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Master of Their Craft

Written by Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, CSSD, METS I

Master’s athletes are the true MASTERS of their craft. They show up to the start with force and expertise. They are changing the understanding of the possibilities through our lifespan. After all, age truly is just a number.

Masters Athletes have varied age specifications across sports.

Age Specifications:

  • United States Masters Swimming -- 18 years and older

  • USA Track and Field (race walking and track and field) -- 30 years and older

  • USA Track and Field (long distance running) -- 40 years and older

  • USA Triathlon -- 40 years and older

  • Huntsman Senior Games -- 50 years and older

For the purpose of this article, we are defining Master’s athletes as 50 years and older.

Physiological Changes

There are multiple physiological changes with age that impact an athlete. These include a 10% decrease in VO2 max per decade, a 3 to 5% reduction in heart rate per decade, hormonal changes and subsequent body composition changes, decreased bone density, lower muscle glycogen storing capacity, decreased muscle fiber size and motor units of type II muscle fibers (sarcopenia), and decreased thirst sensation and change in thermoregulation.

Nutrition Considerations

Energy Expenditure and Needs

Energy needs and what is needed to support our bodies for both health and performance does change across the lifespan. Basal metabolic rate (aka the energy needed at rest) does decrease with age due to changes in body composition and metabolism. Additional rest days may also be indicated for muscle recovery. Therefore, daily energy needs also decrease with age.

Protein and Muscle Mass

Muscle and strength peak between 20 to 30 years old and begin declining on an average of 3 to 8% per decade after the age of 30. Muscle loss accelerates further after the age of 70. Nevertheless, Master athletes spare muscle losses with continued physical activity when compared to inactive and sedentary counterparts.

Protein needs for endurance masters athletes do not vary from youth or adult athletes. Protein recommendations at 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg body weight for endurance athletes. This amount may increase if energy intake is suboptimal, with increased training demands, and/or if the quality of dietary protein is low (ie. plant based protein versus animal protein). Some research does support target protein needs of 1.5 to 1.8 g/kg/day for males and postmenopausal women.

It is recommended to consume 4 to 5 meals evenly spaced through the day (4 meals at 0.37 g protein/kg and 5 meals at 0.3 g protein/kg) with high-quality protein sources containing a complete amino acid profile (namely, at least 2-3 g leucine) to support muscle protein synthesis. For example, for a 150 pound individual, that would be 20 to 25 grams of protein at 4 or 5 meals per day, respectively. Protein sources to support daily needs:

  • Poultry

  • Beef

  • Eggs

  • Fish

  • Shellfish

  • Pork tenderloin

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Legumes

  • Soy products - milk, tofu, tempeh

  • Dairy - milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese

  • Sprouted grains

  • Protein powders

Fats and Carbohydrates

There is no evidence here to suggest that there are different needs of fat intake and carbohydrate intake for aging athletes. Fats should remain at 1 g/kg body weight. Include fats predominantly from unsaturated fat sources:

  • Avocado

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Nut and seed butters

  • Fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, anchovies mackerel, lake trout, and tuna

Carbohydrate needs vary between 3 to 10 g/kg body weight depending on training volume, intensity, and goals. Athletes will generally have carbohydrate needs between 5-7 g/kg during a base or general fitness season and increase up to 7 to 10 g/kg for more intense training and/or endurance activity. Carbohydrate loading strategies at >8 grams/kg/day are also seen as effective in masters athletes and are particularly important for female masters athletes.

Some great complex carbohydrate sources include:

  • Whole grain bread, pasta, and cereal

  • Brown or wild rice

  • Quinoa

  • Oats

  • Buckwheat

  • Potatoes (any variety)

  • Legumes

  • Squash

  • Fruits (any variety)

  • Veggies (any variety)

Simple carbohydrate sources are optimal to include in the 30 minutes to 1 hour before training and during training to support your energy needs. For example:

  • Dried fruit

  • Puree fruit pouch squeezes

  • Honey or maple syrup sticks

  • Graham crackers

  • Sports nutrition products (ie. gels/ gus, electrolyte drink mixes)

Calcium, Vitamin D, and Bone Health

Bone density begins to decrease after the age of 50. In women, bone loss drastically increases after menopause where women can lose up to 20% of their bone density within the 5 to 7 years following menopause.

Calcium, vitamin D, and protein are all important in maintaining bone health. Calcium-rich foods:

  • Dairy - milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt

  • Leafy greens - kale, spinach, collard greens, broccoli

  • Beans

  • Calcium-fortified foods including cereal and juices

Recommended Calcium Intake:

  • 1,000 milligrams per day for women 50 years and younger and men 70 and younger

  • 1,300 milligrams per day for women over 50 years old and men over 70 years old

Vitamin D is important for immunity, muscle function, bone growth, and mineralization. Aging can cause up to a 50% decrease in the capacity for vitamin D production in the skin and dietary sources of vitamin D are not adequate to meet recommended daily requirements. Supplementation may be indicated if lab values show low levels.

Recommended Vitamin D Intake:

  • 600 IU through 70 years old

  • 800 IU over 70 years old


Masters athletes experience changes in physiological thirst sensations, increased fluid output/ urination, increased sweating, and altered electrolyte balance. Additionally, medications and dietary prescriptions may change fluid and electrolyte requirements. For example, blood pressure medication or diets requiring lower sodium and/or potassium intake.

Fluids are specific to each individual. Here is a great place to start:

  • Aim for 5-10 ml/kg** of fluids in the 2 to 4 hours before a workout or competition

  • Consume fluids with 6-8% carbs, 220 mg sodium/ 8 ounces, and 20-30 mg potassium/ 8 ounces for activity lasting 60 to 90 minutes

  • Post-training, consume 16 to 24 ounces per pound of body weight lost during exercise

  • Maintain hydration status throughout the day by drinking water and electrolytes, eating hydrating fruits and veggies, salting foods as appropriate for individual sodium requirements

  • A simple tool is assessing the color of your urine midday to assess hydration. Aiming for a light, pale yellow is optimal.

Supporting the body through all stages of life and training demands is key for health. It is best to work with a sports dietitian or certified professional to determine individual energy requirements, nutrition intake, and hydration protocol.

*to get your weight in kilograms (kg), divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2

** to convert milliliters to fluid ounces, divide that number by 30

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