There have been some incredible achievements from masters athletes recently, continuing to run and compete in their later years. The incredible Ed Whitlock ran a sub 4 hour marathon aged 85! Ray Matthews completed 75 marathons in 75 days to celebrate his 75th birthday. The ‘Iron Nun’, Sister Madonna Buder became the oldest person ever to finish an Ironman triathlon at age 82! So how do we keep doing the sport we love as we age? Nutritionist Fran Taylor joins us today to explore how what we eat may have some of the answers.
Whilst getting older is inevitable, how we do it is something we have control over. Being active is positively associated with healthy aging. But, by our forties the amount of muscle mass we have starts to decline, the ability to build new muscle becomes much harder and our bone mass, especially for women from the menopause onwards, starts to decline. For runners this may affect how long we can run, how hard we can run, how quickly we recover and how long injuries take to heal.
Don’t reach for your slippers and cup of coco just yet – a combination of a good exercise regime and a healthy diet, which reflects age related nutritional needs, means that you can lessen the impact of age-related declines on your running ability.
Is your diet adequate?
Check your protein intake.
Protein is essential to maintain muscle mass and to build new muscle; as we get older though, it becomes harder to build muscle and keep hold of what we’ve already got. This is due in part, to our bodies becoming less effective at using the protein we eat for muscle protein synthesis; the muscles become more anabolically resistant. Because of this the amount of protein we need is likely to be higher to support muscle maintenance in older age.
The good news is that exercise, especially resistance exercise, increases muscle protein synthesis; our bodies become better at using the protein we consume to build muscle, and this is comparable in both younger and older people (Cermak et al. 2012). Combining running with some resistance exercise and adequate protein is going to help keep the muscle you have for longer.
How much protein and what does this look like?
For the general population the nutrition guidelines advise 0.8g/kg a day. It has been suggested that for the older population the amount should be increased to 1.2g/kg a day. For very active older athletes there has even been a suggestion that this should be even higher- 1.6-2.0g/kg (Doering et al. 2016).
For a 70kg man eating 1.6g/kg equates to 112g of protein. Spacing it out evenly throughout the day is shown to be the most effective way of consuming protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis – this means around 30-40g of protein in three main meals plus a snack containing a protein source. However, we don’t eat grams of protein, we eat food, so here’s some examples:
- 150g of Greek yogurt = 16g protein
- 2 eggs = 16g protein
- Small tin of tuna =17g protein
- 300 ml of semi skimmed milk = 11g protein
- Scoop of whey protein = approx. 20g protein
- Chicken breast (120g) = 38g protein
- 125g brown lentils =11g protein
Are all sources equal?
The type of protein is worth bearing in mind; in studies leucine rich sources come out top, the best for stimulating muscle cell synthesis. Leucine rich food sources are mainly found in meat and dairy but are also present, in smaller amounts in beans.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you generally need to eat more food to get the same amount of protein as someone who eats meat and dairy, if you don’t plan well this can be harder to do. Don’t panic though – just make sure you think about including a protein source with each meal and snack – beans, lentils, nuts and soya are good sources. If you train hard a plant protein supplement might be a good way of ensuring you’re getting enough.
What are the other nutritional considerations?
Don’t rely on the sun for your Vitamin D!
Vitamin D is essential for healthy ageing as it’s a key nutrient for muscle and bone health. Vitamin D deficiency is linked with loss of muscle mass, and recent research has linked it with muscle repair and remodelling (Owens et al. 2015). Vitamin D deficiency affects all age groups and it’s estimated that up to 1 in 5 people in the U.K. have low blood levels. As we get older our risk increases as our skin becomes less effective at making vitamin D from UV light.
Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified foods like cereals and spreads, eggs, oily fish and liver. It’s quite hard to get enough vitamin D from food, in fact Public Health England recommend that we all, young and old included, take a 10ug supplement – especially during the winter months.
Don’t rely on your thirst to keep properly hydrated.
Just a 2% drop in hydration levels affects running performance, making the effort of running feel harder and cause you to tire more quickly. As we get older our sense of thirst is blunted and this is coupled with a reduced ability to remove waste from the kidneys.
So prioritising hydration before, during and after your run is important. Actively scheduling in time to drink rather than waiting to feel thirsty is probably going to be a better strategy.
Think about your fats.
There is evidence that low-grade inflammation, has an impact in age-related disease, including limiting mobility. What we eat has an impact on this, and there is evidence that a diet rich in omega 3 fats can have a positive impact, reducing levels of inflammation.
An added bonus is that there is now increasing evidence that omega 3 fats – these are found in oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts – influence muscle protein synthesis. (Smith et al. 2011). So, having adequate omega 3 intakes either via food or through a supplement could enhance your ability to gain muscle mass by helping to offset the age-related effects of anabolic resistance
The bottom line.
Following a well-balanced diet, along with the right physio and exercise routine, can help you to run, run well and reduce your risk of injuries as you get older. If you already eat reasonably well, you don’t need a huge overhaul in your routine. Just remember:
- Protein: Include a good source in each meal and snack. If tea and toast is your go to breakfast try adding some peanut butter and banana, or swapping to yogurt, fruit and muesli.
- Omega 3 fats: Include a portion of oily fish once or twice a week. If you’re vegetarian add some walnuts to your salad or flaxseed to your porridge. You may want to include an omega 3 supplement.
- Vitamin D: Take a supplement in the winter months and if you cover up in summer and slather on the factor 50 then you might want to continue this in the summer months as well.
- Fluid: Don’t rely on your thirst mechanism for keeping hydrated.
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Wall BT, Gorissen SH, Pennings B, Koopman R, Groen BBL, Verdijk TLB, et al. Aging is accompanied by a blunted muscle protein synthetic response to protein ingestion. PLoS One 2015;10:e0140903. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/ journal.pone.0140903.
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