As a passionate endurance athlete, you’ll be looking to continue to participate in your chosen sport – be that triathlon, cycling, running or perhaps adventure racing – for many years to come and to remain as competitive as possible. It’s worth noting that in the past 30 years, increased participation in events lasting 6 hours or more by masters athletes (those over 40) has been accompanied by improvements in their performances at a much faster rate than their younger counterparts.¹ But decline in physical function to some extent is sadly inevitable as you increase in age, so putting in place strategies to minimise those declines before they take significant effect is fundamental to giving yourself every chance to continue doing the sport you love and performing to the best of your ability.
Certainly, continuing to train as you get older is likely to have multiple health benefits. For example, a recent study ² of 125 long distance cyclists aged 55-79 (84 males, 41 females) who had exercised regularly throughout their lives found that they were continuing to produce certain immune cells at a level comparative to adults aged 20-36 who did not regularly participate in intense exercise, and significantly more than the amount produced by less physically active people of their own age. This would suggest that the older cyclists were less prone to infection than the other two groups.
As an endurance athlete, areas of your health that you might want to pay more attention to once you reach the age of 40, and especially once over 50 years old, might be:
- Bone and joint health: you are likely to be more prone to injury, particularly if you already have an extensive injury history. If you have been participating in non-weight bearing sports like cycling and swimming over many years, and not doing strength training on a regular basis, it is possible that you have reduced bone density. This is less likely in runners and triathletes, but they in turn may be more prone to muscular, tendon and joint injuries in the lower body.
- Changes in body composition: loss of muscle mass is inevitable as you age but may be slowed with the right strategies around nutrition and strength training. At the same time, you become more prone to gaining fat, particularly around the abdomen. This may be subcutaneous fat, below the skin, or visceral fat, found around organs such as the heart and the liver. The latter is particularly linked to increased risk of ill health and may be increasingly present even if you remain slim in build.
- Cardiovascular health: the amount of oxygen that you can utilise during exercise declines as you get older, reducing your VO2 max. A 2016 study ³ which compared 20 young triathletes (28.5 +/- 2.6 years) with 20 masters triathletes (59.8 +/1.3 years) found that cycling efficiency was 11.2% lower in the masters and the energy cost of running 10.8% higher. For some men, there may be increased risk of plaque build-up over time in the arteries; elevated LDL cholesterol may be a marker for this, although is more likely to place you at greater risk of heart problems if it becomes oxidised and sticks to the artery walls. A healthy diet, high in anti-oxidants, may help to prevent this.
- Testosterone: sex hormone levels decline with age. Stress, including that caused by heavy training loads and inadequate recovery, may increase this decline. Not eating enough to match your training load may also result in lower testosterone. Doing fasted rides too frequently, to produce better training adaptations, may be a cause here. Lower testosterone impacts on muscle mass but is also part of a bigger hormonal picture which may have an adverse effect on different areas of health and wellbeing, such as energy levels and bone density.
You are also likely to find, particularly after the age of 50, that you need additional recovery time between hard workouts. Conversely, it is important to keep doing interval training sessions to maintain cardiovascular fitness as far as possible and help slow the natural decline in VO2 max. For more on the topic of training and recovery as you get older, I recommend reading Fast After Fifty by legendary endurance coach Joe Friel – buy it here. He also addresses the importance of year-round strength training.
Below I have outlined some nutritional strategies which may be of benefit in reducing the effects of getting older on your health and performance.
- Increase your protein intake: to help mitigate age-related musculoskeletal deterioration, it is recommended that athletes over the age of 40 consume more protein than younger athletes; between 1.6-2.0g/kg of body weight per day. This may be particularly beneficial during intense bouts of training. Achieve this by adding an extra serving of dairy to each meal, eg a glass of milk or pot of yogurt, or an additional handful of nuts. Pre-sleep protein may also be beneficial to maximise overnight muscle protein synthesis; take 40g of a casein supplement (a younger athlete would be recommended to take 20-30g). For more on this topic, I suggest reading this article.
