The higher the age of an athlete, regardless of fitness levels, the lower the level of certain substances in the body that contribute to peak performance. Combine that fact with the desire of many elite athletes in their 30s, 40s, and beyond to maintain an extremely high level of fitness, and you design a major nutritional challenge. Athletes past their 20s face lifestyle and workout issues as well. You can’t get away with slipping into some of the bad habits that younger athletes do, nor can you routinely recover from high-stress workouts as you might have done earlier in your athletic career.
But there is plenty of good news. Nate Llerandi, a successful triathlon coach, observes:
There are degenerative issues that happen as we age, but training and proper diet will stem the tide of that, or at least slow it down. I now see athletes in their late 30s and early 40s who are doing things that, 10 years ago [in the early 1990s], nobody would have expected from somebody of that age. I think we have learned to help counter degeneration processes.
The proof is everywhere, including in some of the world’s toughest races, such as the Badwater/Whitney 135, the brutal desert race that loses top competitors to stomach distress, dehydration, vertigo, stress fractures, and foot disorders, to name just a few likely race-enders. In the 1999 Hi-Tec Badwater/Whitney event, 6 of the top 10 finishers were over 40 at race time, and three were over 50. The top man was 41 and the top woman—the remarkable endurance athlete, Angelika Casteneda, who set another record—was 56.
The Furnace Creek 508 (miles) is the cycling counterpart to Badwater, both of which force athletes to endure the heat of Death Valley and the altitude of the mountains. Nate Llerandi coached the 1999 course record holder, Jim “Pterodactyl” Petri. Jim, who is in his 60s, says his nutritional keys to success were taking in 500 calories an hour, drinking lots of water, taking E-CAPS supplements, and drinking Coca-Cola when he felt drowsy.
One of the first companies in the industry, E-CAPS has developed a following with masters athletes, even though its products are designed for endurance athletes of all ages. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the company’s association with high-profile nutritionist and masters athlete, Dr. Bill Misner. (Bill, who was born in 1939, backs up his academic and sports-medicine training credentials with masters running and cycling championships.) A more fundamental reason is that cofounder Brian Frank has considered the biomarkers of aging in developing his product line. His products increase the efficiency with which an athlete’s body operates, so that it can handle greater workloads, recover from them more quickly, and maintain a high degree of overall health.
Brian began exploring the potential benefits of nutritional supplements in the 1980s, principally to try to create competitive advantages for himself in his endurance sports. He and his father introduced their first product, Race Caps, in August of 1987 at the Coors Classic, an event where Brian and Jennifer (Biddulph) Maxwell also tried to bring their “powerful bars” to the attention of the racing world. At the time, classically trained nutritionists like Jennifer were very skeptical about the value of the Franks’ supplements. They thought that a balanced diet should provide all the nutrients that a healthy athlete would require. In contrast, Brian and his father, a successful chiropractor, believed that intense training creates the need for supplementation, no matter how well you eat—just as athletes and sports nutrition experts believe today.
“We saw too many athletes who were teetering on that fine line between peak fitness and being sick from overtraining,” Brian recalls. Unfortunately, the options for an endurance athlete in 1987 were slim.
Bodybuilders had protein powder, but until the arrival of PowerBar, endurance athletes only had products like Gatorade and Exceed to meet their special energy and nutrient requirements. Brian explains, "There was nothing in the way of supplements that would address the unique needs of endurance athletes. We felt those needs were very different from those of strength athletes because of the volume they train, the type of free radicals their activities are creating, and so forth. So we set out to develop phase-effective, ergogenic aids that would be specifically geared toward the needs and requirements of endurance athletes."
Within a year of when we got started, there was the Ben Johnson steroid scandal at the Seoul Olympics, so there was a lot of focus on drugs. I can’t tell you how many times people would walk by our table at an event and say, “Oh, yeah, that stuff’s probably just a bunch of steroids.” In some ways, maybe that scandal was good for all of us in that athletes became more aware of supplements and ergogenic aids—both illicit and legal.
Snapshots of Super Master’s Diets
Bill Misner’s own diet is a good basis for understanding how a masters endurance athlete might combine whole foods with supplements that mitigate the effects of aging. Admittedly, his diet would represent an extreme for most people, but consider carefully how it addresses both the health and performance issues of a 60-plus male who runs about 50 miles a week in addition to strength and speed workouts.
