Just as late nights take more of a toll as you get older, so does poor nutrition. If you’re feeling more tired than usual or taking longer to recover from hard workouts, it could be time to look at your diet. Fortunately, there are no new rules to learn. ‘It’s not that your dietary needs differ greatly as you pass 40,’ says John Brewer, professor of applied sports science at St Mary’s University in Twickenham. ‘But if you want to recover fast and stay healthy, you need to take nutrition a bit more seriously.’ Here’s how.
1/ Weight matters
If you want to see gains in your performance, not on your waistline, now’s the time to think about your calorie intake. ‘Weight gain is easier as the years pass,’ says Brewer. Older runners’ resting metabolic rate decreases, so if you continue to do the same mileage, you would need to reduce your calorie intake to stay at the same weight. ‘Step on the scales weekly,’ says Brewer. ‘If it’s creeping up month by month, even by a little, take action.’
Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian and spokesperson for the Health Supplements Information Service (HSIS), and a keen fell runner, agrees: ‘A lower muscle content and higher fat content in the older runner’s body means fewer calories are needed.’
‘Think about where you get your carbs from,’ says sports dietitian Laura Clark. ‘Yes, you could fuel a run with a handful of jelly beans. But wholegrain toast with peanut butter, or a banana and a piece of cheese, would pack in more nutrients. Fruit, vegetables and dairy get overlooked as sources of carbohydrate. And they are also packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.’
2/ Protect with protein
‘Older runners have to fight to keep their muscle mass, as its decline is one of the first age-related changes in body composition,’ says Ruxton. This process – sarcopenia – begins around 40 and accelerates after the age of 75. ‘This makes protein, and the nutrients that support protein synthesis in the body – vitamins B6 and B12, C, folate and magnesium – essential dietary components for the masters runner.’
It’s not that you need more protein than a younger runner – you just need to be vigilant about getting it at each meal. ‘The key is spacing your intake out over the course of a day,’ says Clark. As a bonus, protein is the weight watcher’s friend, as it makes you feel fuller for longer, and muscle burns more calories than fat.
Opt for real food sources: lean red meat (which also provides iron, zinc and B vitamins, all useful for runners), chicken, fish, soya, dairy, beans, nuts and seeds. ‘Proper recovery is key, as your body doesn’t bounce back as quickly,’ says Clark. ‘So if you’re finding your muscles ache more between workouts, optimise refuelling by taking on food that offers 40g carbohydrate and 10g protein within an hour of training.’ Try beans on toast, cereal with milk or a homemade fruit smoothie made with milk and a scoop of protein powder.
3/ Support your skeleton
Bone-mineral density is lost with age, especially in women after the menopause, when osteoporosis becomes a risk. ‘Calcium is the main bone mineral,’ says Clark. ‘Meet your daily needs with a good intake of dairy, tinned fish, pulses, prawns, dark-green leafy veg, nuts and seeds, and fortified non-dairy milks (bear in mind that if it’s organic, it can’t be fortified). To get the 200mg RDA (recommended daily allowance) of calcium, you need three servings of dairy. That could be 200ml milk, 30g cheese or 150g yoghurt.’
Research shows omega-3 essential fatty acids, found in oily fish and flaxseeds (and their oil), are good for joints, increasing lubrication and acting as an anti-inflammatory. The spice turmeric is also emerging in research as a go-to ingredient for athletes, thanks to its potent anti-inflammatory properties.
4/ The nutrition rainbow
Oxidation – the degradation of the fatty acids in cell walls – also increases with age. Because antioxidant capacity is linked to endurance performance, masters runners can benefit from increasing their intake of antioxidants, in particular vitamin C (in citrus fruit) and selenium (in Brazil nuts). The potassium, vitamin C and lycopene content in tomatoes all support heart health. High potassium intakes are also associated with protection against loss of muscle mass and preservation of bone-mineral density. Concentrated forms of tomatoes, such as passata and juice, are particularly good sources of potassium.
‘People in their 40s and 50s often have better diets than younger people, but deficiencies remain, particularly in vitamin D, which affects one in five adults in the UK,’ says Ruxton. ‘And around half of adults don’t meet the recommendation for selenium, while intakes of magnesium are low in 10-20 per cent of people.’
Our experts agree that the best way to ensure a broad spectrum of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is to eat a varied and balanced diet, including a rainbow of fruit and veg. ‘It would also be wise to take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement as health insurance,’ says Ruxton. ‘That way you’ll know you’re getting 100 per cent of your recommended daily allowance for the nutrients mentioned and you’re unlikely to need supplements.’
An exception to that might be an omega-3 supplement. As well as the joint-health benefits, it may also help treat sarcopenia. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that when 16 healthy older adults were given corn oil or omega-3s for eight weeks, the omega-3 group showed increases in muscle formation.
The last word is consistency: ‘Think about nutrition at every meal, particularly breakfast and lunch,’ says Clark. ‘Lots of people think they can correct a bad day’s eating with dinner alone. To get that edge, this is what must change.’
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