- Reduce your carbohydrate intake at certain times: to prevent weight gain, you need to reduce another macronutrient if you are going to increase your protein intake as above. A good place to start is eating sugary foods less frequently and reducing portion sizes of starchy foods such as bread, pasta and rice, at least at your meals which do not precede or follow training sessions. Now is also the time to eliminate junk food, if you haven’t already. Choose wholegrains, legumes and starchy vegetables to improve the nutrient density and fibre content of your diet. But it is important not to reduce carbs too far: this may have a negative impact on hormone balance, including testosterone and thyroid (T3), and under-fuelling may increase your injury risk. Match your carbohydrate intake to your training load, with more carbs on your high intensity or high-volume days, including the nutrition you take in during longer training sessions. Only train in a fasted state on an occasional basis.
- Follow a Mediterranean-style diet: much research has shown the benefits of a Mediterranean Diet for healthy aging, and even more so when combined with physical activity.4 Base your meals around colourful vegetables and fruits, fish, lean meat, eggs, dairy products, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and at least 1 tbsp of olive oil each day. A high intake of monounsaturated fat, eg olive oil and avocado, and omega 3 polyunsaturated fats – found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, or walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax seed – is recommended, with potential benefits for cardiovascular and neurological health. Keep processed meats, eg bacon, ham, sausages, to a minimum to help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
- Ensure your diet promotes healthy bones and joints:
- Unless you are allergic or intolerant, include 2-3 servings of dairy products in your diet each day to provide adequate calcium to support your bones: this could come from cow’s milk (250ml), yogurt (150g) and cheese (50-75g). A serving (80g) of cooked green leafy vegetables, eg broccoli, kale, spinach, spring greens, plus 50g of nuts will help you to reach the 700mg of calcium required. If you can’t have dairy products, soya-based alternatives are a useful source of calcium. The same is not necessarily true of almond or coconut alternatives, unless they have been fortified.
- Other nutrients required for healthy bones are vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin K and protein. I recommend having an annual vitamin D test – ask your GP or visit here for a private test. If your levels are insufficient or deficient, it is recommended to supplement – see my blog here for further information. There is little vitamin D found in food; oily fish, butter and eggs provide a small amount. Magnesium is found in many plant foods, especially wholegrains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds. The best source of vitamin K is green leafy vegetables. The subject of protein has been covered earlier.
- If you are a long-term cyclist or swimmer who has not undertaken regular strength and conditioning work, or an athlete with a history of disordered eating, you may be at greater risk of low bone density, which increases risk of fractures and may result in osteoporosis. It would be worth asking your GP for a bone density scan. I recommend reading this blog post by sports endocrinologist Dr Nicky Keay to find out more about this topic.
- Nutrients important for healthy joints include protein and healthy fats, as already discussed above. Some masters athletes with early signs of osteoarthritis may benefit short term from taking certain supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin, although the evidence is limited and low quality.5
Finally, it’s important to recognise that your hydration needs change as you get older. As your muscle mass reduces, you also lose water as much of your body’s water content is stored in muscle. This means that dehydration occurs more rapidly when you sweat profusely than it does in younger athletes. Kidney function also tends to deteriorate with age, meaning that more water is lost in urine. It may also be that your sense of thirst diminishes, meaning that you need to pay even more attention to staying hydrated during races and heavy training sessions. Adding sodium to your fluids will help to hold onto more water too. For more hydration for older athletes, I recommend reading this article from the www.precisionhydration.com website.
So, in summary, there’s no reason why you should not be able to enjoy your endurance sports as you get older, even if some decline in performance is inevitable over time. Making some changes to your diet, as outlined above, may be helpful in arresting the speed of that decline.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk
1 R Lepers and P J Stapley. Masters athletes are extending the limits of human endurance. Front Physiol. 2016. 7. 613. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28018241
2 Duggal et al. Major features of immunesenescence, including reduced thymic output, are ameliorated by high levels of physical activity in adulthood. Aging Cell. 2018. Apr. 17(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29517845
3 Peiffer et al. Comparison of the influence of age on cycling efficiency and the energy cost of running in well-trained triathletes. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016. Jan; 116(1): 195-201 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26392273
4 Alvarez Alvarez I et al. Mediterranean diet, physical activity and their combined effect on all-cause mortality: the SUN Cohort. Prev Med. 2018. Jan. 106: 45-52 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28964855
5 Liu X et al. Dietary supplements for treating osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2018. Feb. 52(3): 167-175 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29018060