Nutrition for Older Athletes

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I am now running at 59, the sort of times I was running as a 19-year-old” Bruce Tulloh

Recent advances in sports science have shown the athlete, as well as the average person (that is to say, an unfit person), can reverse most of the effects of ageing by using the right exercise and nutritional programmes.

Jean Borotra and Kitty Godfrey playing tennis into their 90s
Edward Weston, who walked across the USA – and back – in his mid-70s
Ron Taylor, who could run 100 metres in 11.3 seconds at the age of 60
Cliff Young, who won the first Sydney to Melbourne race at the age of 61

How to beat the ageing process
With recent leaps in research funding, great advances have been made in our understanding of the ageing process. And with this understanding comes the ability to counter its effects. Here is some background:

As we get older, the rate of cell division slows down and some tissues begin to perform less efficiently. There is a loss of elasticity, both in the skin and in ligaments. There is a decline in the maximum heart rate and in maximum power output.

Nature will take its course. However, with the right kind of training and nutrition it is possible to remain at international level to the age of 40 – as witness Eamonn Coghlan’s sub-four-minute miles, Al Oerter’s record in the discus and the victories of the 42-year-old Podkopayeva at 1500 metres in 1994.

In events involving pure endurance, the limits can be extended for longer. The world’s best for a marathon at the age of 50 stands at 2:11, a time that would win many international marathons.

Nutritional secrets: the benefits and costs

In some quarters, ‘nutrition’ has a bad name. With unsupported new fads appearing every week in the Sunday newspapers we cannot be held to blame for that.

So why do we need to examine our nutritional intake – and what are the benefits and costs?

As we get older, recovery from hard training sessions takes longer, while the cumulative effects of normal ‘wear and tear’ and previous injuries are increasingly evident. As time goes by, joints tend to become less flexible, full-range movement more difficult and pain and stiffness ever more apparent.

It’s time to take control of your ‘wear and tear’
To help offset the inexorable decline in mobility and even accelerate recovery from injury, you need to take control of your nutritional intake.

Older athletes are more vulnerable to chronic joint pain and stiffness, you are not powerless to act. While it is obviously vital to get your training right, there is also a place for nutrition.

On the available evidence, the right supplements offer effective pain and stiffness reduction, and even appear to be able to slow down the process of cartilage degeneration itself.

Their regenerative mode of action means for those prone to chronic joint stiffness and pain, there’s no reason not to take these supplements indefinitely, especially as they are relatively inexpensive. First we need to look at the causes:

Causes of joint pain and stiffness
There are a large number of possible causes of joint pain and stiffness, and the diagnosis of a particular problem can be a very complex process – just ask any physiotherapist! Causal factors:

1. Acute injuries come on suddenly and are usually associated

with some kind of trauma. Common examples include:

Ligaments torn or damaged by unusual or excessive movement of the joint;Impact injuries.
Protruding/prolapsed intervertebral disc, where unusual intervertebral
Forces lead to the deformation of the disc, allowing it to come into close proximity with nerves

2. Chronic injuries tend to come on quite gradually, thus making them trickier to diagnose. Common examples include:

Overuse injuries, where the long-term training volume exceeds the capacity of the joints involved to undergo adequate repair and recovery

Muscle imbalance injuries, where the joint fails to operate through its correct range of movement because of unequal or unbalanced muscular forces acting on the joint, or (particularly in the case of the spine) inadequate stabilisation of the joint(s) by the deep postural muscles

3. Degenerative conditions are associated with longer-term, less easily reversible functioning of the joints and are much more common in mature athletes. These conditions frequently include:

Arthritic-type wear and tear, where the articular cartilage becomes worn, leading to narrowed joint spaces, sometimes referred to as osteoarthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory condition of the joints caused by an auto-immune reaction
Low synovial fluid secretions, leading to reduced lubrication in the joint capsule.

Common to all these causal factors is the process of inflammation. Although part of the normal healing process, it can actually impede this process when it becomes chronic.

So those are the causes. What’s the solution?PERFORMANCE MASTERS SPECIAL REPORT

What science has to say about nutrients and vitamins
The role of nutrition in combating degenerative or inflammatory joint conditions has traditionally been regarded with scepticism. In recent years, however, research has indicated that good nutritional practice can play a significant role, both in promoting recovery from acute and chronic injuries and in ameliorating some of the effects of the degenerative conditions described above.

There are a number of nutrients and vitamins that are particularly important for older athletes, which should be well supplied in their diet.

Benefits such as:

The formation of collagen, a protein forming the basis for connective tissue such as tendons and intervertebral discs
The promotion of water retention and elasticity in joint cartilage and the inhibition of enzymes that break down cartilage
Anti-inflammatory effects
Antioxidants that also improve local circulation and promote a strong collagen matrix in joints
Antioxidant nutrients that afford protection from free radical damage in the body
Natural supplements Vs ibuprofen
Have you ever worried about taking too many ibuprofen – or some other anti-inflammatory drug?

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), including ibuprofen, have been shown to inhibit the repair and even accelerate the destruction of cartilage.

What this means for you

There is increasing evidence that moderate exercise may enhance some immune responses and lead to a lowered incidence of illness
The physiological deterioration associated with ageing is not inevitable but is due to a detraining effect of decreased exercise, often coupled with an increase in body fat
The athletes’ motto ‘If you don’t use it – you lose it’ applies to all of us, at whatever age
Nutrition for older athletes: tested foods and supplements can protect your joints from age-related degeneration
How to keep up to speed: the bad news is that speed declines with age; the good news is that you can arrest and even reverse this process

What the scientists say
The following roundup of recent research from the scientific, medical and sports journals looks at the problems and possibilities of older athletes:

How fitness protects the ageing brain and improves memory in mid-life
Power Vs endurance: what goes first in the ageing stakes?
Bone maintenance in older runners
Older athletes can reduce the risk factors for heart disease
This exercise regime will boost bone density and lean muscle mass
Why the muscles shrink with age – and what to do about it
Do the young respond more effectively to aerobic training? Don’t you believe it
A group of elderly hour-a-day exercisers who are aerobically 30 years younger

Nutrition for athletes