“Make sure you eat lots of protein because you don’t absorb it as well as you get older…”
Those were the parting words from my doc as I left his office after my routine yearly checkup.
It sounds true. And after all, this guy is a doctor and should know, right? Not only that, he’s at the top of his field in the arena of sports performance and looking after the health needs of athletes.
However it turns out that it’s not that simple. I asked one of the world’s leading nutrition experts about the science behind the idea that Masters athletes need more protein…
And the truth is — according to health author Brad Pilon — protein absorption does NOT necessarily get harder as you get older. However…
Your ability to USE protein once absorbed into your body can be disrupted at any age, but especially as you get older.
Listen: Instead of thinking of absorption, you really want to focus on your “sensitivity” to protein. That’s the ability for your cells to absorb and use the amino acids circulating in your system once your body absorbs and breaks down the proteins you eat.
There are several things that can mess up the signaling that allows your body to use the protein. However the bottom line is this…
If you aren’t able to use those circulating amino acids… you can’t repair damage done through your training… which means you can’t recover, improve and grow. At least not as quickly as you could…
Now, without getting too geeky about the science, let’s at least touch on what happens in your body when you train and when you eat protein. That way we will identify some strategies to improve your training results and your performance…
When your body detects lots of amino acids floating around — but especially the amino acid Leucine — something called mTor kicks into action. And mTor’s job is to tell your cells that there’s enough protein available for you to initiate protein synthesis and go into build and / or repair mode.
However this whole signaling chain can “break” and make it difficult for your cells to access and use these circulating amino acids in the post-training repair process. When this happens, Brad calls it Anabolic Resistance…
And the Anabolic Resistance phenomenon HAS been shown to get more common as folks get older. However…
Is it because you get older? Or is it because most folks get more inactive as they get older?
You see, when you stop moving — especially if you aren’t doing any resistance training — you are missing the trigger that sets up your body’s responsiveness to the signaling chain that leads to protein synthesis.
In a nutshell, here’s what happens… You train. Your training creates temporary acute inflammation. Inflammation sends a signal telling satellite cells they need to repair the damage caused by training. You recover, get stronger, get faster, and crush that same WOD next time it comes around… 🙂
If you don’t train… you don’t trigger that chain reaction. Which means your body doesn’t efficiently USE the protein you eat, regardless of your age.
So keep training as you age and you likely aren’t going to need significantly more protein than your younger self.
Hold on though… training too much could ALSO cause Anabolic Resistance!
Remember the inflammation connection? Well over-reaching in your training can cause an accumulation of small, nagging injuries that lead to systemic and chronic inflammation.
If you’re living with chronic inflammation, your body can’t “hear” the signal sent by the acute inflammation from your training session. Again… you break the signaling chain and you don’t efficiently use the protein you have eaten, digested and absorbed.
Chronic inflammation can also be caused by your diet, anxiety, pollutants and other stressors. So taking care of your lifestyle factors can also pay off in better protein synthesis. Which means better recovery and performance.
Bottom line is this… as an athlete you probably need more protein than the average person. However as a Masters Athlete you don’t necessarily need more protein than a younger athlete. Yet you DO need to pay attention to the factors that can disrupt the signaling that allows your body to efficiently use available amino acids once they are circulating in your system.
Obviously there’s a lot going on there. And in future articles will dig down into some of the bits and pieces. In the meantime, if you’re interested in THE most detailed and science-based examination of your protein needs then I recommend Brad’s classic How Much Protein book.