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

  • Bieuzen, F., Hausswirth, C., Louis, J., & Brisswalter, J. (2010). Age-related changes in neuromuscular function and performance following a high-intensity intermittent task in endurance-trained men. Gerontology, 56(1), 66-72.
  • 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.

Acclimatising for the heat? Do it in the water!

Introduction

Most older athletes know that the way to prepare for competition in the heat is to acclimatise by training in the heat. If you live in a cooler part of the world or it’s winter acclimatising can mean finding a heat chamber, an indoor heated pool for an ergo session, wearing tracksuits or even travelling to a place at great expense and effort.

Now there appears a new way to acclimatise. Complete your training session or work out in the cooler temperatures then immerse yourself in hot water after the training session.  This UK study investigated whether daily hot water immersion (HWI) after exercise in temperate conditions (18 degrees C) induces heat acclimation and improves endurance performance in either the temperate and/or hot conditions.

The Study Details

Seventeen non-heat-acclimatized young males (23 +/- 3 years; 69.5  +/- 6.9 kg; V̇O2max of 60.5 +/- 6.8 mL/kg/min) performed a six-day intervention involving a daily treadmill run for 40 min at moderate exercise intensity of 65% V̇O2max in temperate conditions (18 °C) followed immediately by either hot water immersion at 40 °C or thermoneutral at 34 °C immersion for 40 minutes. Before and after the six-day intervention, each participant performed a treadmill run for 40 min at 65% V̇O2max followed by a 5-km treadmill time trial (TT) in temperate (18 °C, 40% humidity) and hot (33 °C, 40% humidity) conditions.

The Results

HWI induced heat acclimation as shown by significantly lower resting rectal temperature (−0.27 °C), and lower final rectal temperature during both submaximal exercise in 18 °C (−0.28 °C) and 33 °C (−0.36 °C). Skin temperature, the rectal temperature at onset of sweating onset and the rating of perceived exertion were all significantly lower during submaximal exercise in 18 °C and 33 °C after 6 days of the hot water immersion. Physiological strain and thermal sensation were also significantly lower during submaximal exercise in 33 °C after the hot water immersion. All these results suggest the body has adapted physiologically to the hot water immersion. Critically, the hot water immersion also improved the 5km time trial performance in 33 °C by 4.9%, but not in 18 °C. Thermoregulatory measures and performance did not change when undertaking the controlled immersion at 34°C.

So What?

Rightfully so, the researchers showed that hot water immersion after exercise over six consecutive days presents a simple, practical, economical and effective heat acclimation strategy to improve endurance performance in the heat. Thus, this method of acclimating means you don’t need access to hot environments to acclimatise. This method also means you can maintain training intensity and duration THEN acclimatise versus having to try and train IN the heat where your training performance might be compromised. Similar to the slogan ‘live-high, train-low’ when it comes to altitude training, these researchers suggest ‘train-cool, bathe-hot’ when it comes to acclimatising for the heat. Another advantage of this type of heat acclimation is that it takes 10-14 days to get the heat acclimatisation benefits when training in heat. This six-day method saves time and therefore money if you have to travel to a hot place to prepare for racing.

Source: Zurawlew,, M. and others (2016). Post-exercise hot water immersion induces heat acclimation and improves endurance exercise performance in the heat. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 26: 745-754.

Masters Athletes Not Too Savvy on Nutritional Recovery

Introduction

I have some very smart PhD students. They make me look good by producing high quality and very applied research outcomes! Tom Doering, a champion age-group triathlete, originally from Tasmania, is doing some ground-breaking research examining whether masters athletes need more protein in their recovery nutrition than younger athletes. This suggestion is based on the fact that existing research in older non-athletes has found older inactive people need more protein in their diets than younger people if they want to help maintain their muscle mass into older age. The rationale is that older people are anabolic resistant and don’t take up protein building blocks (amino acids) from food as quickly as younger people do. Tom is trying to see whether older athletes have the same issue and thus need more protein in their recovery nutrition.

To answer this research question, we first did a survey of sport nutritional knowledge and actual nutritional intakes in older and younger triathletes. Our research has shown that both young and older triathletes are not too smart when it comes to sport nutrition knowledge. Even more concerning was the lower carbohydrate and protein intakes of the masters athletes compared to the younger athletes. Here is what we did and what we found.

