We’ve Proved It – Older Athletes DO Take Longer to Recover

Introduction

Anecdotally, my own extensive training and competitive experience and years of talking with high level masters athletes from many sports tells me they will all say the same thing – the older I get the longer it takes to recover from training or racing or I don’t bounce back like I used to

I am now in position from my own research team’s work to answer that long-asked question “Do older athletes take longer to recover?” 

Our research strongly suggests older athletes DO take longer to recover. This article will present what we did to answer the above question, what we found through our laboratory testing, and more importantly what the implications are for enhancing recovery for all masters athletes.

Previous Research Findings

Few studies have examined recovery in older athletes. In 2008 one of my former PhD students, now Dr Jim Fell from the University of Tasmania, compared actual performance and perceptions of soreness, fatigue and recovery in veteran versus young cyclists over three consecutive days of doing 30 minute cycling time trails per day. While we found no differences in cycling time trial performance over time in either age group, the veteran cyclists perceived they took longer to recover. They also felt they were more fatigued and sorer each day compared to the younger cyclists.

In 2010, a French research group compared recovery rates in 10 young (30.5 ± 7 years) and 13 master (45.9 ± 5.9 years) athletes who competed in a 55-km trail run race. The researchers measured thigh muscle strength and muscle electrical activity, blood markers of muscle damage, and cycling efficiency before, then 1, 24, 48 and 72 hours after the race. The older athletes took longer to recover in all measures.

Taken together, the above results suggest that older runners who damage their muscles in training or racing appear to take longer to recover. It also appears the older athletes perceive they take longer to recover.

 Our Very Recent Research Findings

In a recently published review, one of my PhD students, now Dr Nattai Borges at the University of Newcastle in Australia, concluded that masters athletes recover muscle function and athletic performance at similar rates to younger athletes following fatiguing, non-muscle damaging exercise such as cycling or low-impact resistance training. However, following exercise that results in exercise-induced muscle damage, such as prolonged or hard training or racing, older athletes may require longer to recover than younger athletes.

‘So why is it so?’ as Professor Julius Sumner Miller used to say (remember him?).

Previous research groups have identified that an elevated rate of muscle protein synthesis (building) is vital to the repair and remodelling of skeletal muscle. It is well-known that older untrained adults display age-related ‘anabolic resistance’ in the muscle rebuilding. That is, older inactive people don’t repair their muscle as quickly as younger people. Interestingly, previous researchers have shown that both exercise and protein feeding stimulate protein synthesis in older untrained people. But what about older athletes who both exercise regularly and eat protein.

One of my research team, Dr Tom Doering now working with me at Bond University, decided to investigate whether this anabolic resistance persists in masters athletes who keep up training, and thus, whether it contributes to the poorer muscle recovery observed in this group.

Despite it being widely accepted that older untrained adults require ~40 g or ~0.40 g.kg-1 of protein post-exercise, current sport nutrition recommendations do not differentiate between masters and younger athletes with the recommendations for all athletes, regardless of age, currently being ~20 g of protein consumed immediately post-exercise. Whether or not masters athletes consume this amount of protein post-exercise, or whether this currently recommended dose is sufficient to elevate muscle protein synthesis essential for muscle repair and remodelling to levels equivalent of younger athletes, had yet to be determined.

Here is what Tom’s research did in a series of three studies to investigate these matters.

 Study 1

Using survey methodology and the support of Triathlon Australia, we set out to compare the post-exercise nutritional practices (protein and carbohydrate intake) of masters athletes to both younger athletes and current sport nutrition recommendations. We showed that masters triathletes typically consume post-exercise meals/snacks that contain a significantly lower amount of carbohydrate (0.7±0.4 g.kg-1) than younger triathletes (1.1±0.6 g.kg-1). We also showed that the masters triathletes fail to meet current post-exercise carbohydrate intake recommendations. In addition, we also showed that, despite masters triathletes typically consuming protein intakes that meet current sport nutrition recommendations (20±14 g), the protein intakes of the older triathletes were significantly lower than those doses consumed by younger triathletes (0.3±0.2 g.kg-1 vs 0.4±0.2 g.kg-1). These results suggest older athletes need to consume more carbohydrate post-exercise. Moreover, older athletes may need to focus more on post-exercise protein intake.

Study 2

We then set out to compare the muscle protein synthesis rates of masters and younger triathletes over three consecutive days of intense endurance training. Recovery of cycling performance, following muscle-damaging running, was also compared between groups.

Five masters (age, 53±2 years, V̇O2max, 55.7±6.9 mL.kg-1.min-1) and six young (age, 27±2 years, V̇O2max, 62.3±1.5 mL.kg-1.min-1) trained triathletes volunteered for the study. Baseline skeletal muscle and saliva were initially sampled, following which a 150 mL drink of deuterium oxide (70%) was consumed. This is a new method that enabled us to measure protein building rates in the body. The athletes then completed a muscle-damaging 30 min downhill run after which three 20 km cycling time trials were completed 10, 24 and 48 hours following the run. Saliva was collected each morning and thigh muscle was biopsied before the run and then again 72 hours following the run so we could measure the rate of protein synthesis in the young and older athletes. Diet was controlled throughout the study.

Over the three days, masters triathletes showed a significantly lower protein synthetic rate (1.49±0.12%.d-1) compared to the younger (1.70±0.09%.d-1) triathletes. There was also a trend for masters triathletes to produce a slower cycle time trial (-3.0%) compared to younger triathletes (-1.4%) at 10 h post-run, in comparison to baseline. The between-group comparison of change in performance was moderate suggesting a slower rate of cycling performance recovery in the masters triathletes.

