With the 2016 Olympic Games well underway in Rio, it’s worth exploring one of the most integral pieces to optimal athletic performance: food intake. Genetics and hours of training are complemented by adequate nutrition before, during, and after competition. Aside from inspiring us all through their remarkable performances, Olympic athletes’ eating patterns and perceptions of nutrition can offer a kind of food-body mindset from which we might learn.
As the research and practice of sports nutrition grow, nutritional interventions are increasingly recognized as essential for athletes in competitive events. Research indicates that scientifically-based nutritional plans carefully balancing fluid, carbohydrate, sodium, and caffeine have helped non-elite runners finish a marathon faster and trained cyclists complete a time trial more quickly compared with freely chosen nutritional strategies. Meals and snacks are so important to athletic execution, that the US Olympic Committee now has 5 full-time sports dieticians. The dietetic team pursues science-based research and counsels athletes on the timing of their meals and snacks, dietary routines during training and recovery, and the critical incorporation of nutrient dense foods into their diet.
Careful thought has also been put into fueling athletes in Rio’s Olympic dining hall, which according to Bon Appetit, spans the length of four Olympic swimming pools, can accommodate 18,000 people, and receives 460,000 pounds of raw food ingredients each day. Each item served has gone through extensive trials, and final menus were approved by dieticians and Olympic officials only after 20 rounds of testing before the Games, according to Marcello Cordeiro, Rio’s director of food and beverages.
To appeal to the palates of athletes from around the world, Cordeiro says athletes can choose from Brazilian, Asian, International, Pasta and Pizza, Halal and Kosher buffets, and that chefs ensure Muslim and Jewish athletes are offered foods that adhere to their religious dietary guidelines. Athletes from Korea are even given kimchee, the country’s well-known fermented cabbage dish, sent directly from their home nation, and Japanese athletes are offered rice and miso soup at breakfast. Those interested in trying native Brazilian food are also able to eat forty of Brazil’s native fruits, and local rice, meats, and beans are included into multiple meal options. Although athletes and coaches are thousands of miles away from home, Olympic officials have catered to a breadth of cultures to make dining in the Olympic Village as enjoyable as possible.
How are Olympic athletes eating throughout the Games? Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian, appeared on “Good Morning America” to share the diets of premiere athletes and emphasized a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and fluid is essential for helping athletes work harder and recover faster. Tara Gidus, sports nutritionist and spokesperson for National Dietetic Association, also emphasizes an athlete’s size and sport often govern their caloric needs (See here for nutrition information across sports). She emphasizes Olympic competitors should consume at least 60% of their calories from carbohydrates, the body’s preferred source of energy, and rely on protein sources to build and repair muscle.
Endurance athletes often need the most calories because they are engaging in intense, continuous activity for extended periods of time. Anyone who followed Michael Phelps’ remarkable performances in Beijing can hardly forget the key to his success: consuming up to 12,000 calories a day while training. Phelps’ workouts can burn thousands of calories in a day, and those calories must be replenished for subsequent training sessions, says Glassman. Phelps and other athletes therefore eat calorically dense and filling foods like peanut butter, pastas, and protein shakes every few hours to maintain their energy levels. Swimmers, cyclists, marathon runners and rowers are also known to “carbohydrate load” prior to competition, which maximizes muscle glycogen reserve before endurance exercise, delays fatigue, and improves performance. In hot summer months, drinking fluids is also crucial for all athletes to maintain hydration and thermoregulation, especially because fluid losses can impede performance. Aside from drinking liquids, many Olympic athletes stay hydrated by consuming foods that are rich in water, such as vegetables and apple sauce. In fact, according to Registered Dietician Katie Cavuto, 6,000 tubes of applesauce were distributed to the U.S. Olympic athletes and coaches as they boarded their flights to Beijing in 2008. Staying hydrated and eating at regular intervals helps power Team USA through travel, training, and competition throughout the Games.
What are athletes eating during and after competition? Some athletes have particular foods they swear by for enhancing their performance. Kerry Walsh, US Olympic volleyball player, enjoys almond butter and honey sandwiches before she plays, and American gymnast Aly Raisman downs chocolate milk after routines because of its high carbohydrate and protein content, says Glassman. Swimming sensation Ryan Lochte says his recovery meal of grilled chicken breasts with Alfredo sauce, whole-grain spaghetti and salad with lemon juice and olive oil does just the trick. Glassman also applauds recovery with pickle juice, which packs crucial electrolytes for preventing cramps, cherries, which suppress inflammation, and beet juice, the most popular boost among Olympic athletes because of its nitrates, which help muscles use oxygen more efficiently. Regardless of the specific kind of snack or meal, athletes value food as the fuel they need to keep their bodies functioning optimally and recovering easily, and to keep their mind focused before, during and after competition.
Because a fraction of a second, point, or centimeter can make the difference between a medal and 4th place, it’s no wonder so much thought is put into supplying Rio’s athletes with proper nutrients. From eating meals in an extraordinary dining hall, to carbo-loading, to snacking on favorite pre and post eats from home, balanced nutrition will help Team USA and the rest of the Olympic athletes strive for the Gold. Although we’re not all destined to compete at the Olympics, athletes at the Games illuminate how balanced nutrition that suits our own individual needs can help us to reach our specific goals for overall optimal wellness.