The Research

182 triathletes (Males=101; Female =81) completed an online survey distributed by Triathlon Australia. Knowledge of post-exercise sport nutrition recommendations for protein (20-25 grams following exercise) and carbohydrate intake (1.0-1.2 grams/kg/hour) were assessed as a group, and within sub-groups of masters (≥50 years; n=36) and younger triathletes (≤30 years; n=18). Using dietary recall of a typical post-exercise meal and subsequent dietary analysis, the actual nutritional practices of younger versus masters triathletes were also compared.

Results

As a whole group, less than 45% of the triathletes did not know the above recommended post-exercise guidelines for carbohydrate or protein. 31% of the masters triathletes and only 17% of the youngsters knew the correct amount of carbohydrate needed after exercise (1.0-1.2 grams/kg/hour). When it came to the amount of protein needed after exercise, only 25% of the over 50 year old triathletes and 22% of the younger athletes knew the correct answer (20-25 grams).

Of even greater concern was the actual carbohydrate and protein intakes of the older triathletes. The over 50 year-old athletes (0.70±0.43 g/kg) took in significantly less carbohydrate than the younger athletes (1.02±0.54 g/kg). Critically, the amount of carbohydrate intake in the older athletes was well below that recommended after exercise. Moreover, the older triathletes took in significantly less protein than the younger triathletes (0.28±0.19 g/kg vs. 0.42±0.23 g/kg), despite a suggestion based on research from older inactive people that they in fact should be taking in more protein after exercise than youngsters.

So What?

Our results suggest that regardless of age, triathletes have poor knowledge of the recommended post-exercise nutritional guidelines. However, this lack of knowledge does not appear to compromise the post-exercise nutritional practices of younger triathletes. In contrast, our data suggest masters triathletes are not consuming enough carbohydrate after training. This may compromise subsequent training, especially in older athletes who train twice a day. Our data also suggest masters triathletes consume post-exercise protein doses that may not be high enough to maximize muscle recovery in the older athlete.

For those of you wanting to know more about recovery nutrition you won’t find a better resource than this one from the Australian Institute of Sport Nutrition Unit: http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/competition_and_training/recovery_nutrition

Tom is about to analyse data from a recently-completed study where we looked at higher than recommended doses of post-exercise protein intake in older triathletes to see what effect it had on cycling performance over 3 consecutive days. Next update I’ll let you know the outcomes.

For more details on what recovery strategies work in older athletes, check out chapters 15 (Recovery Strategies for Masters Athletes) and 16 (Nutrition for Masters Athletes) of my book at: http://www.mastersathlete.com.au

Effects of Strength Training and Flexibility training on Each Other

Introduction

Both strength and flexibility are important for sport performance. In masters athletes both strength and flexibility decrease with age and so become even more important for the competitive masters athlete.

Strength training either by lifting heavy weights or in circuit training has been shown by previous research to improve flexibility. In 2011, a study either doing strength or flexibility training simultaneously or by themselves for 16 weeks and found that strength training also improved both strength and flexibility. However, some research has shown that strength performance when doing weights can be reduced if you do flexibility training beforehand.  The aim of this study was to analyze the strength and flexibility gains after 12 weeks of combined or isolated strength and dynamic flexibility training by experienced older women who had at least 3 years of both strength and flexibility training behind them.

The Research

Twenty-eight trained women (age = 46 ± 6 years; body mass = 57 ± 5 kg; height = 162 ± 5 cm) were randomly divided into 4 groups of 7 people per group: strength training (ST), flexibility training (FLEX), combination of strength and flexibility (ST + FLEX), and combination of flexibility and strength (FLEX + ST). All groups were assessed before and after training for the sit and reach test, goniometry-range of motion about joints, and 10 repetition maximum in bench press and leg press exercises. The training protocol for all groups included training sessions on alternate days and was composed of 8 exercises performed at periodised (gradually increasing) intensities. The FLEX consisted of dynamic stretching performed for a total duration of 60 minutes.

The Results

The results demonstrated significant strength gains in all groups in the leg press exercise. All groups except the FLEX improved in bench press strength with no statistical differences between groups. However, effect sizes ( a measure the size of any changes in measures) demonstrated slightly different effects of training on strength measures for each group. The largest effects on strength measures were calculated for the ST group and the lowest effects in the FLEX group. Both combination groups (ST + FLEX and FLEX + ST) demonstrated lower effect sizes for both leg press and bench press as compared with the ST group. No significant differences in any of the flexibility measures were seen in any group.

