Masters athletes are individuals, older than 21 years, who are competitive within their respective sports. Some sports do not designate a person as a Masters athlete until after a certain age (e.g., in rowing, a person can only compete in Masters events from the age of 27 years onward; and at a certain age, they are designated as veterans).
Perhaps it is because I am a competitive Masters athlete in rowing and field hockey, I thought it would be a good idea to write about nutrition for the Masters athlete. Masters athletes are growing in number, and many of them will work out in gyms where many of you may be employed. They are serious about their sport(s) and want to do well - yes, they want to win. What do we know about the Masters athlete? Are their nutritional needs different from younger athletes? Because they vary so much in age, it may be difficult to give solid guidelines about nutrition; however, I will attempt to provide the best information for you to share with your clients.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT MASTERS ATHLETES?
Loss in Muscle Mass
We are well aware of the benefits of physical activity. It has been shown that sarcopenia, a complex multifactioral progression of muscle loss, occurs after the age of 40 years. The rate of muscle decline after 40 years of age has been shown to be about 0.5% to 1% per year (6,9). This represents an average loss and can be prevented in individuals who have been exercising (including weight training) and/or who begin to exercise. Thus, Masters athletes have a lower decline in muscle mass than their sedentary counterparts (6-9). Although I personally would like to deny the first part of the following statement, it is important to remember that "Although no amount of physical activity can stop the biological aging process, there is evidence that regular exercise can minimize the physiological effects of an otherwise sedentary lifestyle and increase active life expectancy by limiting the development and progression of chronic disease and disabling conditions" (1).
Louis and colleagues (4) evaluated knee extensor muscle strength in endurance-trained Masters athletes versus young endurance-trained athletes. Their 10 Masters athletes' mean age was 62.5 ± 4.1 years, whereas their 10 young athletes had a mean age of 26.2 ± 2.4 years. Although the Masters athletes had significantly lower knee extensor maximal isometric voluntary contraction (257 vs. 354 N, respectively; P < 0.05), there was a comparable level of fatigue observed after the resistance strength training session, regardless of age. Louis et al. (4) concluded that the ability of Masters athletes to perform exercise at a given intensity is maintained despite a significant loss of strength with aging.
In addition to muscle mass loss, Masters athletes may experience more injuries than their younger counterparts. Knobloch et al. (3) studied 291 elite runners (mean age, 42 ± 9 years), who ran about 65 km per week. They reported Achilles tendinopathy as the most common running-related tendinopathy, followed by runner's knee and shin splints in these group of athletes. Two items of note with respect to this research study: 1. they did not compare these athletes to younger runners; and 2. the injuries noted could be a result of the intensity level of training, and not solely to the age of the runners (e.g., many athletes who train at elite levels have a high rate of injury, regardless of age).
With respect to aerobic fitness, Masters athletes have shown some decline with age, but not to the same extent as their sedentary counterparts (8). In addition, Masters athletes have lipid profiles similar to young adults and have better glucose concentrations and lower waist-to-hip ratios compared with their sedentary counterparts. The prevalence of obesity is far lower in Masters athletes compared with sedentary individuals (8).
Some evidences support a 10% decline per decade in maximal oxygen consumption (V˙O2max) in men and women despite activity level (2). However, Tanaka and Seals (11) reported that "the ability to maintain habitual physical activity levels with advancing age appears to be a critical determinate of changes in physiological functional capacity."
Do Masters athletes have special dietary needs? It would seem as if they do, however, nutritional needs for younger athletes also are up for debate. Research can help us determine dietary needs. Martarelli and Pompei (5) evaluated alterations in oxidative stress and antioxidant defense systems during a 24-hour mountain bike competition in northern Italy. The idea of this race is to ride as many kilometers as possible in the 24-hour period. The researchers evaluated six men (mean age, 44.8 ± 2 years) for blood biomarkers of oxidative stress and antioxidant defense status. They found that the oxidative stress markers were significantly increased 8 hours from the beginning of the race (122%), after the end of the race (10 hours; 162%), and 24 (158%) and 48 hours (144%) postcompetition. The antioxidant defense system markers significantly increased postrace (128%) and remained elevated 48 hours later (114%). These changes are not surprising based on the length and intensity of the race. In addition, a number of researchers have found increased oxidative markers postexercise in individuals of all ages. Nonetheless, based on this study, it is important that Masters athletes consume a diet high in antioxidants, which could help decrease recovery time and possibly help performance. Consuming a diet high in deep-colored fruits and vegetables (e.g., blueberries, raspberries, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, etc.) is not only good for overall health, but may help overall performance. Despite this need for increased antioxidants, it has been reported that Masters athletes' diets did not differ from sedentary controls (10).
Masters athletes, like all athletes, need to pay attention to total energy (kilocalories), carbohydrate, protein, fat, and micronutrient intake. Although basal metabolic rate does decrease with aging, and thus, sedentary individuals would need to decrease energy intake, the masters athlete needs to maintain energy intake based on his/her energy expenditure. The macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) needs of the masters athlete are the same as those for the younger athlete (7). An emphasis needs to be placed on more complex carbohydrates made from whole grains, leaner protein, and healthier fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated should predominate in the diet). These macronutrient recommendations are what younger athletes should be consuming as well. The micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) can be obtained by increased fruit and vegetable consumption. These provide the body with the necessary vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (as previously stated) that will help with performance and recovery. Hydration also is important. Often times, as people get older, they do not consume fluids as often as they should. Bringing water bottles to work and refilling them during certain periods of the day can help with hydration.
Masters athletes are growing in number, and the need for proper intense training and nutrition is important. Although there are a number of physiological changes that occur with aging, these changes can be mitigated with exercise training. Nutrition needs for the master's athlete typically parallel those of younger athletes; however, there may be a need to give more attention devoted to antioxidant intake through increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.
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