of key nutrients”. We also need to pay close attention to staying hydrated which can be accomplished through choices of food and drink.
Principles of Training for Senior Triathletes
- More stretching
- Proper strength training
- Leveraging high-intensity interval training
- Getting enough rest
- Staying hydrated
- Nutrition – eating enough of the right food
Proper warm-up and stretching before vigorous exercise with additional stretching during cool down prevents the gradual shortening of tendons and cartilage. From my experience, I can say the same for muscles.
Stretching the entire body prevents imbalances. For example, in my early days of running, I was religious about stretching my hamstrings after running. However, I was not as diligent about stretching my quadriceps.
A chiropractor who diagnosed my knee pain pointed to the imbalance in flexibility in these two muscles. After a short time of consistent stretching of my quadriceps, the knee pain disappeared.
Related post: Optimal Stretching Pre and Post Workout
Proper Strength Training
Comments earlier in this post highlighted the connection between injury and muscle strength. Weak muscles are more prone to injury and provide less support for joints during activity.
It is important to strengthen the right muscles. While many athletes focus on strengthening cosmetic muscles (biceps, triceps, calves), these may not be the best ones on which to focus.
There are also plenty of personal stories in favor of strength training. One example is from ultrarunner Judy Cole (age 73). Judy ran every day during her early 30s. However, early on, she reported having problems with her knees. Strengthening her quads and hamstrings eliminated the pain allowing her to continue running.
Related post: Review of Mark Allen’s Strength Training for Triathletes
Leveraging High-Intensity Interval Training
High-intensity interval training, or HIIT for short, is an approach to training characterized by short periods, or intervals, of high-intensity exercise alternated with periods of recovery.
HIIT first gained notoriety in 1996 through a report published by the Japanese speed-skating coach and professor Izumi Tabata. Tabata’s paper documented the value of HIIT for elite athletes. Another study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology documented the benefits of HIIT over medium-intensity training for increasing VO2 max, an indicator of aerobic fitness. HIIT continues to be used for athletes of all levels, including cyclists and distance runners, for both endurance and strength training.
I have included HIIT here because it’s used for training in swimming, biking, and running. It also supports strength and fitness while simultaneously reducing the risk of overuse injury compared to long periods of lower intensity training. It also promotes variety and exercising of the entire body.
For more information about HIIT training and its benefits, look at Dr. Joseph Tieri’s book Staying Young with Interval Training. After an introduction to HIIT and its benefits, most of the book shows various HIIT exercises.
Related post: Why Senior Triathletes Should Use Interval Training
Getting Enough Rest
Rest and recovery apply to all ages. As suggested in an earlier post, we ought to make consistent, high-quality sleep a priority.
However, one liability of age can be the ‘ability’ to persevere through pain. If you only take one lesson from this post, it is that we must train smarter, not just harder, with age.
Tired muscles are more prone to injury. Abused cartilage and muscle will get their revenge. It is best to rest or change your training plan to avoid aggravating sore areas.
As we age, our sensation for thirst becomes weaker. At the same time, lower water content of body tissue is one contributor to injury. The message? Stay hydrated.
Nutrition – Eating Enough of the Right Food
Consuming additional protein to ensure that we are producing muscle from strength training is the most significant takeaway. Eating anti-inflammatory foods and a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables is good advice for all ages. See the related post below for more detailed advice.
Related post: What Masters Athletes Need To Know About Nutrition
What Is Your Experience?
Please share your questions and comments below.
We would love to hear what you have learned from your experiences? Your reading? From your coaches or training partners?
How have you adjusted your training with age?
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” Hebrews 12:1
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Laurent Labbe recently finished Ironman Nice, a long course triathlon that boasts swimming in the Mediterranean Sea, biking in the Alps, and running along the French Riviera in Nice’s historic waterfront. While the beautiful venue made the race enjoyable, Nice was even more special for Laurent. It confirmed an Ironman triathlon hydration and nutrition plan he had been working to develop.
Disappointment at Ironman Vietnam
Before diving into the story from Nice, let’s go back a little less than two months to Vietnam. It was here that Laurent competed in Ironman 70.3 Vietnam, his 10th long course triathlon.
Following a disappointing race at Ironman Vietnam, Laurent determined to come up with a better approach to nutrition and hydration for an ironman triathlon. Regarding Ironman Vietnam, Laurent said:
“The bike part was a little bit slower than I had planned, but the running was the worst leg. It was very hot. The temperature at the start of the swim was 29⁰C (84⁰F) and 35⁰C (95⁰F) during the run. I didn’t manage it well. I was overheated and the only way I found to complete the run was to put water on me every 2 km (1.25 mile) to cool down.”
Laurent had anticipated the heat. He had prepared an adequate amount of water to carry on the bike. He also carried a cereal-based energy bar to eat about halfway through the bike course.
However, he had not included any sports drink with electrolytes. This was his first mistake. He also forgot to eat the cereal bar during the bike leg until much later than planned.
