Easy Nutrition tips for Masters Level Athletes

Older athletes must be aware of the physiological changes that result from aging in order to maintain high levels of performance. For the endurance athlete, peak performance is typically maintained until age 35. Performance in strength and power sports peaks and declines slightly sooner, peaking in the mid- to late 20s and beginning to decline in the 30s. Master athletes commonly experience weight gain, slowed recovery time, nagging injuries, and diminished performance.

Obstacles to Performance 

A number of physiological changes are responsible for decreases in performance. Impacts on endurance performance have found significant declines in maximal aerobic capacity (V.O2max), roughly 5%-10% per decade after age 30. V.O2max is the main contributor to declines as lactate threshold and exercise economy are well maintained. These changes are the result of reduced cardiac output, a product of maximum heart rate and stroke volume. Maximum heart rate declines at a rate of 0.7 beats per year with age starting in early adulthood. Mild decreases in stroke volume are observed in older endurance athletes, who typically have stroke volumes that are roughly 80%-90% of the volume typical for younger trained counterparts. There is still considerable debate whether performance declines are a result of aging or a reduction in the intensity and amount of training typically practiced by older athletes. It has been found that drops in total weekly running distance of approximately 15 miles (24 km) may cause V.O2 max to drop by 2.4%. The loss of muscle mass with aging can also affect V.O2max.  A loss of 3 kg (6.6.lb) of lean body mass can drop V.O2 max 4.5%. Unfortunately, the understanding of the impact of aging on strength and power athletes is less complete. Most significantly for these types of athletes, aging is associated with losses in muscle mass and a decline in the number of fast-twitch muscle fibers. As a result, reductions in speed, strength, and power occur. Metabolic changes within the muscle such as enzyme activity and alterations in the ATP- creatine phosphate energy system can also negatively affect anaerobic exercise. Master’s-level athletes should take heart in knowing that although several physiological systems begin to decline with age, these systems are still very adaptable and responsive to training. Both strength and power and endurance master athletes can achieve significant improvements in performance through training. Research related to declines in performance is limited as very few athletes have the time and ability to continue to train at the same intensities and volumes, making it difficult for scientists to conclusively understand the effects of aging on performance. Other important changes associated with aging include declines in resting metabolic rate (RMR), which can result in increased body fat and weight gain. RMR decreases by about 10% from early childhood to adulthood and another 10% from adulthood to the 60s. Several factors have been shown to directly influence RMR: thyroid hormones, genetics, body or environmental temperature, and stress. Other factors related to RMR are body surface area, total body weight, lean body mass, sex, age, and aerobic fitness. Of these factors, there seems to be the strongest correlation between lean body mass and RMR. When metabolically active muscle tissue is lost and replaced with metabolically inert adipose or fat tissue, RMR inevitably declines. Fortunately, RMR can be kept elevated by master athletes who continue to train at high levels while meeting individual nutritional needs.  Bone fractures occur when the calcium stored within the bones is lost, causing the bones to become porous. With aging, there is a progressive decline in calcium content in the bones that begins around age 30, increasing risk for stress fractures and development of osteoporosis. Other risk factors that exacerbate the aging effect on bone include smoking, excessive caffeine or alcohol intake, inactivity, and poor nutrition. Women tend to be more affected by osteoporosis, especially in menopause when levels of estrogen, a bone protecting hormone, are significantly reduced.

Nutritional Recommendations

Nutrition can have a significant impact in delaying changes associated with aging. Calorie, or energy, needs of master’s-level athletes are often lower due to drops in resting metabolic rate and lower intensities and volumes of training. The Harris Benedict formula represented in the following equation, which takes into consideration height, weight, age, and sex, is often used to estimate RMR. Consequent daily energy requirements can be estimated by multiplying RMR by an activity factor based on daily physical activity (table 1). Individuals desiring to gain or lose weight should increase or decrease calculated energy needs by 500 calories for a 1pound (0.45 kg) weight gain or loss per week. Adjustments for weight loss should not exceed 1,000 calories (or 40% of estimated caloric needs) as catabolism of muscle tissue will occur, leading to a compromised metabolic efficiency.

