Saturday, 9 August 2008

Part 2: What do Olympians eat?

I didn’t really answer my own question yesterday- how do these Olympians get the bodies they have... and what do they eat?

Pretty simply, these elite athletes train hard to look the way they do.

That picture of 41 year old swimmer Dara Torres that appeared in the NY Time had some critics speculating that she’s taking performance-enhancing drugs- something she vehemently denies, of course. She’s gone so far as to request that her blood and urine be tested regularly for illegal substances. But how do you explain the fact that she not only is leaner than when she was younger (at 6’0” she weighs 149 lbs, 12 lbs lighter than she was in Sydney in 2000) but more chiseled and faster too, despite the fact that she’s in the pool only 5 times a week totalling 25 000m compared to 10-12 times- totalling 65 000m- when she was in her 20s? Check out how her times have improved with age:

So what is she doing? And what is she eating?

Firstly, she has a head coach, a sprint coach, a strength coach (who happens to also be the Florida Panthers coach and has Sidney Crosby as a client), 2 stretchers, 2 masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny- a cost of 100 000$ a year.

Torres works with her strength coach 4 days a week, 60-90 minutes each time. Her strength coach has veered Torres away from static heavy weight training and more towards dynamic exercises. According to her c
oach, weight training- low-rep/high-weight- is not good for sprinters since a lot of energy is wasted trying to move a body of big muscles that have been trained to work in isolation. Instead, she does core work, uses swiss balls, medicine balls, resistance cables and bands. Despite the fact that she doesn’t use dumbbells, she gets a great workout- her legs quiver and her arms are aching at the end.

In the year and a half that she started this new weight training regimen, her muscles have become longer and leaner and she’s become faster in the water.

She then swims- 5 times a week for about 2 hours each time.

However, Torres calls her resistance stretching her secret weapon. She has 2 stretchers come to her house about 5 days a week to basically pull and stretch her body vigorously for 2 hours in order to flush out the toxins and lactic acid and help in recovery and flexibility. According to a journalist, the stetching sequence looks like a cross between a yoga class, a massage and a Cirque du Soleil performance!

Torres also gets massages 3 times a week.

Clearly time and money are also important factors that help you get a 6-pack like Torres!

But what does she eat? That was a bit harder to find out. Because of her past experience with bulimia, she says she doesn’t count calories and she indulges in her cravings... whatever that means. She takes a German-made amino-acid supplement for muscle recovery and strength. That’s pretty much all I could find. Oh, and her favourite power breakfast is a berry-flavored Living Fuel shake with some milk and real fruit.

Just as actors are coached by their publicists to downplay the time it takes to make them look flawless for an event, I found that most athletes seem to downplay their nutrition and workout regimen- maybe to keep their training secrets to themselves?

For example, Erik Vendt, also an American swimmer, the first American to break 15 minutes in the mile and 2-time Olympic silver medalist, credits his return from retirement, at age 27, to an organic diet. So now, if I eat all organic, will I too be a top 5 ranked swimmer in the world? I don’t think so.

Marion Jones, Track and Field phenom at the 2000 Sydney games, credited her amazing performance to nutritional supplements that included flaxseed oil and iron. I guess we learned they contained a bit more than that...

I also found that many athletes don’t eat that much (I discussed this yesterday)... but maybe some are just unaware or downplaying what they eat?

English heptathlete Kelly Sotherton eats 2 toasts with butter and marmite and a cup of tea for breakfast... and nothing else until lunch 4.5 hours later! Kevin Tan, American gymnast, eats eggs and toast for breakfast, a light lunch and a healthy dinner- usually chicken. That’s it- despite the fact that he trains 2-4 hours a day 6 days a week! American weight lifter Tara Nott Cunningham- the first American woman to win an Olympic gold in her sport (in 2000) and US record holder in snatch, clean and jerk and total weight lifted- will have 2 hard-boiled eggs, grapefruit, cottage cheese and decaf coffee. A typical supper for mountain biker Susan Haywood would be grilled salmon with roasted peppers and organic low fat yogourt for dessert. Doesn’t seem much to me...

I did find examples of athletes who seem to place a large importance on nutrition and seem to eat to compete:

Apolo Anton Ohno, reigning American short track speedskating champ since 2001claims to constantly be working to improve his nutrition knowledge and attributes his newfound ab definition to his food intake. He doesn’t count calories but states to be in tune with his nutrition and can feel when he needs to add more grams of fat, protein or carbs.

Canadian triathlete and 2008 Olympic hopeful Lauren Groves claims to be very aware of the foods she eats... and she does eat... very healthily it seems. She usually has three breakfasts- because she finds breakfast food easier to digest. She starts her morning, pre-swim- with a couple of pieces of sprouted-grain bread with some almond butter and a cup of coffee. Post-swim she’ll have some scrambled eggs and fruit- and maybe some more toast. After her second workout, midafternoon, she’ll have a bowl of goat’s milk yogurt with some fruit added, or a turkey sandwich. For supper she’ll have a really big salad and some kind of grilled chicken or fish.