The consequence of not consuming a sports drink with its electrolytes on the bike became especially evident when he got to the run. While his body craved the electrolytes, he found the sports drinks provided by the race organizers to be “disgusting”.
And, when he tried to make up for not eating early enough on the bike by consuming bananas and gels during the run, his stomach revolted.
An Incentive for a New Ironman Triathlon Hydration and Nutrition Plan
Laurent is not alone in forgetting to eat on the bike during an Ironman triathlon. I have lost count of the number of stories of triathletes who were so caught up in the excitement of a race that they forgot to eat or drink until it was too late. As a result, they “bonked” or at least hurt their performance on the run. Maybe it’s happened to you.
With this not-so-pleasant experience in Vietnam, Laurent was determined to finding a better approach to hydration and nutrition for his next race in Nice, France. The challenge was that he had less than two months.
Hydration and Nutrition Plan for Ironman Nice
With the memory of Vietnam fresh in his mind, Laurent stayed focused on developing his race plan for Ironman Nice. He reflected on his experience in training and racing, spoke with other triathletes, scoured the internet, and tested various nutrition and hydration products.
In looking back on the Nice triathlon, he was able to say with a smile, “It seems that all the preparation and, this time, the race management was right”.
So, what was the race plan that made such a big difference?
Let’s start by looking in on Laurent a few days before the Nice triathlon while he was putting the final touches on his plan.
A Pre-Race Test of the Plan
During the week before the race, Laurent rented a bike and he and his son road to the top of Le Mont Ventoux, one of the most famous portions of the Tour de France.
He used this ride to test a bike computer having a screen large enough for him to continuously monitor his heart rate and to watch the time so that he would eat and drink at precise intervals.
It became clear to Laurent during this ride that without a clock his perception of time was wildly inaccurate. However, by maintaining a heart rate within the aerobic zone and drinking a little every 10 minutes, Laurent was able to ride the 40 km (25 km) distance to its 1,909 m (6,260 ft) elevation without stopping.
Laurent felt prepared for Nice.
Racing Ironman Nice
The temperature on race day in Nice was also high, 27⁰C (80⁰F) at the start of the swim. The day’s high of 34⁰C (93⁰F) occurred during the bike leg. Anticipating these temperatures, race organizers reduced the distance of the race a bit to 150 km (93 miles) for the bike and 30 km (18.6 miles) for the run.
Racing with a Heart Rate Monitor
Laurent used the heart rate monitor to control his effort on both the bike and run to maintain a heart rate within the endurance range.
For the bike leg, this meant maintaining an average rate of 144 beats per minute (bpm); his heart rate never went above 161 bpm. “I could have probably gone faster (on the bike) without any problem. However, the target for this race was to finish within the time limit.”
For the run, Laurent’s target was an average heart rate of 139 bpm, his endurance training rate. The highest rate came in the last 500 m during his sprint to the finish line.
“I saw many people on the bike and run forcing themselves and having difficulty breathing. In contrast, I was able to ride and carry on conversations with other racers including a Chinese guy, a Moroccan lady, and a man from Dubai.
Hydration and Nutrition for Ironman Nice Triathlon
Laurent’s nutrition and hydration plan reflected his experience in previous hot weather Ironman races and with the week earlier ride to the summit of Le Mont Ventoux.
Specifically, the plan was as follows.
- On each of the three days leading up to the triathlon, he took a serving of Overstim Malto. Admittedly, this was based solely on the recommendation of a friend and not on any personal experience.
- On the bike:
- Alternated drinking from one of the two bottles of sports drink, one bottle each of Overstim Long Distance Hydrixir and Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy, every 10 minutes throughout the bike leg. Laurent also carried extra packages of the powders. These would be used to refill the bottles if he happened to run out before the end of the bike leg.
- Ate one packet of a fruit-based energy gel, such as those from Overstim, every hour. Since the gels come either with or without added salt, he took one of the salted versions at the mid-point and near the end of the bike.
- Stopped eating any solid food around one hour before the end of the bike. This provided time for the food consumed during the bike to be digested before beginning the run. Running with undigested food can cause stomach problems.
- On the run:
- Drank some water with a little added salt provided by race organizers at each aid station.
- Ate a salted biscuit or a salted gel at each of the aid stations.
- Used showers provided by race organizers to help cool down.
- On the day after the race, he took a recovery drink; Hammer Nutrition Recoverite is an example.
Will This Plan Work Next Time?
Laurent completed the race feeling strong, healthy, and with little to no pain during and after the race. Racing with a heart rate monitor, staying hydrated, and consuming calories at the right times appeared to be the key.
Laurent found this approach to be effective, at least for one long bike ride and one long course triathlon. However, he is quick to acknowledge that he has no training in sports medicine or nutrition.
It will be interesting to hear what happens when he uses this approach in the next triathlon.
Please Share Your Questions and Comments
What do you think about Laurent’s racing plan?
Have questions about hydration and nutrition for ironman triathlon?
What are the most important lessons you have learned from training and competing in a triathlon?
Share your thoughts and questions in the Comments section below.