“ Centenarian Sets Marathon Record” reports the Globe and Mail when 100 year old Fauja Singh completed the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. For many of us the idea of completing a marathon at any point in our life is daunting, much less at the age of 100! Yet, the reality is that our aging population is rapidly growing and maintaining an active lifestyle.
The Administration on Aging in the U.S. reports that in 2009 13% of Americans were over the age of 65 and predicts this will increase to 19% by 2030. Closer to home, Health Canada predicts 20% of the Canadian population will have reached 65 years by 2026. Many of these individuals are exercising for the psychological and health benefits, however, an increasingly large segment of this population is training for competition (1). Presently, very little research and advice is available for masters athletes and more needs to be done. In the meantime, here is some general advice…
While there is no clearly defined age cutoff for masters athletes, we consider these recommendations to be appropriate for an athlete aged 40 years and older.
Although exercise, in the form of both cardio and strength training, has been found to increase energy requirements, masters athletes are more likely to be have an overall decrease in metabolic rate (energy expended each day) and thus require a lower caloric intake compared to younger athletes (2). This means dietary choices are increasingly important, as they must meet all their nutrient needs while eating fewer calories. As with all athletes, the amount of training/exercise is the key factor in determining the amount of calories needed. If you are really keen you can use the Harris-Benedict equation but keep in mind that any calculation is only an estimate! If you are interested in knowing approximately how much energy you burn doing the various physical activities you can check out this list. Again these are all estimates! Energy needs are met by carbohydrate, fat and protein.
Complex carbohydrates are a key fuel and should make up a large percentage of daily caloric intakes in masters athletes. The emphasis should be on whole grains and high fibre carbohydrates for most meals. This is especially important for weight loss or to lower cholesterol levels. During and immediately after exercise, however, masters athletes should consume the carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (3). Masters endurance athletes can have 55-65% of total calories coming from carbohydrates, without negatively impacting their blood sugar levels and should do so to fuel their muscles. This recommendation translates into approximately 7-10 g/kg body weight per day. For those athletes concerned about weight gain, 5g/kg body weight/day is the minimum recommended (1).
Example: If you weigh 68 kg your carbohydrate should be a minimum of 340 g/d (68 kg x 5 g/kg body weight/d) to a maximum of 680 g/d (68 kg x 10 g/kg body weight/d).
Generally as people age they lose muscle mass, however, physical activity (especially strength training) can prevent this. Specific protein recommendations for masters athletes are not available and experts tend to disagree on how much is necessary. Currently, the best recommendations are to follow those similar to young athletes which are 1.2 – 1.7 g/kg/body weight (3). This is important for building and maintaining muscle mass. The minimum requirement for protein is set at 0.8 g/kg/body weight for adults (1). For the masters athlete it is important to include some plant-based protein sources (tofu, beans, legumes) and choose lean meats. This will help keep cholesterol and saturated fat low, contributing to reducing risk of heart disease and overall health.
Example: For the 68 kg masters athlete the minimum protein intake should be 54.4 g/d (68 kg x 0.8 g/kg/body weight/d) to a maximum of 115.6 g/d (68 kg x 1.7 g/kg/body weight/d). Of note, the high 1.7 g/kg upper limit recommendation is usually for strength training athletes, endurance athletes should top out at 1.4 g/kg body weight/d (3).
Fats are an important source of vitamins and energy for the masters athlete and should provide 20 – 35% of total calories (1). The focus should be on the heart-healthy plant fats (including olive oil, nuts, avocado) and omega-3 fatty acids from fish (heart healthy and anti-inflammatory properties). Saturated fat and cholesterol should be limited, particularly in athletes with heart problems or elevated blood cholesterol. Trans fat should be avoided whenever possible.
Masters athletes need to pay particular attention to their fluid needs as aging affects the thirst mechanism. Specific recommendations for masters athletes are not available but there are some general guidelines to follow.
1) Keep personal variability in mind. How much fluid is lost through sweat? Does the athlete typically sweat a lot or not? Is clothing drenched and face covered in salt after a work out? If yes, drink up! On the other hand, are they peeing every 15 minutes? Drink less!
2) Know the environment? Are they at altitude? Training in a hot, humid climate? All of these things can increase fluid needs. It’s important to remember that fluid needs will change as the environment changes – extremes in temperature, whether hot or cold, increase fluid needs. If training in the winter in Calgary but competing in Hawaii, fluid intakes will have to be adjusted appropriately.
3) The after-workout check. If there is lost weight after the workout, 2 cups (500ml) of fluid should be consumed for every pound lost. If headaches and muscle cramps are an issue, then fluids likely have not been adequate and intake should be increased for the next workout. When hydrating it is also important to replace the electrolytes (sodium and potassium). Sport drinks are great for this but salty foods and bananas will work as well.
Timing is everything when it comes to meal planning for exercise. Leaving too long between a meal/snack and exercise can leave you feeling tired, grouchy or worse… cause you to bonk (glycogen depletion). Eating too close to a workout can cause stomach pains or digestive problems. When timing food intakes you need to think about what to eat BEFORE, DURING and AFTER training.
A pre-exercise meal should neither leave you hungry before your workout or with undigested food in the stomach. You should aim for a meal about 3-4 hours before and a snack in the 1 hour pre-exercise. Your choice should be low in fat, moderate in protein, and high in carbohydrates (3). Experiment during training sessions (never competition) to find out what work best as everyone responds differently. If an athlete struggles with solid foods before a workout, try liquid options that will digest more quickly like smoothies and meal replacement drinks.
Generally, the body only has enough carbohydrate stores to last about one hour without affecting performance. For exercise lasting longer than one hour it is recommended that masters athletes have 30-60 g of carbohydrate (in food or liquid form) every hour (1). For really long workouts (3 hours or more) it’s probably a good idea to include a small amount of protein as well (3).
After a workout masters athletes should consume fluid, high glycemic index carbohydrates, and protein. This needs to happen within 15 minutes. The high glycemic index carbohydrates are key to stimulating an insulin response, which helps the protein get into the muscles for recovery and repair. Without the sugar, the protein won’t work. This is really only necessary for athletes that are training daily and at a high intensity (1).
Masters athletes are a burgeoning population often interested in nutrition and performance, but without a lot of targeted resources or available advice. Understanding personal performance goals is an important piece in developing nutrition and eating plans for masters athletes. The points above provide a primer on how to maximize athletic performance AND promote overall health and wellness too.
There are specific vitamins and minerals that masters athletes should focus on but we’ll save that for another post………
If you are interested in tracking your diet and physical activity you can use Eatracker (eatracker.ca), a free resource put out by Dietitians of Canada.
(1) Rosenbloom CA, Dunaway A. Nutrition recommendations for masters athletes. Clin Sports Med 2007; 26:91-100.
(2) Wilson MM, Morley JE. Invited review: Aging and energy balance. J Appl Physiol 2003; 95:1728-1736.
(3) Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S, American Dietetic Association, Dietetians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc 2009; 109:509-527.