Why Masters Athletes Need More Protein, by Katie Elliott, MS, RD

Introduction

For those of you who don’t race triathlon, it is true that amateur triathletes have to wear their age on the back of their calf. Some 40+ athletes cringe at the thought of divulging their years on earth, but being a Masters athlete has never looked better. This is because we understand how to train and fuel after 40 to optimize performance. While this looks different than the tactics employed for twenty-some-things, it is less challenging than you might think.

How do you excel after 40?

There are many ways that athletes can continue to excel after 40. The first step is to understand the physiological changes that happen with age. The next step is to find out how to make changes to your nutrition and training to accommodate a new physiological paradigm. While there are many dietary interventions and training tweaks that move the needle (check out Nutrition Considerations for Masters Athletes to get an overview of tactics), I want to take a closer look at protein for athletes 40+ in this piece.

Age-related physiological changes related to protein needs

Let’s start by considering the physiological changes that are related to muscle in Masters athletes (since muscle adaptation involves protein). Muscle mass declines at a rate of 3-8% per decade after the age of 30, and such loss accelerates after age 60[i]. There is also evidence that Masters athletes don’t recover and rebuild muscle as well as their younger counterparts[ii]. Furthermore, studies suggest that middle-aged and older athletes need more protein to recover and rebuild than their younger counterparts. Basically, it takes more and the right type of protein to effectively signal the muscle rebuilding cascade to get going. Researchers believe these changes in the muscle repair process begin in our 40’s or 50’s[iii].

What nutritional changes can help?

While 15-25 grams of protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis in younger athletes, Masters athletes need 35-40 grams to trigger the same response post-exercise. Timing is also important. After strength training, interval training, or a long session, you should have a recovery meal 30 minutes to an hour post-exercise. In addition, Masters athletes need to consume high-quality protein, or protein containing all of the essential amino acids. In particular, leucine is an essential, branched chain amino acid that is the MVP when it comes to turning on the muscle protein synthesis cascade.

Athletes should take in 2.5-3 grams of leucine post-workout. In addition to getting enough protein post-exercise, masters athletes should continue to eat 35-40 grams of protein at each meal throughout the day (this is called protein pacing). The purpose of protein pacing is to continue to raise blood amino acid concentrations so that you continue to recover as the day [and night] goes on.

Practical tips for getting enough protein

It can be hard to consume 35-40 grams of protein at each meal throughout the day. Breakfast is the meal that poses the greatest challenge because Americans like carbohydrate-rich options like cereals and toast in the morning. One way to supplement intake is to add an everyday protein powder to meals that are lower in protein. Cocoa Elite Everyday Whey is a great way to do this. The simplest solution is to have it alongside whatever you are eating (shake it up in a bottle mixed with water and you’re off to the races if your original meal has at least 15 grams protein). You can also try this overnight oats recipe:

Double Cocoa Banana Cream Overnight Oats

~36 grams protein

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup old fashioned oats
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 sliced banana
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt (Fage)
  • 1 scoop of our Everyday Cocoa Whey Double Cocoa
  • 1T Flax Seed
  • 1 tablespoon of maple syrup

Instructions:

  • Combine all ingredients into a small jar or any container that can be sealed.
  • Stir well to combine.
  • Cover and refrigerate overnight or at least for about 4 hours.

In addition, here is my personal favorite smoothie recipe (I eat this at breakfast and for recovery meals):

Katie’s Chocolate Covered Strawberry Smoothie

~35-44 grams protein depending on type of milk used

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup milk (almond or regular)
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt (Fage)
  • 1 serving Cocoa Elite Everyday Cocoa Whey Double Cocoa
  • 1 cup Strawberries
  • 1T Flaxseed

Instructions:

  • Blend until smooth.

Here are a few additional ways to boost protein intake (evenly) throughout the day:

  • For example, add Greek yogurt to meals or snacks (Kite Hill makes a vegan version for people who don’t consume dairy).
  • Consume a liquid-based whey or soy protein right after exercise, with a nutrient-dense meal containing roughly 15 grams of protein shortly thereafter.
  • Have lean meats like poultry or fish at lunch or dinner (5-6 ounces contains roughly 35 grams protein).
  • Look for vegetarian recipes that are high in protein with tofu, beans, tempeh, quinoa, etc. Here is one of my favorite vegetarian recipes to make: https://tastesbetterfromscratch.com/instant-pot-lentil-tacos/

** (I generally add plain Greek yogurt to boost protein/replace sour cream as well as some sautéed bell peppers).

Conclusion

It certainly seems like the sky’s the limit for Masters athletes! This will include me next year as well (yup- I turn 40 in January of 2020). Personally, I am excited. Just look at some of the accomplishments of athletes 40+ in recent years:

  • Eamonn Coghlan ran a sub-4-minute mile after 40.
  • Madonna Buder completed an Ironman at 77.
  • In 2016, Cameron Brown won Ironman New Zealand at 43.
  • At 41, swimmer Dara Torres won 3 silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
  • At age 80, Yuichiro Miura became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest.
  • In 2013, Masters triathletes (athletes >40) represented more than 55% of the total field for males and more than 45% of the total field for females at the World Ironman Championship in Hawaii.

Now start dreaming, training, and eating to support your new goals in the Masters decades.


REFERENCES:

[i] Volpi et. al. (2010). Muscle Tissue Changes with Aging. NIH. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2804956/.
[ii] Doering et. al. (2016). Lower Integrated Muscle Protein Synthesis in Masters Compared to Younger Athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise. Retrieved from: http://ow.ly/9oRb30p57Vl.
[iii] Ryan, Monique. (2019). The Importance of Protein for Masters Athletes. Velo News. Retrieved from: https://www.velopress.com/the-importance-of-protein-for-masters-athletes/.

Katie Elliott is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is the founder of Elliott Performance and Nutrition, based in Aspen, Colorado. Katie works with clients nationwide via tele-health and provides counseling and exercise testing at Achieve Health and Performance.

Katie’s specialties include sports nutrition, nutrition for the prevention and treatment of disease, weight loss, and worksite wellness. She has coached athletes to several podium finishes as a Triathlon Coach.

In addition, Katie attended IMG Academies as a junior tennis player. She played Division I tennis at Davidson College. She has competed on numerous amateur world triathlon teams. Since 2004, Katie has won numerous overall amateur titles. She has been on 6 World Championship teams and has finished 2nd at two National Championships. Furthermore, Katie achieved a 6th place finish at the World Championship in her age group.

Contact her here: Katie Elliott, MS, RD.  Follow Katie on Instagram and Facebook:
@elliottnutrition
@elliottperformanceandnutrition

All bloggers receive a small compensation for their contributions.*

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