Fast after 50: Nutrition and Recovery

How to dial in your diet to best fuel and rebuild your body.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

One of the most important components of recovery is nutrition. Over the past 20 years of my life, between ages 50 and 70, I’ve made some significant changes to my diet. Until I was 50, though, I ate much the same diet during and after college. As I look back, I’m appalled by all of the junk food in my daily diet—cookies, potato chips, pastries, soft drinks, and more. The list is almost endless. I suppose I was just being a typical young American male. Yet despite the poor average quality of my diet, I still managed to train and race well. Could I have been a better athlete? Possibly, although there is something about being young that allows us to get away with a lot of dietary mistakes. I’ve watched my son, Dirk, go through the same process as a road cyclist. Now that he’s in his mid-40s, he is beginning to make adjustments to his diet in order to perform better after 30 years of top-level racing. He’s fixing his diet at a younger age than I did, and he’ll probably benefit from the change sooner than I did, too.

While what you eat is important to recovery, whatever foods and eating patterns you find work well for you shouldn’t be compromised as you get older as long as you are getting good results. If you are seeing a decline in performance, though, you should look at your diet. A diet based largely on junk food will catch up with you at some point in the aging process. It’s not a matter of if but rather when.

I expect you’ve already discovered that food quality has something to do with your recovery and performance. By age 50 it’s generally becoming apparent to most. Only a few, truly unique aging athletes can continue eating lots of junk food and still perform at a high level well into their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Most certainly cannot.

But simply eliminating junk food isn’t the full story. If one source of energy is eliminated, some other source must take its place. So what should you eat more of after cutting out the junk? And of nearly equal importance, when should you eat it? If you haven’t discovered what foods and eating patterns work best for your recovery and training, then you may get some ideas in this section.

Recovery and Your Chronic Diet

The two most common diets chosen by endurance athletes are high-carbohydrate and high-fat diets. By “high” I mean a chronic (daily) diet in which at least half of one’s calories come from either carbs or fat. High-protein diets are rare, but protein plays an important and unique role in the recovery of senior athletes, so we’ll examine that macronutrient in a separate section.

Our purpose is not to take your chronic diet in a new direction but rather to better understand how you can eat to speed recovery. We’ll do that by examining the types of foods you can choose at various times in order to produce the fastest and most complete recovery for you given the normal diet that you already eat. We’re thinking only in terms of eating for recovery from exercise.

As mentioned, the chronic diets we are considering are those made up primarily of either carbohydrate or fat. For most athletes, a high-fat diet is hard to comprehend because it doesn’t follow the normal set of nutritional “rules” for exercise and recovery. For example, the primary rule that most athletes accept at face value is that fuel must be frequently ingested during long exercise and in the hours afterward in order to produce movement and physical recovery. Another rule is that the tank must be topped off before starting to exercise. But the high-fat diet doesn’t follow these rules. How can that be?

The starting point for understanding the high-fat diet is that the body has different sources of fuel that it can call on to produce energy. The two most common sources are carbohydrate and fat. (Protein is also a potential fuel source but is used in comparatively minute amounts.) Without going into all of the physiology behind the fueling of exercise, we’ll condense the explanation to say that when eating the typical high-carb diet, the body relies heavily on glucose, a sugar, for fuel. Even when the tank is full, glucose is quite limited in the athlete’s body; depending on body size, high-carb athletes store around 1,500 to 2,000 calories of glucose in their bodies (most of it in the muscles). That’s enough to last perhaps 2 to 3 hours at a duration-specific, high-intensity effort. So fuel must be ingested before starting exercise in order to top off the limited levels. More fuel must be taken in during exercise to keep the muscles functioning, and carbohydrate also needs to be replaced soon after exercise to restock the depleted tank. These are the rules that most endurance athletes are used to following.

When fat is the primary macronutrient in the daily diet, however, ketones, not glucose, are the primary energy source. Ketones are produced by the liver from fat. For the athlete on a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet, there is little in the way of glucose available; ketone production increases, and the athlete is said to be in a state of “ketosis” (not to be confused with “ketoacidosis,” which is a serious medical condition sometimes experienced by type 1 diabetics). The skeletal muscles along with the heart, brain, and other vital organs function normally on ketones once the body adapts, which can take a few weeks.