So What?

These findings suggest that combining strength and flexibility is not detrimental to flexibility development. However, combined strength and flexibility training may slightly reduce strength development, with little influence of order in which strength or flexibility exercises are performed. For me, both types of training are important for masters athletes. So whatever of the two you want to emphasise is the one you need to emphasise when training the two together in one session.

For more details on strength and flexibility training for masters athletes, check out chapters 7 (Strength training for masters athletes) and 9 (Flexibility training for masters athletes) of my book at: http://www.mastersathlete.com.au

Source: Leite, T. and others (2015) Influence of strength and flexibility training, combined or isolated, on strength and flexibility gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(4): 1083-1088.

Muscle Cramping – More than Dehydration

Introduction

Gotta love academics! They define what we athletes know as a cramp this way: an exercise-induced muscle cramp is ‘a painful, spasmodic, involuntary contraction of skeletal muscle during or immediatley after exercise’. Research scientists have shown that the prevalance of cramping is as high as 37% in athletes. This review will highlight that the old theories of electrolyte imbalance as the cause of cramping are now being questioned. More importantly, we’ll use modern theories on cramping to highlight how to minimise their occurence during and after training or racing.

What are the Risk Factors?

Historically, numerous causes and thus risk factors have been implicated in cramping. These include:

  1. Accumulation of by-products of muscle metabolism that impair muscle contraction (e.g. lactic acid)
  2. Depletion of electrolytes such as sodium and potassium
  3. Loss of fluids and thus dehydration
  4. Extreme environmental conditions of heat and cold
  5. Lack of blood supply

However, while these are risk factors, previous and ongoing current research suggests they are not the causes of muscle cramps. Other factors have also been shown to increase the prevalence of cramping. These include:

  1. Having a history of cramping
  2. Competing at a faster pace than training pace
  3. Doing too much static (holding) stretching before racing
  4. Increased race duration and thus fatigue
  5. Not tapering enough before the race
  6. Racing with prior muscle fatigue or damage
  7. Muscles that cross two joints (e.g. hamstrings, quadriceps and gastrocnemius in the calf)
  8. Having a lower threshold frequency for cramping (15 Hz-cycles per second) than non-cramping people who have a threshold frequency of 25 Hz. This threshold frequency is the minimum frequency needed to stimulate a cramp. This thus suggests the nervous system is involved in some way.

What are the Theories?

The physiology of muscle contraction and relaxation may help explain the current theories. Three critical things need to occur for muscle contraction and relaxation. First, energy is needed for the muscle to contract and then relax. To do this, calcium in the muscles that stimulates the contraction must also be reabsorbed into pockets in the muscle so that the contaction stops. Dysfunction of either of these processes (calcium release and calcium reabsorption) can mean permanent contraction and thus contraction. Fatigue during exercise can cause this resorption of calcium to occur poorly. Thirdly, the electrical activity in the muscle must also be normal. If not, the muscle may be continually stimulated and thus contract and stay contracted. If any of the pathways that create this electrical activity are upset, the muscle may stay contracted. Again, fatigue can cause the muscle’s electrical activity to be upset.

In all the available literature, it appears that fatigue either within the muscle or within the nervous system itself may be related to cramping.

Treatment and Prevention?

Taken together, the above theories plus years of anecdotal evidence suggest the following ways to prevent cramping in athletes:

  • Carbohydrate and electrolyte supplements before ans during exercise may extend the time to fatigue and thus onset of cramping
  • Hydration before and during racing
  • Ensure you taper to reduce fatigue levels going into the race
  • Train at race pace leading into the event
  • Don’t overdo static stretching before the race, use dynamic stretching instead

If you get a cramp do passive stretching and consume fluids and electrolytes to alleviate the cramp the fastest.

Sources: 1. Buskard, A. (2014). Cramping in sports: Beyond dehydration. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 36(5): 44-52. 2. Minetto and others (2013). Origin and development of muscle cramps. Exercise and Sport Science Reviews, 41: 3-10. 3. Schwellnus, M. (2009).  Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)–altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(6): 401-408.