6 Essential Nutrients for Athletes 50 and Up (2024)

Your athletic body has special needs after 50. Here’s how to feed it right to keep riding strong, no matter your age.

by selene yeager
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Get on Your Body's Nutrition Level

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Just as your nutritional needs change as you grow from kid to adult, they continue to evolve as you mature and grow older. This is especially noticeable after age 50, when you may need higher levels of certain essential nutrients to maintain good health and optimal muscle function, at the same time that your gut may not be absorbing all those nutrients as efficiently as it used to.

RELATED: 10 Dietary Supplements Active People Should Avoid

Getting all the nutrition you need is even more important when you’re an active cyclist who has no interest in hanging up their wheels anytime soon. To that end, the Institute of Food Technologists recently published a paper summarizing key essential nutritional ingredients that active adults need after 50.

“Riding places a lot of demands on your body, and as you get older and your body starts breaking down here and there, it’s especially important to stay on top of the nutrition you need to support it and keep it strong and healthy,” says past IFT president, Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, now a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. “These foods and nutrients, as part of a balanced healthy diet, can help.”


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A healthy gut is the gateway to improved overall well being and good performance. It not only absorbs the nutrients you need, but also support and boost immunity. The gatekeepers are an army of trillions of bacteria called probiotics that live in your gut. There are many different kinds of probiotics that play many different roles. The key is keeping them balanced, because when their equilibrium is thrown off, your digestion doesn’t work as well and you’re more prone to weight gain and illness. Stress, age, and hard exercise (or a perfect storm of all three) can knock them out of whack.

RELATED: Train Your Way to a Happy Stomach

Get what you need: Fermented foods are an excellent source of healthy active probiotics. Eat yogurts that bear a Live & Active Culture (LAC) seal contain at least 100 million bacterial cultures per gram at the time of manufacture. Other good sources include kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and aged cheese like cheddar.

“When I’m traveling, I’ll take a probiotic supplement,” says Camire, “because you don’t always know what kind of food variety you’re going to find.” We like Sound Probiotics, a sponsor of a number of pro cyclists, including Team Novo Nordisk and other endurance athletes.


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Part of maintaining a healthy gut flora is feeding those bacteria (the probiotics) to keep them alive. Prebiotics are the substances that these bacteria eat.

“Americans don’t tend to think about feeding their gut bacteria like they do in Asian and European countries, where it’s a planned part of their diet,” says Camire. “Highly refined foods like you find in much of our diet don’t feed the bacteria. You need to eat foods that are high in fiber and resistant starch to feed and keep the bacteria healthy.”

RELATED: How the Use of Probiotics Benefits Cyclists

Get what you need: The recommended daily amount of fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Resistance starch is a type of starch that is not digested and functions as a type of soluble fiber. Good sources of prebiotics, fiber, and resistant starch include barely ripe bananas,brown rice, oatmeal, asparagus, quinoa, and artichokes.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These essential polyunsaturated fatty acids may improve insulin sensitivity and lower inflammation in the body, so you have better fat-burningabilities and less fat storage. They may also help regulate muscle growth and are good for your heart. More muscle and less fat is particularly important as we age, as we have the tendency to lose the former and gain the latter.

RELATED: The Best Seafood for Cyclists

Get what you need: The American Heart Association recommends 500 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day, which works out to at least two 4-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. Fatty fish, like salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids. “I generally recommend food over capsules, but if you don’t eat fish often, this is one place to take a supplement to get what you need,” says Camire, who recommends algae-based omega-3 supplements. “They provide the omega-3’s you need, but are more sustainably sourced than fish oil.”


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No surprise here. Scientists have known for decades that antioxidants like beta carotene and vitamins C and E are important for fighting free radical damage that can contribute to poor performance and chronic disease. Others that help maintain an active cyclists’ body are lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health and vision protection, and co-enzyme Q10 (coQ10), which is not only a powerful antioxidant but also helps fuel muscle metabolism and heart activity.

Get what you need: It’s not a great idea to supplement antioxidants because if you get too much of one, you may end up with more free radical damage. Best to get them through whole plant foods like vegetables and fruits. Eat at least 2 ½ cups of a variety of vegetables and 2 cups of whole fruits (not juice) daily, especially berries like blueberries, which contain phytonutrients that may speed muscle recovery. Get your coQ10 through fatty fish and whole grains.


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The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) for endurance athletes. That’s already considerably more than the general population needs. As an older adult, it’s imperative you hit those daily protein goals, says Camire. “People lose muscle so much faster after age 40. You need to keep your muscles active and feed them enough protein to stimulate growth.”

RELATED:The Top 10 Protein Sources for Cyclists

As an active cyclist (who should be doing some strength training, too), you have half of that down. Be sure to eat enough protein to take care of the other part of the equation. By eating enough protein, you’ll also make enough collagen, the substance your body uses to maintain joint, muscle, and bone strength. Your body forms collagen from the amino acids (from protein) you eat.

Get what you need: “The easiest way to get what you need, and to make sure your muscles have enough to repair and rebuild themselves as they need it, is to eat protein at every meal, so you spread it out through the day,” says Camire. “Make sure there’s dairy, fish, meat, poultry or plant-based protein on your plate every time you eat.”

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Vitamin D

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Vitamin D is essential for building and maintaining strong bones and for optimal muscle function and recovery.As we age, our skin becomes less effective at synthesizing vitamin D from the sun. That’s bad news for cyclists over 50, because research already shows that vitamin D deficiency is common among endurance athletes.

Get what you need: The Institute of Medicine recommends at least 600 IUs of vitamin D a day for adults over 50 and at least 800 IUs for those over 80 years of age. The sun is the main source of vitamin D, but good food sources include fortified dairy foods and fortified milk substitutes (e.g. almond milk) and fatty fish. This is probably a good one to substitute with a supplement if you don’t eat many of those foods, however. Choose supplements that are made from Vitamin D3, the form your body creates when sun hits your skin.

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selene yeager

“The Fit Chick”

Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, Pn1 certified nutrition coach, pro licensed off road racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.

6 Essential Nutrients for Athletes 50 and Up (2024)
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