Q: Is it harder for muscles to recover from exercise as you get older?
A: Yes, usually, but that shouldn't be a hindrance.
Limited research and anecdotal reports suggest that with increasing age muscles tend to recover more slowly after a bout of exercise, whether it is strength or endurance training. Strenuous exercise can cause muscle damage, and it takes time for muscles to adapt and remodel—at any age. Inadequate recovery can blunt the training effect on muscles as well as increase the risk of injury during a subsequent workout.
Recovery from exercise depends on many biochemical, hormonal, and physiological processes that can affect the repair and remodeling of protein in muscles and connective tissue. It’s quite complex and involves immediate recovery after exercise and slower recovery over the next 24 to 72 hours.
Research on age-related muscle recovery has produced inconsistent results. Some studies have found that in older (“masters”) athletes, muscles recover more slowly than in their younger counterparts, while other studies have found similar recovery rates between older and younger athletes. It may depend, in part, on the type of exercise. Older athletes tend to recover better from intense cycling, for example, than from exercise like running, which leads to greater muscle damage. Of course, all this depends on the age of the athletes (there’s almost always a big difference between a 40-year-old and a 70-year-old), how fit they are, and genetic factors.
In a small study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2016, younger and older triathletes completed a 30-minute downhill run, which is likely to cause muscle damage, followed by three 20-kilometer cycling trials during the next 48 hours. Muscle biopsies done over the following days revealed that the older participants had significantly lower muscle protein synthesis than the younger ones. Some other studies have yielded similar findings.
One thing that seems to benefit muscle recovery in older athletes in particular is the consumption of extra protein shortly after exercise—as much as twice as much protein as suggested for younger athletes, and especially dietary protein high in the amino acid leucine. Regarding older athletes, Dr. Stuart Phillips, a specialist in skeletal muscle health at McMaster University in Canada, said, “I would recommend a good dose—30 to 40 grams—of high-quality protein after exercise to help repair and remodel damaged protein, including in connective tissue.” Low-fat dairy, such as yogurt and milk, is a high-quality protein source, as are eggs, nuts, peanut butter, soy, fish, and chicken.
Keep in mind that Dr. Phillips is talking about master or other serious older athletes. For recreational exercisers, a more modest amount of protein—say, 10 grams—may be enough to help muscle recovery. Milk has 8 grams of protein per cup; yogurt, 10 to 20 per cup (Greek yogurt has the most); an egg, 6 grams; an ounce of nuts, 4 to 8 grams; meat, chicken, and fish, 6 to 8 grams of protein per ounce.
In addition, for people of any age doing strength training, it’s usually a good idea to give muscles a day off to recover between workouts. For instance, do a lower-body workout one day, upper-body the next day. Or alternate days of strength training with days of cardio workouts.