Males: 88.362 + (4.799 × height) + (13.397 × weight ) − (5.677 × age)

Females: 447.593 + (3.098 × height) + (9.247 × weight) − (4.330 × age)

Height in centimeters; weight in kilograms; age in years

Table 1  

 Activity Factor Description Multiply RMR by 
Very Light Extremely sedentary; mostly bed rest 1.2-1.3
Light No planned activity; mostly office work  1.5-1.6
Moderate Walking ; Stair climbing  1.6-1.7
Heavy  Planned rigorous activities  1.9-2.1


Protein intake can assist in preventing losses in muscle mass and RMR. The needs for protein are greater for older adults, and intense training can further increase these needs. Fat and carbohydrate intake are also important, however recommendations for older athletic populations do not differ from those for younger athletes. Table 2 provides a useful guide for determining macronutrient needs based on time spent training each day. It is difficult to make specific macronutrient recommendations as need varies significantly between individuals and can be manipulated to achieve specific athletic goals. It's best to consult a registered sport dietician to devise a specific macronutrient plan. Adequate nutrient timing of macronutrients, especially protein and carbohydrate, is essential for older populations. Consuming a small amount of protein (5-15 g) and carbohydrate (15-30 g) before exercise can assist in limiting muscle damage and immune suppression during exercise. The needs for certain vitamins and minerals also increase with age. Vitamin D is essential for the prevention of many chronic diseases and for immune system and muscle function. It can be produced from exposure to sunlight; however, the body’s ability to produce vitamin D from this exposure decreases with age and makes supplementation essential. Vitamin B12 has a variety of functions, including red blood cell production, DNA synthesis, and nerve function. All are vital for optimal muscle function and performance. B12 requires a special protein produced in the GI tract, known as intrinsic factor, in order to be absorbed. Production of intrinsic factor decreases with age, limiting the ability of the body to absorb B12 and increasing requirements. The need for the antioxidant vitamins C and E can also increase with age; research supports the added supplementation of these vitamins for providing protection against free radicals and preventing some of the declines in immune system function associated with aging. Adequate calcium intake is important in preventing the loss of calcium from bone and the development of osteoporosis. Iron, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, and vitamin A are also noted as commonly being consumed in inadequate amounts. A daily multivitamin and multimineral supplement with additional antioxidants will serve as a nutrition insurance agent.

Table 2

Daily Training Schedule 

 1 hour or less  1-2 hours  2-3+ hours 
Carbohydrate (55-70% of total intake)  3g / lb 4g / lb 5g / lb
Protein (12-15% of total calorie intake) 0.55g / lb  0.55g / lb 0.55g / lb
Fat (20-30% of total calorie intake) 0.5 g / lb 0.5 g / lb 0.5 g / lb


Supplement Options

In many cases certain dietary supplements are more or only effective in older populations. Addressing some of the physiological changes associated with aging through nutrition and dietary supplements can assist in preventing declines in function and performance (table 3). Following is a list of physiological changes important for older athletes to consider and potential supplements to address these changes.

  • Preservation of lean body mass
  • Immune support
  • Joint support
  • Antioxidant defense
  • Skeletal health

Table 3 

Supplement  Potential Benefit 
 Whey Protein  Preserves Muscle Mass
Casein Protein  Preserves Muscle Mass
Egg Protein Preserves Muscle Mass
Leucine  Preserves Muscle Mass
BCAA Preserves Muscle Mass
Arginine  Preserves Muscle Mass
Glutamine Supports immune system & Preserves Muscle Mass
Fish Oils  Supports immune system & Preserves Muscle Mass
Vitamin D Supports immune system & Preserves Muscle Mass
Vitamin B12

Prevents deficiency

Probiotics  Supports immune system 
Curcumin Supports immune system 
Glucosamine Supports joints 
Chondroitin Supports joints 
Vitamin C  Provides antioxidant defense
Vitamin E Provides antioxidant defense
Zinc  Supports immune system
Calcium Supports Skeletal health