The Importance of Protein for Masters Athletes

This article is from Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.

Recovery is an essential component of triathlon training, but how much recovery do athletes really need? As it turns out, it’s different for everyone—factors like age, training intensity, schedule, and diet all play a role in the recovery process. In 2015 just over 20,000 participants—roughly 58 percent of the field in North American IRONMAN races—were aged 40 to 80+ years old, proving that the participation of master athletes is increasing in endurance sports.

While your race performances can certainly improve as a masters athlete, you will soon come to realize that recovering from these events and hard training sessions may be slower than they were in your younger days—or in comparison to younger training buddies.

Researchers are gathering data to support that muscle repair and rebuilding in the masters athlete can slow down as we age. “This slower response begins when we are in our 40’s, or possibly 50’s,” said Stuart Phillips, Ph.D. of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who currently studies the interaction of exercise and dietary protein.
Masters athletes seem to experience slower rates of recovery after training that results in damage to both muscle tissue and connective tissue like ligaments and tendons. “Something about aging causes the repair process to slow down and operate less efficiently than in younger persons,” said Phillips. “What that something is—well we are still looking.”

For the IRONMAN triathlete, this muscle damage occurs especially after long runs and resistance training workouts. In contrast, masters athletes can recover just as quickly as their younger counterparts after energy depleting workouts that don’t damage muscles, such as long bike workouts or high-volume swims.

How much is enough?

Researchers have looked at how much protein is needed after training to fully stimulate muscle protein synthesis after muscle damaging workouts. Currently, we know that younger adult athletes max out at a dose of 20 grams of protein within the hour after training. “It seems that older muscle and connective tissue like tendons and ligaments are less responsive to protein after eccentric exercise,” said Phillips. Higher doses of protein may be the answer to this slowdown.

Studies that have looked at healthy middle-aged men and elderly adults indicate they require 35 grams of protein post-training. Dr. Phillips recommends that masters athletes aim for 0.18 grams per lb body weight (0.40 g /kg), with benefits likely maxing out at a 40 g protein dose. In contrast, younger triathletes should be fine with 0.24 grams/kg or .10 grams/lb.

What kind of protein?

Much has been made of the kind of protein that is most optimal for muscle repair with supplemental and single item real food sources being studied. Whey protein comes out the winner for doing quick and effective work. This is because it is quickly absorbed and contains a high amount of the amino acid leucine.

“Leucine is an amino acid that we need to eat, and unlike the other 19 amino acids, it is a trigger for turning on protein synthesis,” said Phillips. Soy protein and casein or milk proteins also do a good job at muscle repair. Liquid forms are also more quickly digested. While whey is a protein derived or “isolated” from milk, real food sources, especially high-quality dairy protein sources are good choices, as are lean meats. In fact, you should emphasize real food sources at meals and snacks.

Then what?

Muscle recovery does not stop at that one post-training protein dose. Muscle-damaging workouts stimulate the muscle to adapt and rebuild.

“The stimulus lasts at least 24-hours, and to capitalize on it, the muscle needs to be presented with amino acids from protein-rich food sources,” said Louise Burke, Ph.D., sports dietitian, and researcher at the Australian Institute of Sport, who has studied protein dosing and timing. “Each eating occasion needs to provide enough protein to raise blood amino acid concentrations to the levels that maximally turn on this process.

Once the activity drops down to baseline levels, after about three to five hours, it can be repeated,” said Burke. So the best plan is to arrange for an even spread of dietary protein, at optimal dosing levels—40 grams at meals for the masters athletes—starting soon after muscle damaging exercise, and then repeated at regular intervals over the course of your day.

While a liquid protein supplement in the form of whey or soy isolate both work quickly after exercise, it is practical to aim for the optimal protein dose from foods at subsequent meals and snacks. “Athletes can improve protein recovery by boosting the protein content of breakfast, adding a milk-based beverage or Greek yogurt to a cereal based breakfast, or a serving of eggs, cheese, or lean meat. Many everyday foods are suitable,” advises Burke.

Dairy proteins can easily be added to snacks, while lean meats, fish, and poultry servings of five to six ounces provide about 35 grams of protein at lunch and dinner. Other items at meals like grains and vegetables (which also add carbohydrate to the recovery mix) can contribute to the amino acid mix, therefore, large servings of animal protein are not needed. If you are in the habit of consuming only ample protein at dinner, you may need to pare it down a bit, and then make sure that lunch portions hit the right mark. Your usual total protein intake may be more than adequate, just readjust dosing and frequency for optimal results. Another option after a tough muscle damaging day of training would be a dairy or soy based smoothie evening snack so that muscle repair can occur overnight as well.

On the days you really need to hone in on muscle repair, you should still focus on rehydration and refueling after workouts. Aim for 20 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound of weight loss after a workout, and 0.7 grams/lb (1.5grams/kg) weight of carbohydrate. On days that include long runs and weight training, just plan out your protein foods with meals and snacks and keep the right recovery supplements handy.

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