Imagine chowing down on three fried egg sandwiches with cheese, tomatoes, fried onions and mayo. Follow that up with a five-egg omelet, three slices of French toast, a bowl of grits and three chocolate chip pancakes. Feeling like you’ve had your fill for the day? Not so fast. That’s just breakfast. At least that’s just breakfast if you were Michael Phelps back when he was at the peak of his training for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The staggering 12,000 calories that the world-renowned swimmer once consumed on a daily basis made headlines and fascinated athletes and non-athletes alike. Ever since, there has been a lot of interest in what and how Olympic athletes eat.
Most elite athletes know their nutrition is just as important as their training – but also that it is not one-size-fits-all. Ilona Maher, of Burlington, is a registered nurse and at 5’10” and 200 lbs., lean and powerful. Peru’s Brooke Mooney is also trained in public health and at 6’2″, consumes 3,000 to 5,000 calories a day.
Franklin County track phenom and American mile record holder Elle Purrier-St. Pierre studied nutrition at University of New Hampshire. The daughter of two dairy farmers and now, the wife of a third, the 5’3” runner is a devoted dairy lover and counts Cabot Creamery as one of her few sponsors.
Dairy (and working on a dairy farm) has been part of Purrier-St. Pierre’s training program since she was a high-school athlete shattering state records and as a nutrition major, she clearly understands nutrition.
GETTING PRO ADVICE
But once you get to the Olympic level, nutrition professionals are usually advising athletes precisely what and how much to eat. Olympic training centers even have the convenience of on-site cafeterias that provide healthy well-rounded meals designed to meet specific needs. Sounds nice, right? Of course, for us mere mortals whose closest encounter with the Olympics is likely cheering from the stands this begs the question, should we eat like an Olympian? And if so, how?
To be clear, you do not need to consume Michael Phelps’ roughly 4,000-calorie breakfast on a daily basis and, in fact, probably shouldn’t. However, eating a diet tailored to you and your activity level can make a significant difference in your health and athletic performance. Many athletes wrongly assume that if they are able to balance out what they consume with what they burn off during exercise, thereby maintaining a healthy weight, they needn’t give their diet much thought. This line of thinking is true to some extent if you’re okay with just being okay at your sport. However, why settle for being good enough when you could be great? Olympic athletes certainly didn’t get where they are by doing so.
The first step in eating like an Olympian —or any elite athlete—is to understand just how much you actually need to eat. All those calorie counts on nutrition facts labels and restaurant menus are worthless if you don’t pay attention to how many calories your body should be consuming each day.
Calorie needs vary tremendously based on sport. Take Team USA’s Brandon Loschiavo, a male diver who spends more time climbing up to the dive platform than he does in the pool. In diving, the competition is over in a matter of seconds and although the training involves repetitive jumps, flips and the like, it hardly necessitates a Michael Phelps’ sized meal.
Accounting for the aesthetic nature of the sport, male divers strive to maintain a lean physique and, depending on their size, typically consume around 1800 calories per day. Contrast that with the roughly 5,000 calories that Brooke Mooney, the Olympic rower from Peru, Vt., consumes and it isn’t hard to figure out who would be on the losing end of splitting the check at dinner.
Given the wide range of intensity and duration of Olympic sports, most athletes fall somewhere in the middle with the average calorie needs ranging from 3000-4000 calories per day. That’s still considerably higher than the 2,000 calories needed per day by the average adult female and 2,500 for the average adult male.
HOW MUCH DO YOU NEED?
Working with a dietitian to establish your resting metabolic rate, commonly referred to as RMR, gives a baseline for how many calories your body needs just to function. A dietitian can then account for other variables including exercise to determine approximately how many calories you should consume factoring in body composition goals.
Once a daily calorie goal has been established, the second step is to determine where those calories should come from. Or, more specifically, what one’s macronutrient distribution should be. You may be familiar with the dietary reference intakes (DRI), which recommend individuals consume 45 to 65% of their total daily calories from carbohydrates, 20 to 35% from fat and 15 to 35% from protein. That may work for the average adult, but misses the mark for Olympic athletes. Macronutrient needs are more precisely calculated based on the demands of their sport and their body weight.
For example, Team USA’s discus thrower Valarie Allman needs approximately 3 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of her body weight, putting her at a target of roughly 225 grams of carbohydrates per day. Compare that to the 8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day needed by Olympic marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk and we’re talking a difference of 175 grams of carbohydrate. That’s the equivalent of almost 12 slices of bread!
Before you start tracking every morsel that enters your mouth with the sole focus on hitting your calorie and macronutrient goals, you should know Olympic athletes do more than just crunch numbers. Once they’ve determined how much they need to eat, the next consideration is how to meet those needs with quality foods.
Foods are more than just carbohydrate, protein and fat after all. Carbohydrates rich in dietary fiber, complete proteins that provide the essential amino acids, unsaturated fats and plentiful antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables are a must for athletes to perform at their best.
Take Chuck Aoki, a member of Team USA’s Paralympic Men’s Rugby Team. Aoki takes a “food first” approach to nutrition by choosing nutrient-dense foods to optimize health and performance instead of resorting to supplements. Why have a protein shake when you could get the same amount of protein from a piece of salmon with the added bonus of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, B vitamins and potassium? Food science has come a long way, but there is simply no replicating the health and performance benefits of whole foods.
The next step to eating like an Olympian is to develop a meal plan. Map out how exactly to meet your nutritional needs with whole food-based meals and snacks in between training sessions. Team USA’s Katie Ledecky is a prime example of this. Ledecky starts her day off with two pieces of toast with peanut butter and a piece of fruit before she hits the pool. Immediately after practice she quickly refuels with chocolate milk, a bagel with cream cheese and fruit. A few hours later she is fueling up for her dry-land training with granola. A lunch of pasta with chicken provides Ledecky with the carbohydrates and protein needed for her body to recover after dry-land training.
As Ledecky readies herself for her second swim practice of the day she snacks on fruit for an easy-to-digest source of carbohydrate. Practice is followed up by another glass of chocolate milk and a yogurt before Ledecky finishes off her day with a dinner of chicken and rice.
Although most of us probably aren’t logging three training sessions a day, we can still take a page from Ledecky’s book. Having a meal plan that takes the guesswork out of when and what we need to eat in a day allows for proper fueling and recovery. Keep in mind that meal planning for athletes looks a bit different than for most because of the constant flux of training demands.
PACING YOUR DIET
Olympic athletes also rely on nutrition periodization to optimize performance. Nutrition periodization refers to a planned and strategic approach to fuel athletes in alignment with their different training cycles over the course of days, weeks, months and, in the case of Olympians, even years.
That means an Olympic athlete’s meal plan may change drastically as they shift their focus from building endurance one week to workouts designed to improve speed and agility the next. When mapping out a meal plan for yourself consider where you are in your current training cycle and whether your needs will change as your training volume, intensity or goals shift.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you are an Olympic athlete or a weekend warrior. If you want to maximize performance, it’s time to educate yourself about food and get to work on a sound nutrition plan. Unfortunately, that likely means foregoing the three fried egg sandwiches—unless you are an Olympian.
Jamie Sheahan is the Director of Nutrition at The Edge in South Burlington. Jamie holds a Master of Science in Dietetics from the University of Vermont, where she serves as an adjunct professor of sports nutrition. Jamie has run over 40 marathons in addition to several ultra marathons.