In this article two-time Olympian and Professor of Sports Science Greg Whyte explains why we should ensure we use sufficient quantities of the right kinds of protein to aid recovery and muscle maintenance as we age.
Muscular strength is an important component of physical fitness with an independent role in the prevention of many chronic diseases. Maintaining muscle mass (and strength) as we age is, therefore, important for both health and performance (including endurance performance!).
Unfortunately, a reduction in muscle mass is a common occurrence as we age due to a variety of factors include: hormonal changes (i.e. Somatopause occurs in men in middle age and beyond leading to a reduction in growth hormone secretion) and; poor, or inadequate nutrition. The rate of decline is around 1% per year from c. 40 years of age.
In order to combat what would seem an inevitable reduction in muscle mass and strength, the older athlete must adapt their training and nutrition to optimize performance (and health). When it comes to training; strength and power training become increasingly important as we age; No, you can’t take it easy as you get older!
Crucially, maintenance (or increase) of muscle mass is as a result of muscle damage (one of the key by-products of training) and repair. The increased muscle damage required to off-set the age-related loss of muscle mass requires a targeted increase in dietary protein to support repair (which is also beneficial for bone health).
Research has shown a beneficial effect of increasing protein intake in older adults. Protein is an essential nutrient in our diet. In other words, at least a minimal amount of protein intake is necessary to support healthy living. However, older individuals are at high risk of insufficient protein intake, closely linked to malnutrition. Therefore, the current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein of 0.8 grams of protein per kg body mass per day might not be adequate for maintaining muscle mass as we age. Recent research has suggested an almost 2-fold increase (up to 1.5 g/kg/day) is required.
In addition to increasing protein in the diet, it is important to recognize that the source, and timing of ingested protein, as well as the impact of ingesting other macronutrients at the same time may influence the muscle protein adaptation to exercise. Of importance are the essential amino acids (proteins are made of different amino acids some of which our bodies can produce, others, the essential amino acids, we must get from our diet).
These essential amino acids, in sufficient quantities, should be ingested in the immediate recovery period following exercise. Because of this timing and the difficulty in reaching the required quantity of protein, fluid ingestion of specific amino acids including: leucine (found in higher quantities in animal proteins i.e. Whey protein) is the simplest way to ensure you are optimizing adaptation (scientists like to term this process ‘muscle protein synthesis’ i.e. building muscle).
Overall, increased dietary protein intake combined with strength/power training are important factors in maintaining performance (and improving health) for older athletes. Targeting specific amino acids (i.e. leucine) immediately post-training and spread across the meals of the day (including breakfast) has been shown to improve muscle protein synthesis, optimizing muscle mass, strength and performance in older athletes.
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About Elivar RECOVER
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Professor Greg Whyte OBE PhD DSc FBASES FACSM
Prof Greg Whyte is a two-time Olympian, Professor of Sport Science, Liverpool John Moores University and has published over 200 peer reviewed papers and 8 books in the area of sport, exercise science and medicine . He is Performance Director, Centre for Health and Human Performance, Chair of UK Active Research Institute Scientific Advisory Board and Principal investigator for WADA. He has helped to raise over £35 million for Comic Relief and Sport Relief and is the best selling author of Achieve the Impossible.