Depending on his or her sport, the average Olympic athlete eats between 2500 and 5000 calories per day. That's a lot of Wheaties—23 to 46 bowls, to be exact. Such high calorie levels are essential to keep athletes fueled for their strenuous workouts, but exactly how and what do our Olympians eat to ensure peak performance?
"An elite athlete eats between three and nine times per day," explains Ann Grandjean, EdD, RD, executive director of the International Center for Sports Nutrition and nutrition consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Eating frequently helps athletes recover from a workout and keep their energy level up for the next one.
In her research, Grandjean has found that one of the characteristics that sets the successful, elite athlete apart from the less serious one is a consistent, healthful eating pattern. "I tell athletes that what they eat every day is an integral part of their training and has a greater effect on performance than what they eat for a pre-competition meal."
The training diet Grandjean recommends depends on the type of sport. Runners, swimmers, rowers, and other aerobic athletes need more carbohydrates but not quite as much protein (although still more protein than the average person) as power athletes, such as boxers, wrestlers, and weightlifters. Plentiful fluids are essential as well.
Of course, America's strongest and fastest are not subsisting solely on Wheaties. So what do they eat? "I focus on protein," explains Brian Dunseth, captain of the U.S. Men's Olympic Soccer Team and member of the New England Revolution. "On a typical day, I'll lift weights for one hour before our three-hour team practice. After such a draining workout, a protein shake helps me recover."
Since soccer players are in constant motion—running, kicking, throwing, and heading for at least 90 minutes/game—Dunseth also eats plenty of carbohydrates to keep up his endurance. "I'll have an English muffin at breakfast, bread in a sandwich at lunch, baked potato at dinner, and juice a few times a day," notes Dunseth.
Torrey Folk, a member of the U.S. Women's 8+ Rowing Team, eats about five times a day to have enough energy for her team's three daily workouts, which total 35 miles of rowing. Bagels, fruit, potatoes, milk, and other carbohydrate-rich foods always make it onto her plate alongside protein from eggs, turkey, cheese, or chicken.
Fresh fruit, omelets, protein shakes... all this is easy in the comfort of your own kitchen, training center, or favorite restaurant, but what happens when athletes travel internationally to compete? Think of what people encounter when crossing time zones—jet lag, unfamiliar food, and sometimes unsafe water. These are only minor inconveniences to Joe Tourist, but our athletes are expected to perform at their best in these conditions. How do they deal with this situation?
In France for the World Championships in 1997, Folk found that the amount and variety of food provided was limited. "I asked my parents to bring over peanut butter and Power Bars for some extra snacks. Since then, I always travel with these foods."
Dunseth was saved by the golden arches while in Malaysia for three weeks with the National Team. "The food was not at all what we were used to—boiled eye, barely cooked lamb—and the climate was so hot and humid that I lost 10 pounds. Luckily McDonald's was there; we'd order three chicken sandwiches at a time," remembers Dunseth.
Before your hopes for gold medals are dashed by visions of undernourished athletes, think two words: Olympic Village. The coordinators of the Olympic Village dining hall are so experienced at feeding an international clientele that they can supply enough food to keep athletes from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe healthy and satisfied.
"Actually, the bigger problem for Olympic athletes is weight gain," laughs Grandjean. "The Village provides a wide range of free, quality food 24 hours a day, which most athletes take full advantage of." Athletes in Sydney should probably hold off on that vegemite sandwich, though. "The only problems we see are when people try unfamiliar foods," says Grandjean. "I advise them to wait until after their competition to sample the local fare."
Rest assured that the Men's Soccer and Women's Rowing Teams will be well fed. Dunseth packs a blender with his cleats and shin guards so he can have his requisite protein shakes regardless of the country he's in, and Folk always has a secret stash of Power Bars.
To reach their destination down under, U.S. Olympians will spend up to 20 hours on a plane and cross many time zones. Luckily for Folk and Dunseth, though, "athletes seem to suffer less from jet lag than the average traveler," explains Grandjean. "We're not sure why this is, but it could be related to physical fitness, adrenaline, or simply being very conscious of staying hydrated. Dehydration is a major contributor to jet lag." Dunseth knows this well and compensates by drinking water every hour while traveling.
Even the fittest athletes can't walk off the plane ready to compete, though, so most teams will arrive in Sydney two to four weeks prior to their event. "It can take up to five days to adjust to the new time zone," explains Folk, "so we'll have light workouts for the first few days."
What to eat on the day of a race or game often has more to do with psychological than physical readiness. Before his games with the New England Revolution, Dunseth hits the local IHOP for a country omelet, pancakes, and orange juice. Folk eats a similar breakfast: hard-boiled eggs, toast, fruit, and juice. Both are confident they'll have no trouble finding their favorites in the Olympic Village.
And how about after competition? "I eat whatever I feel like!" notes Folk. "I often crave a hamburger, but I'm usually up for any sort of hot meal." (Just wait until Folk finds out that the Aussies serve their burgers "with the lot"—a big beet slice on top.)
Whatever they eat and however they compete, they're sure to make us proud. And who knows, a few months from now, you may see Brian Dunseth or Torrey Folk looking back at you from a cereal box.