In planning his diet, as well as in advising other athletes, Bill thinks in terms of Optimum Daily Allowances (ODAs). In the context of ODAs, the ideal amount of nutrients depends on considerations that include age, activity, performance goals, and medical conditions. In addition, the ODAs don’t portray fat as merely saturated or unsaturated, as the RDAs do. You learn very little about designing a high-performance diet from an RDA that simply says that, for a 2,000-calorie diet, your total fat intake should be about 66 grams, with your saturated fat intake not exceeding 22 grams. In contrast, an ODA discussion of fat offers specifics in terms of omega-3, omega-6, trans-fatty acid, and more. The ODAs for omega-3 and omega-6 start at about five grams and two grams, respectively, and for trans-fatty acid, they start at zero grams. Trans-fatty acids trick the body into using them in building cell membranes, which then have a reduced ability to allow trace minerals to penetrate. Results could be cell death or a diseased state—important outcomes to avoid, particularly if you are attempting to stave off the degenerative effects of aging to stay competitive. Trans-fatty acids are formed when liquid fats, such as vegetable oils, are hardened by hydrogenation to produce margarine and other products.
Bill’s own diet clearly reflects this concept of totally avoiding bad nutrients and consuming megadoses of some good nutrients, as shown on page 173.
On an occasional basis, Bill will take 2,400 milligrams of arginine–pyroglutamate-lysine (APGL). This measure is another age-related choice. Substantial research, some of which was done in the early 1980s, has looked at how taking such amino acid combinations orally stimulates the body’s secretion of human growth hormone (HGH). As athletes age, any healthful way to promote HGH production will give them an edge. Alternatively, Bill sometimes takes 2,000 milligrams of glutamine to boost his growth hormone release. These supplements must be taken on an empty stomach to be effective, because growth hormone and insulin “don’t get along,” as Bill points out.
For an old guy like me, it’s a safe way to get [HGH] into the system. It’s especially important if I’m doing a strength workout or a speed workout, or if it’s just the middle of the week and I need to boost the cumulative effects prior to my long run on the weekends.
I think growth hormone is a big part of a strength or speed session because, as an endurance athlete, you’re looking at these sessions to improve your pace.
At bedtime, Bill also takes 10 milligrams of melatonin, which he feels provides a growth hormone advantage. As he’s gotten older, he has had a harder time sleeping through an entire night. He feels that if he gets a deeper sleep at night, then the growth hormone is released at a higher rate. ZMA is another possible choice for the same reason, but Bill doesn’t use it because of a personal test that he conducted, which involved himself and another masters endurance champion. Their experience was that their testosterone levels actually went down with ZMA use, in sharp contrast to the young football players who participated in the original study that validated claims of its anabolic benefits. Reasons for the difference could be twofold:
1.Bill and his fellow masters champion are older men, with different hormone mechanisms from the young athletes.
2.The endurance sports they do expend a high amount of calories but require relatively little growth hormone.
Regardless of this possible effect, endurance athletes of all ages and both genders need to pay attention to their zinc and chromium levels, both of which are depleted through intense training.
Bill’s attention to HGH reflects a harsh reality for any male athlete over the age of 25. Testosterone levels peak in the male body in the late teens and early 20s and then steadily decline. The stress of intense training tends to further depress hormone levels. Male strength and endurance athletes in their mid-30s and above who don’t have a training and nutrition program consistent with their needs commonly find that their usual 8 to 10 hours a week of intense training robs them of a libido. If your testosterone level is so low that you have no sexual desire, think of the consequences on your body’s ability to build and maintain muscle and do all the other functions that testosterone is a critical part of. Diminished workload capacity, an inability to recover from stress—these are just some of reasons that have sent men over 30 in search of anabolic steroids and prohormones. As Bill points out, however, they are not the only options.
Female masters athletes have another key age-related consideration. To avert stress fractures, female runners must complement their endurance training with weight-bearing exercises when they hit their mid-30s. Even supported by a diet that includes calcium supplementation, a running program is not enough to force the body to retain bone integrity. Decreasing hormone levels as menopause approaches can also affect a female athlete’s ability to compete effectively as a strength or endurance athlete.
It is interesting to see the remarkable similarities, as well as the differences, between Bill’s daily food and supplement program and that of Dr. Paul Hutinger, a top masters swimmer who, as of this writing, is 76 years old. Paul taught exercise physiology at Western Illinois University before retiring. Before a meet or training session, he might have a piece of whole-grain toast, a banana, and a cup of coffee. Immediately after his workout, he takes in some carbs and protein to boost recovery, often in the form of a Clif Bar. When he gets home, he eats oatmeal and fruit, and later, a simple dinner that follows a 40-30-30 macronutrient distribution.
The big difference between Paul’s supplementation program and Bill’s is the inclusion of saw palmetto, which Paul began taking in his 60s to mitigate prostate problems. Even though he has dabbled in DHEA use—he found that it didn’t make any difference—and does use glutamine regularly to aid recovery, he somehow escaped the sharp decline in testosterone levels that most men experience. When Paul was in his 60s, he participated in studies on testosterone levels conducted at Western Illinois University and found he was “in the 900 range—like a teenager.” (The normal range for a 30-year-old man is 250 to 400.) Nevertheless, Paul suggests that many older male and female athletes might benefit from carefully regulated DHEA use.