Since even the skinniest athlete has plenty of stored body fat, the source of energy is unlikely to run out during endurance events lasting even several hours. So in-race refueling is not an issue, as it is when eating a high-carb diet. For example, many ultramarathon runners follow a high-fat diet and take in little or no fuel during events of 50 kilometers (31 miles) or more.

Recovery is also simple on a high-fat diet. Normal meals and snacks, made up primarily of fat, are eaten after workouts with no need to consume “extra” fat. There’s also no need for “loading” before a long race.

You can’t mix the two diets—it’s either a high-carb or a high-fat diet if you are to perform well. The body preferentially depends on either fat or sugar for fueling your aerobic exercise based on which it receives the most of on a daily basis. Eat a lot of carbohydrate, and the body burns a lot of sugar. Eat mostly fat, and the body is fueled mostly with fat. You also must follow the standard rules for recovery on your chosen diet. Eating a high-fat diet but recovering with lots of sugar is counterproductive, and recovering with fat on a high-carb diet won’t cut it, either. Let’s look into the role of protein in recovery and its implications for the senior athlete.

Protein and Recovery

While the number of studies on the topics of food, recovery, and aging is small, all of those studies seem to indicate that older athletes need more protein, especially during recovery, than younger athletes do. There is evidence to suggest that we don’t synthesize—meaning process in order to rebuild tissues—protein as well as we get older, especially for the restructuring of the slow-twitch endurance muscles. The older athlete, therefore, needs more protein to ensure that there is enough to help with the rebuilding that takes place during sleep. It also appears that on the days of strength training and intervals, eating some protein about 30 minutes before going to bed helps to stimulate muscle building, at least in young athletes. This dovetails very nicely with what you read earlier regarding the University of North Dakota study on macronutrient choices late in the day to improve sleep. But bear in mind that a large late-evening snack may conflict with falling asleep, as we saw earlier.

Since simply eating more total calories in order to take in additional protein isn’t a good way to increase this food type, it implies that there is a reduced need for either carbohydrate or fat with aging.

Protein has other benefits for the aging athlete when it comes to recovery. A 2014 review of the scientific literature related to protein intake and exercise by Stuart Phillips of McMaster University in Canada showed that when and how much protein you take in after a workout, especially a strength-building session such as lifting weights, has a lot to do with how beneficial the workout is for the muscles. To build or even just to maintain muscle mass, the rate of muscle protein synthesis must be greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown as it happens during and after a strength workout. Fortunately, strength training stimulates muscle protein synthesis. But without adequate dietary protein to support this rebuilding process, the body is forced to “cannibalize” itself by taking protein from lightly used muscles to rebuild the highly stressed muscles. This suggests the need to take in protein after workouts to meet the body’s needs.

And it just so happens that eating protein also increases the rate of muscle rebuilding, especially if it’s eaten immediately after exercise. The benefit decreases the longer you wait. So I recommend that after a strength workout or any session that is highly stressful to the muscles, such as aerobic-capacity or lactate-threshold intervals, you eat some protein within 30 minutes of finishing. How much?

In reviewing the research on how much protein should be eaten, Dr. Phillips found that older athletes need a lot. While a young athlete benefits from eating 20 to 25 grams (about 80 to 100 calories) of protein after a workout, older athletes may need 40 grams (about 160 calories) to achieve the same level of muscle protein synthesis.37 Consuming 160 calories from protein is equivalent to eating about six boiled eggs (with 6.29 g of protein per egg) after a workout. That’s a lot of eggs. It may be less difficult to get your protein by also including protein powder in your postworkout recovery drink. In that case I’d recommend using egg- or whey-based protein powder.

There are several amino acids in foods that together make up what we call protein. The individual amino acid that has been shown to be the most beneficial for muscle rebuilding during recovery is leucine, which has many good sources including whole eggs, egg whites, egg protein powder, and whey protein. Egg protein powder, however, can be quite expensive. Besides eggs, other common foods relatively high in leucine are most all dairy products, all animal products, dried figs, pasta, spinach, buttermilk, most nuts, most seeds, coconut milk and cream, avocado, most beans, corn, peas, spirulina, and succotash. These are good food choices for your postworkout recovery snack and the next meal after a hard workout to boost protein and leucine intake and muscle rebuilding.

Adapted from Fast After 50 by Joe Friel, with permission of VeloPress.

Fast After 50

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.