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Most women begin the transition to menopause in your 40s; to minimize this disruption in hormones, you’ll likely have to change how you eat. In the phase called perimenopause, your period may start to become irregular—some months heavier, some lighter, and the interval between them may increase or decrease.
Along with this comes a decrease in estrogen and progesterone, hormones that regulate far more than your monthly cycle. Masters athletes may experience hot flashes, sleep disruptions, and changes in their cholesterol levels, with LDL or “bad” cholesterol rising and HDL or “good” cholesterol dropping.
While runners at every age develop injuries, masters women have a few unique risk factors. Since one of the biggest risk factors for a new injury is having one before, old patterns of weakness or imbalance may haunt you. And lower estrogen levels decrease the strength of your bones, making it extra important to shore up your stores of calcium and vitamin D.
On average, women experience a loss of muscle mass from their 40s on. In part because of this shift in body composition, our metabolic rate tends to slow, to the tune of 1 to 3 percent per decade.
But there’s good news for runners: The best way to offset the negative effects of all these changes is to keep moving, something we’re already doing. Dialing in your nutrition now can both directly affect your short-term performance and recovery and also keep you running strong and healthy for years to come.
Tips for How to Eat in Your 40s
In earlier years, you might have rolled out of bed and into a run. For masters athletes, however, registered dietitian nutritionist Lauren Antonucci strongly advises against fasted workouts. Without fuel, you’ll fade faster and recover more slowly after; start energized and you’ll finish strong and bounce back more quickly. Ideally, you’d get a meal with protein and carbs about one to three hours before you head out—this prevents surges of the stress hormone cortisol, slows muscle breakdown during your workout, and speeds repair afterward. But if you’re starting early, at least ingest an easily digestible source of carbohydrates (a banana, sports drink, or piece of toast) beforehand.
Focus on Fats
By the numbers, your dietary fat requirements don’t necessarily increase with age, Antonucci says. However, the downsides of falling short multiply as time passes. Fats keep you feeling full, regulate levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone, and fight the inflammation that builds up from training and other life stresses. About 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fats, and most from polyunsaturated sources like vegetable oils, fatty fish, and nuts.
Sleep problems are common but not inevitable as menopause nears. Ward them off by meeting your daily protein needs—a bedtime snack with casein, a protein in milk and yogurt, does double-duty by helping you drift off and enhancing muscle recovery, Antonucci says. An ounce of tart cherry juice before bed may boost levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, and a cup of decaf tea containing the amino acid L-theanine can also help you drift off.
Eat for Healing
When injury puts running on hold, it’s normal to fret about lost fitness and weight gain, Antonucci says. But cutting calories can slow your comeback and bring down your mood, which, let’s face it, is already low when you’re sidelined. Shift your perspective to ways you can preserve muscle mass and enhance recovery: for instance, getting 15 to 30 grams of protein every four hours, or amping up your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. In a recent study, supplementing with fish oil slowed muscle loss in women who had one of their legs immobilized for two weeks.