Does an athlete's protein needs change as they age
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Nutrition

Protein: Do your needs change as you get older?

Wondering if your protein needs change as you age, and whether a woman's protein needs differ from a man's? James Witts investigates

It’s a humbling fact of life that, as you age, you lose muscle mass. Thankfully, there are strategies to offset this wastage; one by adding a tri-specific weights session or two each week, and the other is to increase more protein into your diet. 

Introducing weight sessions will stimulate testosterone – the fertiliser behind muscle growth – unlike excessive endurance training that can eat away at muscle.

“You should also increase protein content from around 1.2g/kg bodyweight to 1.5g/kg each day,” explains performance biochemist Dr Rob Child. “Animal proteins, from meat, fish and dairy, are the ideal. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you might need to increase that level further.” Animal proteins are favoured due to their amino-acid profile, which is more complete than from vegetable sources.

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As for protein levels between men and women, this is broadly the same, but there are differences according to event distance. “Olympic-distance triathlon is relatively short, so you require a high power output to be successful,” says Child. “Some female athletes might not naturally have the required muscle mass to deliver optimum performance, unlike men for whom muscle mass isn’t a limiting factor. It means female athletes might need more protein.”

As distance grows to middle and long, there’s a levelling out as power’s arguably less important than endurance. However, this is where individualisation comes in, says Child. “Muscle mass can actually be detrimental at Ironman so some athletes – usually men – might seek to reduce their protein intake slightly. Skinny long-course athletes, however, are probably okay with the 1.2g/kg as long as they have enough bike power.” 

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