Life is less forgiving after 40. It’s a myth you can’t gain fitness, lose weight, change careers, or change yourself past a certain age; but I do think those changes get harder. Your body doesn’t absorb and shrug off abuse as well as it did years ago. There’s more at stake when changing relationships and careers compared to when you were starting out. And more effort and focus are required to gain fitness and/or lose weight. Great habits enable greater success, so here are 5 of the best habits for athletes over 40.
There are a number of reasons why it makes sense to shift your diet to consume more plants and fewer animals. Eating more plants will increase your fiber intake, which may reduce the risks of developing colon cancers, normalize bowel movements, and lower some cardiovascular disease risks. This shift also tends to lead to a diet with greater nutrient density and lower caloric density.
Vegetarian and vegan athletes can be just as successful as athletes who eat animal products. There is no truth to the assertion vegetarian and vegan athletes can’t get enough protein or iron to successfully train, compete, and recover. At the same time, athletes who enjoy meat, eggs, and dairy products shouldn’t feel compelled to give them up entirely. I’m talking a shift to more and less, not necessarily all and none.
Along with the shift to eating more plants and fewer animals, athletes over 40 should moderately increase protein intake and make a conscious effort to reduce intake of concentrated carbohydrate sources. You don’t have to go low carb or swear off bread and pasta, but it is important to acknowledge that highly concentrated sources of carbohydrate energy make it easy to consume way more calories than you need or intend to eat. Concentrated carbohydrate sources are great for pre-, during-, and post-workout sports nutrition purposes, but cutting back on them in the rest of your diet helps reduce overall caloric intake.
When you combine the advice to consume more plants and fewer animals with the advice to consume fewer concentrated carbohydrate sources, you naturally end up with the recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables. Some people advocate rounding out your energy intake almost entirely with fat, but for athletes over 40 I recommend sticking to 1.5-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day, and potentially even up to 2 g/kg/day. This still leaves plenty of room in an athlete’s diet for fats and oils, but also helps ensure you’re getting enough protein to support your muscle mass, immune health, and recovery needs.
Note: For Grand Masters athletes (60+ years old), consuming around 2 g/kg/day of protein becomes increasingly important for maintaining muscle mass and staving off sarcopenia. It’s best to spread this protein intake across the entire day, as well, rather than to concentrate it in any particular meal or post-workout supplement. Additionally, protein before bed may help sustain muscle protein synthesis overnight.
Muscle mass is important for preserving strength as well as endurance performance, but maintaining muscle mass becomes more difficult as we age. Strength training also helps maintain bone density, which is particularly important for athletes with a long history in non-weight bearing sports like cycling and swimming, or people who were sedentary in early adulthood and have become more active in recent years. Joint health is a third reason to add or increase strength training – in case you need another. There’s an old saying: “motion is lotion” regarding joint health. Incorporating a variety of strength training movements helps keep your joints moving in a wide range of motion and applies stress at novel angles, which helps maintain the strength of connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).
As coaches we focus a lot on improving an athlete’s performance in a very specific activity. If you want to win an event, your training needs to be very specific to the demands of that event. On a grander scale, however, it is important for athletes over 40 to prioritize consistent activity over sport specificity. What this means is that even sport-specific athletes benefit from diversifying their ability to participate in a wider range of activities. If you’re a runner you can still be a runner, but consider adding strength training and cycling and even bouldering or stick-and-ball sports to your lifestyle. If you’re a cyclist, it’s even more important to diversify so you can participate in more weight-bearing activities. The point is to increase your options so you can exercise consistently no matter what activity or equipment is available. Make sure you can always do something; don’t worry as much about exactly what that something is.
Stress is a drain on your energy and your ability to perform at your best. Our culture glorifies the ability to handle more and more stress, but a more mature view may be to reduce or eliminate unnecessary stresses so you can focus on the stresses that matter and move you toward your goals. Prioritize sleep, not just by potentially going to bed earlier, but also by optimizing your sleep environment. Identify nagging stressors, like clutter or busywork, and get rid of them. If you can afford it, outsource tasks that are time consuming and add tasks to your to-do list but return little value, like house cleaning and lawn maintenance. On the other hand, if those tasks are stress relievers for you (I worked with an athlete who loved folding laundry), then keep doing them. The point is, stop doing everything just because you can do everything. Be more discerning about the stresses you take on.
Whether you’re in your 40s or your 70s, your greatest days and greatest achievements may still lay ahead. I think that’s an essential belief that keeps people going. We need to support that belief by what we do now so we will be capable and ready to seize upon opportunities in the future!