Been for a long training session and woken-up the next day suffering from sore muscles? Maybe you’re not as young as you used to be! Andrew Hamilton looks at post-exercise soreness in older athletes and explains how new findings from the world of sports nutrition could help you recover faster

It’s an inescapable fact that as we age, we will experience a steady decline in our maximal exercise capacity. The reason for this decline is primarily due to a combination of reduced muscle mass and decreased heart, lung and circulatory function. Much research has shown that:

  • Your biological/physical peak is usually reached between ages 20-35.
  • Your maximum heart rate declines as you age and (partly because of this fact) your maximum oxygen uptake capacity also declines by about 1% per year.
  • As you age, the mass of fast-twitch muscle fibres (needed to produce power during high-intensity exercise) starts to steadily decline, with the fastest loss of muscle power occurring during the fourth decade (31-40 years). After this point, a gradual but slower loss of power continues as we continue to age

However, it’s not all bad news for older athletes; unless you’re already training at your absolute peak capacity and have already reached your maximum possible fitness level (unlikely), the chances are that with the right amount and types of training, you can steadily win back more fitness than time conspires to take away from you.

There’s also more good news because studies have also shown that the age-related decline in maximum heart rate is smaller in athletes than non-athletes and that older people who undergo vigorous exercise training are likely to experience the same relative benefits as their younger contemporaries.

In addition, other factors can work in your favour. For instance, with more experience“under the belt”, older athletes are more likely to train “intelligently” i.e. adopting a more scientific approach using a structured and focused training programme (rather than simply bashing out the miles) and employ nutritional strategies to maximise performance and recovery. Older athletes also tend to be better at understanding their own responses to training and adapting a training programme to suit their body rather than blindly following a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Slower recovery

Despite all these positives however, the challenges for older athletes don’t stop there because with advancing years, your capacity to recover rapidly from prolonged or hard bouts of training or competition also declines. You’re also more likely to suffer from post-exercise soreness. And that’s important because slower recovery means that training frequency, or intensity, or both have to be curtailed, potentially limiting fitness gains.

Indeed, rather than a decline in performance, it’s the slower recovery after hard training sessions that many older athletes seem to notice first, and some Australian research seems to provide hard evidence for this phenomenon(1). In a 2008 study, eighteen well-trained cyclists – nine “veterans”, average age 45 years and nine “young” cyclists, average age 24 years – performed three consecutive days of high-intensity 30-minute cycling time-trials intended to induce fatigue, leading to decreased performance. Each day, before, during, and after each time-trial, the cyclists’ perceptions of muscle soreness, fatigue, and recovery were all recorded. The good news was that there was no change in time-trial performance over the three days for either group. The bad news was that muscle soreness and perceived recovery changed significantly (for the worse) over the three days in the veteran group, but not in the young group.

Although the mechanisms of the effects of ageing on muscle metabolism and recovery are poorly understood, there are a number of other studies showing that older athletes do indeed take longer to recover from strenuous exercise – particularly exercise that produces higher than normal amounts of muscle damage. Examples of particularly muscle-damaging muscle-damaging exercise include downhill running with high amounts of pounding on foot strike,  and the muscle breakdown following intense resistance exercise.

Nutritional strategies

An obvious question of course is whether there are any nutritional strategies that can help prevent and/or repair muscle damage more rapidly and accelerate recovery in older athletes? This is exactly the question that researchers have tried to answer in a brand new study looking at recovery nutrition in masters triathletes(2).

In the study, scientists investigated the effect of significantly higher than recommended post-exercise protein feeding on the recovery of the quadriceps (frontal thigh) muscles following muscle-damaging exercise in older triathletes. Eight well-trained master triathletes (average age 52 years) completed two trials separated by seven days in a randomised, double-blind, crossover study – the most scientifically rigorous kind. These trials consisted of a 30-minute muscle-damaging downhill run followed by an eight-hour recovery period.

In both trials, the triathletes were fed protein immediately after and then every two hours during the recovery period; however, in one trial they consumed moderate amounts of protein (0.3 grams per kilo of bodyweight per feeding) while in the other trial, they consumed much higher levels of protein (0.6 grams per kilo of bodyweight). Before and after each trial, the peak force levels of the triathletes’ quadriceps muscles were measured and their performances in a cycling time-trial after each trial were also assessed.

The results showed that while the triathletes’ cycling time-trial performances seemed to be no different between the moderate and high-protein feeding trials, feeding higher levels of protein accelerated quadriceps muscle recovery. When the subjects consumed moderate levels of protein during recovery, they experienced a drop of 8.6% in peak force in the post-trial test. However, consuming high levels of protein resulted in a drop of just 3.6%. Moreover, the high-protein feeding also resulted in significantly less perceived fatigue compared to moderate protein consumption. Other studies have demonstrated that post-exercise protein is important for recovery in endurance athletes, but these findings suggest that it could be particularly important for older athletes.