Karen Parnell

Protein intake for Older Athletes and Triathletes

December 22, 2021

Protein intake for Older Athletes

By Karen Parnell

Whether you're competing in an IRONMAN™ or a sprint triathlon, current guidelines on protein intake may not be enough to keep you healthy let alone train for a triathlon if you’re over 50.

A new study published in the American Journal of physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism has shown this to be true. Researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences examined how four different meal plans affected the muscular health of 20 healthy adults ages 52 to 75. The researchers randomly assigned participants to one of four groups: Two groups followed the Institutes of Health’s current recommended daily allowance of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (for a 81kg person, that comes out to roughly 65 grams of protein per day). Half of them divided that protein up equally between breakfast, lunch and dinner, while the rest ate the majority of their protein at dinner (which is typical for most adults in the western world). The other two groups ate double the RDA (1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight), either equally or unevenly distributed between meals.

After four days, researchers found that the more protein participants ate – no matter the timing – the better their bodies were at building muscle. Specifically, those who ate double their RDA of protein increased their rates of muscle protein synthesis (the process by which cells use protein to build muscle) and improved their net protein balance (the difference between muscle protein synthesis and protein breakdown).

As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass and strength due to a trifecta of reduced muscle response to protein intake, changing hormones and for some, less physical activity. Called sarcopenia, this gradual loss of muscle mass has caused many health problems, including insulin resistance, low bone mineral content and density, falls and fractures – even death, says lead author IL-Young Kim, a researcher with the university’s Centre for Translational Research in Aging & Longevity. Plus, the greater your muscle mass, the more apt you’ll be to stick with the health-boosting physical activities you enjoyed in your younger years so this is a win-win.

Don´t Accept that you are just 'Old'

50 is far from old. But when researchers throw around the term “older adults,” they generally mean 50-plus. We have found that sarcopenia really doesn’t hit full force until 65, gradual loss of muscle mass and function can start even before your 50th birthday, according to Kim.

The latest research is showing that increasing your protein intake at any age can boost your health. Muscle plays an important role in whole body metabolism in both young and old. For instance, in a recent study from the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre, when people ate high-calorie diets, those who got 15 to 25 percent of their calories from protein stored 45 percent of the excess calories as healthy, metabolism accelerating muscle. For someone on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet, that would mean eating up to 125 grams of protein per day. This is roughly the equivalent of a two-egg omelette for breakfast (20 g.), chicken breast for lunch (30 g.), Greek yogurt as a snack (17 g.) and a salmon fillet for dinner (40 g.).

Meanwhile, those who got only 5 percent of their calories from protein stored 95 percent of the excess calories as pure fat.

Your Complete Protein Needs

For maximal muscle the majority of older adults need to consume about 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.

The recommendation from the studies suggests getting the bulk of your protein from animal sources such as beef, fish, milk and cheese. Animal protein sources contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs. While all amino acids help build protein (both in your foods and in your muscles), the human body cannot produce every kind and relies on diet to get the nine “essential” varieties and if you don’t get those then trying to preserve your muscle can be difficult. Most adults typically get less of their protein from animal sources as they age and since plants rarely contain all the essential amino acids, that may also contribute to older adults having reduced muscle mass.

Plant Based Protein

If you do prefer to cut down on meat or cut it out completely you can still get the protein you need. You just need to put a little bit more effort to make sure you still get all of the essential amino acids your muscles crave. Quinoa, chia and soy, for instance, are all “complete” proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. Even “incomplete” plant sources contain some essential amino acids and so by mixing and matching your plants you can eat all nine essential amino acids. You need to ensure are eating different protein rich plants at every meal.

Whatever protein you choose, by increasing your intake your will enjoy an immediate health boost. In the study, participants started building more muscle within just four days. Also, by adding strength training exercises into your healthy living routine (at least three times a week), you will not only build muscle, but you'll wind up eating more protein without even thinking about it. In response to exercise your body will work to convert your foods' amino acids into muscle and then it will automatically crave more protein.

For Triathletes and Athletes

If you are a triathlete over 50 then it´s worth increasing your protein increase to help feed your muscles and keep you triathlon strong. It´s also advisable to make sure you are doing enough strength and conditioning work. An example of strength training exercises for triathletes can be found here.

Would you like a free training plan? Claim your free plan or e-book.

Karen Parnell is a Level 3 British Triathlon and IRONMAN Certified Coach, NASM Personal Trainer and Sports Technology Writer.

#triathlontraining #dietandnutrition #highproteindiet #osteoporosis #exercise #fitness #racenutrition #triathlon #chilitri #sandc