A Performance Nutritionists Perspective on an Olympic Athletes Diet

An Olympic Athletes Diet
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No matter which way you look at it, an Olympians diet is a critical component of their success, and although guts, drive, determination and, of course, skill plays a major part, its diet that’s the real driving force behind things.

It’s that chicken, sweet potato and veg from the night before that gets you out of bed every morning, the oats and berries (or a fried egg sandwich in Usain Bolt’s case…keep reading) for breakfast that keeps you in the gym or out on the track between 9am and 11am, your mid-morning snack of dried fruit, nuts and a banana that tides you over to 2pm, and then you need to have your mid-afternoon and evening meals prepped and ready to go for when you get home, especially if you have an evening session programmed in and a heavy day of training the next day!

Without question, diet is at least 60% of the equation when it comes to succeeding as an Olympic Athlete, many argue that this percentage could be even higher (you might have heard of the 80:20 rule) but let’s be honest, an elite athlete doesn’t happen if both training, nutrition, skill and mind-set aren’t there in equal measure. One thing is for sure, neglect nutrition and you’ll soon notice that guts, determination and training will only get you so far for so long, physical and emotional burnout is soon to follow and the consequences can be catastrophic for an athlete.

The ‘Olympic Diet’…

Let’s be clear, there is no set diet for an Olympic athlete, it doesn’t exist, the one size fits all approach doesn’t work with the lay consumer, never mind ultra- refined Olympic athletes…BUT there are a few rules that need to be followed as a general base.

Calories and Macro’s

I covered the importance of ‘finding a base’ in my article FUELLING A FOOTBALLER: TIPS FROM IPSWICH TOWN FC’S PERFORMANCE NUTRITIONIST. Similar to a professional footballer, an Olympic Athlete has to find a calorie base that 1.) Sustains energy expenditure and optimises recovery, and 2.) Delivers macro and micronutrient balance (protein, carbs, fat and vitamins and minerals) within these calories. Indiscriminately piling in the calories might energise you but it will do little in the way of muscle and metabolic recovery if protein, carbs, fat and vitamins and minerals are poorly balanced.

Calories are just one part of the equation.

If calories were the be all and end all then Olympians such as Australian Sawan Serasinghe wouldn’t have bothered observing ‘months of clean eating in the build up to Rio’ and consequently waiting patiently to head off for a ‘well deserved’ McDonalds after his exit from the badminton competition. Not just any McDonalds meal either, 6 Burgers, 6 large fries, 40 chicken nuggets and 5+ brownies to be precise! Sheesh! Serasinghe was apparently desperate to get over to the fast food chain to make up for the monotony of chicken, white fish, rice and veg for the last 6 months in prep for the Olympic Games. Do I agree with this approach…no, but I can kind of understand it!

You see, calories don’t necessarily translate to nutritional density, meaning a diet of McDonalds in the build up to the Games would NOT have been optimal despite meeting his calorie requirements. Clean eating implies a diet that is low in processed foods that are often inherently high in salt and sugar, a diet that is full of vitamin and mineral packed foods such as fruit and veg, and of course a solid base of wholefoods i.e. foods that haven’t been refined or manipulated in any way. Should an Olympian fail to ‘eat clean’ in the intense training leading up to the Olympics then they can expect to see shortfalls in performance, poor recovery, increased risk of injury and potentially, the onset of the dreaded overtraining syndrome!

Usain Bolt’s 2012 McDonalds binge.

If you listen to the press, Usain Bolts’ diet is dubious at best! Fortunately we aren’t stupid enough to believe that he lives on fast food and fails to nourish himself properly, most of that is propaganda and hearsay.  That said he was seen enjoying chicken nuggets during the 2012 Olympics and claimed to have consumed over 1000 chicken nuggets during the Beijing Olympics back in 2008! The problem with these stories are that they send unrealistic and potentially dangerous messages to the general public and budding youth athletes, and although this isn’t what Bolt or Serasinghe intended, the public will choose to hear what they want to hear.

So what does Bolt actually eat and drink.

There is no question that Bolt follows a ‘clean’, balanced, high protein and even higher carbohydrate diet…he simply has to in order to maintain the lean mass he carries AND to sustain the arduous training regime it takes to win 3 consecutive 100m Olympic Golds! A recent GQ Magazine article uncovered some of Bolt’s ‘real life’ dietary habits which are the kind of info the media should be sharing!

According to Bolt himself, above all else, he has to fight to remain hydrated using isotonic drinks similar to BULK POWDERS™ Complete Hydration Drink™. Staying hydrated is a very real struggle in the heat of Jamaica where Bolt lives and trains.

A typical day…

His in-house cook starts his day with a fried egg sandwich, now he doesn’t specify but I am hoping this is at least 2 eggs and 4 slices of bread, otherwise this might struggle to sustain his morning of weight training and mobility exercises. He then enjoys a pasta and corned beef or white fish meal in order to fuel his ‘real training’ that afternoon! Bolt isn’t a Michael Phelps kind of guy who eats 6-8,000 calories a day (not the 12,000 calories that the press originally claimed for the shock effect). He instead prefers to consume just enough calories during the day to fuel his training whilst not leaving him bloated. The evenings are when most of Bolt’s nutrition is consumed where he will eat lots of vegetables as per the coach’s recommendation, as well as lean meats and Jamaican dumplings. I imagine the emphasis on veg is for the vitamin, mineral and fibre side of things, but also for satiety (feeling of fullness) which is notoriously difficult to satisfy in elite athletes.

Bolt used to eat relatively freely and less regimented because well, he just got away with it. Now that he is getting older he has placed more emphasis on protein and vegetables mainly to improve the recovery process. He also enjoys mangos, pineapple and other fruits throughout the day which is much needed carbohydrate as well as providing antioxidants and fibre.

2008 & 2012 Olympic Swimmer Gideon Louw had his nutrition nailed down…

In an interview with Food Insight this month, Gideon Louw insists that it is important to eat the types of food that will functionally fuel you, rather than make you just feel full (amen to that sir). He goes on to explain how he tries to eat slowly so that he knows when to stop. Eating too quickly can lead to the overconsumption of calories during the day which can leave you feeling sluggish and heavy in the pool, which is similar to what Bolt tries to do.

Aha, so there is some consistency between some athletes after all, but it varies according to personal preference and training stimulus, it goes without saying that a 10,000m runner such as the legend that is Mo Farah will need significantly more calories to fuel the actual event (not necessarily the training building up to it) compared to Bolt’s 100m sprint.  Recovery is a different matter, although carb replenishment might need to be higher for Mo compared to Bolt, the protein intake will need to be similar for both athletes. Although the 10,000m involves persistent pounding and anatomical stress, the 100m sprint can be equally as damaging from an acute pounding and anatomical stress perspective, so both events necessitate about 30-50g protein in the form of a lean meat or alternative protein source, approx. 50-70g starchy carbs in the form of rice, sweet potato, pasta or noodles (to name a few examples) and a good helping of mixed veg and/or salad (approx. half the plate occupied by veg should suffice).

Our incredible Team GB athletes will have had access to top Performance Nutritionists in the build up to the Games, the specifics of their diets will vary from one to another, but one thing that is for sure based on the record 50 medals and counting so far, is that we are doing something right! Congratulation Team GB.

About the Author

Tom Irving Nutrition is a highly respected Performance Nutritionist, qualified Dietitian and active Nutrition Consultant with vast experience in the nutrition and supplement industry. Tom has devoted his adult life to nutrition. He studied it for nine years which saw him complete two degrees, the first in Sports Science and the second in Dietetics from one of the most highly respected Dietetics Universities in the UK.

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