You’d think that given the large amount of calories they spend, these athletes would indulge a bit. However, these are elite athletes and their bodies are their livelihoods. US rower Jennifer Devine has said that just because she needs 3500 to 4000 calories a day doesn’t mean she can eat whatever she likes. She stays away from processed, pre-packaged foods because they are high in salt and fat. Wrestler Patricia Miranda, first American woman in Olympic history to receive a medal in woman's wrestling (in Athens), stated that although she doesn’t count calories, she doesn’t want to waste them on "foods that don’t provide positive fuel".

However, there are always exceptions:

Michael Phelps, American swimmer, 7-time Olympic gold medalist (most recent win just a few hours ago!) and current world record holder in a few events, reportedly eats 8,000 to 10,000 calories per day when training and says "I just eat pretty much whatever I want and as much as I want, because I burn so much."

He says he swims 6-7 days a week, 2-5 hours a day, about 50 miles a week, and- this is the downplaying part- he once said, "I've never lifted a single weight in my life". However, he does admit that since the Athens games he’s added a strength training regimen, three times a week, to put on 14 pounds of muscle.

1500 and 5000m runner Bernard Lagat loves steak and has steak before race day. He is aware that most people avoid steak before a competition for fear of it digesting slowly and slowing them down. However, before his win at the 2007 World Championships, he had gone to Outback and ordered the biggest steak he could! "You have to do what works for your body" he says.

Professional distance runner, 2 mile record holder (8:07:07) and fourth fastest American 5000m runner of all time, Matt Tegenkamp, has ice cream and peanut butter 3-4 times a week... and doesn’t use a bowl!

American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds has a burger every Tuesday and pizza on the weekend- and will even have 3-4 beers on Saturday!

American swimmer and 2-time Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Benko admits to having eaten McDonald’s for lunch the day she set the world record in the 1200m freestyle...although she doesn’t recommend that. She actually tries to keep her protein intake high and carb intake low... which is actually contrary to what the science shows us- that carbs should be an athlete’s predominant fuel.

American gymnast Stephen McCain is another proponent of the low carb diet claiming that since gymnastics is an anaerobic sport, his body needs more protein. 60-70% of his diet actually comes from protein: egg whites for breakfast, chicken for lunch, small snacks of cheese and vegetables and maybe fish and fruit for dinner.

“I’m years old, so I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” he says. “But I think I’ve finally got a real good grip on what’s right”.

However, he said this during a 2004 interview... maybe he's since changed his tune and reverted back to a higher carb diet?

Someone who is known to have been obessed with his diet is Lance Armstrong, 7-time Tour de France winner. He used to weigh his food and calculate, calorie for calorie, how much food he needed during his training and competition.

According to Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael, athletes need to eat in correspondence to the period they are in in their training- periodization is a training technique where your training is broken down into periods, each with a different goal. The nutrients you need varies between periods- and, according to Carmichael, it’s not as simple as adding a granola bar or 2 when the training gets tougher- the ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fat changes as well.

For example,leading up to the Tour de France, Armstrong used to up his caloric intake from 3000 to 6000 or more calories- the average rider burns between 7000-10 000 calories per day of the 21-dayTour that covers about 2200 miles- and his carbohydrate intake increased frm 60% to 70% of his total calories.


"A swimmer of a certain age"

"Torres is getting older, but swimming faster"

"What's driving Dara Torres",8599,1825304,00.html

"41 and ripped: I want abs like hers"

"Weight no problem for Cunningham"

"How Olympians Eat"

"Eat to win"

"Eat like a champion",7120,s6-242-301--6686-1-1-2,00.html

"Slideshow: What it takes to get an Olympic body"

"Canada's Olympic women eat to compete"

"What does Lance eat for breakfast"

"How many cheeseburgers does Lance Armstrong need to eat?"

"The inside edge: 41 Olympians share 84 insights into training, eating & competing"

"What do Olympic gymnasts eat anyway?",,695143_8,00.html&h=400&w=300&sz=41&hl=en&start=3&um=1&tbnid=qlzVOcjl13lh-M:&tbnh=124&tbnw=93&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dmichael%2Bphelps%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26sa%3DN


lookinout said...

You're certainly researching hard for your posts. Very interesting! It also shows how tolerant the body is, and how much we still have to learn about nutrition.

Jme said...

Sounds to me like a lot of sports are wide open for the taking by someone with decent talent and drive that can follow a proper diet. But as suggested, they are probably only counting how many calories they tell us about.