Study 3

So, given that previous research from older untrained people showed increasing protein intake after exercise may be needed to overcome the anabolic resistance to rebuilding muscle, we set out see whether repeated intakes of ‘higher’ doses of protein (0.6 g.kg-1) compared to doses of protein currently recommended by sports dietitians (0.3 g.kg-1) lead to enhanced same-day recovery of muscle function, perceptions of recovery, and afternoon cycling performance in masters triathletes following muscle-damaging running.

Eight masters triathletes (52±2 years, V̇O2max, 51.8±4.2 mL.kg-1.min-1) completed two exercise trials separated by seven days. Trials consisted of morning strength testing and a 30-min downhill run followed by an eight-hour recovery. During recovery, a moderate (0.3 g.kg-1) or high (0.6 g.kg-1) protein intake was consumed in three feedings at two hour intervals commencing immediately post-exercise. Strength testing and a cycling time trial were completed post-intervention. Perceptions of recovery were also assessed pre- and post-exercise.

The high protein intake did not significantly improve recovery of cycling performance compared with the moderate protein intake. However, the high protein intake provided a moderate beneficial effect in lowering the loss of afternoon strength (-3.6%) compared to the moderate protein intake (-8.6%). In addition, the high protein intake provided a large beneficial effect in reducing perceived fatigue over the eight-hour recovery compared to the moderate protein intake.

We concluded that doubling the recommended post-exercise protein intake did not significantly improve recovery cycling performance in the masters triathletes. However, we believe the higher protein intake provided moderate to large beneficial effects on muscle strength and power recovery that may be meaningful following muscle damaging exercise.

Conclusions

Taken together, our series of studies suggest that regular training into later life by masters athletes does not appear to offset the age-related impairments in muscle protein metabolism. We also conclude that higher protein feedings may be beneficial to recovery for subsequent training or competition performance in masters athletes.

Implications

So what do we recommend based on the above research? Here are our recommendations to veteran athletes:

  1. We recommend that that masters athletes consult a sports dietitian to determine convenient and appropriate post-exercise dietary options that contain optimal carbohydrate and protein contributions for differing training scenarios (i.e., one vs. two training sessions per day) as well as adequate protein intakes to maximise muscle protein repair and remodelling following muscle-damaging exercise such as sprint swimming, interval training, plyometrics or weight training.
  2. Masters athletes completing two training sessions per day should maximise the duration of the recovery period (i.e., early morning and late afternoon). Alternatively, following exercise that results in muscle damage such as weights or hard training, it should be expected that exercise performance will be reduced for up to 24 hours.
  3. Masters athletes should consider implementing age-specific dietary protein strategies. Specifically, increasing their post-exercise protein intake to ~0.4-0.6 g.kg-1, and consuming high quality leucine-rich whey (milk-based) protein, particularly if previous training has resulted in muscle-damage.
  4. Masters athletes should consider implementing the above dietary protein strategies, namely increased dose of protein at all main meals and post-exercise to optimise daily protein synthesis rates for muscle protein remodelling and thus facilitate adaptation to training.
  5. Given our research team has previously shown masters athletes to be poor users of recovery strategies, the recovery strategies shown in Table 1 below have been shown to enhance recovery in athletes.

 Table 1: Ratings (High and Medium-High) of commonly used recovery strategies.

 

High

Medium-High

Contrast water treatment

Active recovery

Compression garments

Water therapy (e.g. spas)

Ice

Massage

Stretching

Pool work

Nutrition

(NB Carbohydrate and protein)

Sleep

 

The bottom line is we older athletes need to use what science says works, not waste valuable family, work, leisure and training time on recovery strategies that waste our time or even worse, no recovery strategy at all!! Get to it fellow masters athletes – train hard, recover harder and recover smarter!  For specific details and realistic advice on how to recover using all the methods outlined above, see chapter 15 of my book The Masters Athlete.

 Bibliography

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  • Borges, N., Reaburn, P., Driller, M., & Argus, C. (2016). Age-related changes in performance and recovery Kinetics in masters athletes: A Narrative Review. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 24(1), 149-157.
  • Doering, T. M., Reaburn, P. R., Phillips, S. M., & Jenkins, D. G. (2016). Post-exercise dietary protein strategies to maximize skeletal muscle repair and remodeling in masters endurance athletes: A Review. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 26(2), 168-178.
  • Doering, T. M., Reaburn, P. R., Cox, G., & Jenkins, D. G. (2015). Comparison of post-exercise nutrition knowledge and post-exercise carbohydrate and protein intake between Australian masters and younger triathletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 26(4), 338-346.
  • Doering, T. M., Jenkins, D. G., Reaburn, P. R., Borges, N. R., Hohmann, E., & Phillips, S. M. (2016). Lower integrated muscle protein synthesis in masters compared to younger athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 48(8), 1613-1618.
  • Doering, T. M., Reaburn, Borges, N. R., P. R., Cox, G., & Jenkins, D. G. (2016). The effect of higher than recommended protein feedings post-exercise on recovery following downhill running in masters triathletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, (Epub ahead of print).
  • Easthope, C. and others (2010). Effects of trail running competition on muscular performance and efficiency in well-trained young and masters athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 110: 1107-1116.
  • Fell, J. and others (2006). Performance during consecutive days of laboratory time-trials in young and veteran cyclists. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 46(3): 395-403.
  • Louis, J., Hausswirth, C., Bieuzen, F., & Brisswalter, J. (2009). Muscle strength and metabolism in master athletes. Int ernational Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(10), 754-759.
  • Reaburn, P. and others (2013). Poor use of recovery strategies in veteran cyclists: an Australian study. Proceedings of the American College of Sports Medicine Conference and World Congress on Exercise is Medicine, Indianapolis, USA, May 28-June 1.