Olympic Athletes Come With Olympic-Sized (but Healthy) Diets

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July 21, 2021 — Swimmers need thousands of calories a day. But those calories are different from what a weightlifter needs, and those calories are quite different from what a gymnast or track and field star needs.

With the delayed 2020 Olympics starting this week, we break down the unique – and sometimes startling — dietary needs of different kinds of elite athletes.

Swimming

The most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, debunked the infamous claim that he ate 12,000 calories a day when training for the Olympics. But the actual number was not far from that. Phelps said that he ate between 8,000 and 10,000 calories a day.

While that may seem like a lot, that number is normal for many elite swimmers, according to Allison Mankowski, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and a sports dietitian at Eastern Michigan University.


Swimming is one of three sports that burn the most calories, falling right behind running and cycling. Depending on your weight and other physical factors, the butterfly stroke can burn between 660 and 976 calories per hour, according to Livestrong.

“The average male swimmer will probably need at least 5,000 calories a day and potentially up to 10,000 for more intense training periods or larger athletes,” Mankowski says. “Female swimmers will be slightly less but will most likely still need at least 4,000 calories and potentially up to 6,000 or more.”

But these numbers can vary.

“Calorie levels will vary quite a bit, depending on a number of things, especially which events they are competing in, their training intensity, and also their height and weight,” Mankowski says.

It is important for swimmers, and all Olympic athletes, to incorporate carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat into their diet.

“Carbohydrates will make up usually around 55% to 60% of daily intake, with fat around 20% to 25%, and protein around 15% to 25%,” says Mankowski.

Olympic swimmer Ryan Murphy, a three-time gold medalist who will be competing in the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo, shared a typical training day meal plan with Men’s Health:


  • Breakfast: Banana before training; egg omelet with spinach, mushrooms, onion, and salmon

  • Yogurt and granola with berries after training
  • Lunch: Veggies, lean protein like chicken or salmon, and a carb, such as rice, quinoa, or lentils
  • Dinner: Very similar to lunch, but a larger portion, to refuel after a long day of training

Track and Field

Olympic runners have different dietary needs, based on their event.

Long-distance runners need a similar amount of calories as swimmers, with men needing an average of 5,000 to 10,000 or more and females between 4,000 and 6,000 or more, according to Mankowski.

Marathon runners eat a high-carb diet, particularly during training sessions leading up to the race, and on the day of the race, to make sure that they have enough energy to keep them going for long distances.

This is a practice known as carb-loading. You eat a higher percentage of carbohydrates 3 days before a race and then a normal portion the night before.

Carb-loading is often mistaken as eating a ginormous plate of pasta the day before an event, which can lead to bloating and poor performance. Instead, many elite athletes drink carb-rich smoothies or drinks.

Sprinters, on the other hand, need shorts bursts of power instead of energy to last long distances. They require slightly fewer calories than long-distance runners, says Mankowski.

High-performance foods, such as lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables, are recommended to all Olympic athletes, she says.

She also says it is important to keep fueling up throughout the day.

“These athletes will need to be eating frequently to make sure they can get in all of the calories they need to perform,” Mankowski says. “Often, this means eating every 2 hours or so, and refueling during longer workouts.”

Olympic track star Usain Bolt, who still holds the title of the fastest man on earth, toldBritish GQ a training day meal looks like this:

  • Breakfast: Egg sandwich
  • Lunch: Pasta and corned beef
  • Throughout the day: Mango, pineapples, apples
  • Dinner: Jamaican dumplings and roasted chicken, yams, veggies

Gymnastics

A high-carb, low-fat diet, with a moderate amount of protein, is recommended for gymnasts, according to USA Gymnastics. Most gymnasts should eat a minimum of 2,000 calories per day.

If this seems low in comparison to other Olympic sports, it may be because gymnastics, an aesthetic sport, burns much fewer calories than an endurance sport like swimming.

For 30 minutes of gymnastics, you can burn around 120 to 168 calories, depending on your weight, according to Harvard Health Publishing. But a sport like running burns between 240 and 671 calories, depending on your weight and the speed of your run.

A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutritiondefines aesthetic sports as “those which require well-developed physical capacities (power, speed, endurance, flexibility) as well as technical skill and artistry. In such sports, elite performers typically exhibit a low-fat mass, and/or a low body weight.”

Gymnasts can often be expected to follow a stricter diet, compared to athletes in other sports. But different forms of gymnastics have different dietary needs.

For example, in power tumbling, building muscle, speed, power, and endurance are major priorities and can require more energy in the form of calories.

But rhythmic gymnastics is centered on aesthetics, flexibility, and agility. These gymnasts tend to focus on having a small frame, and they eat small meals throughout the day.

Women’s gymnastics, aerobics, and acrobatics usually fall somewhere in the middle and require a balance.

Due to such dietary restrictions, eating disorders can be common in gymnastics, along with bone density loss and delayed or missing periods, according to USA Gymnastics.

Many Olympic gymnasts start training at a young age. This can cause delayed growth and development and is often cited as the reason why elite gymnasts tend to be shorter and smaller than their peers.

“In many cases, our puberty is delayed due to the physicality required for training and the limited calorie intake,” says Dominique Dawes, a three-time Olympic gymnast and Olympic gold medalist. “As you can imagine, we are burning an enormous amount of energy, but we do not consume a great amount of calories.”

She says that Olympic gymnasts aim to keep their energy up by snacking and staying hydrated.

“Gymnasts strive to stay fueled throughout the day,” Dawes says. “It is not uncommon to snack on high-protein foods to sustain the long training sessions.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas toldCosmopolitan that training day meals look like this:

  • Breakfast: Oatmeal and banana, and tea
  • Lunch: Chicken breast, grilled asparagus with balsamic vinegar, and dark chocolate-covered almonds
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon, sauteed garlic green beans, and pasta
  • Dessert: Homemade gingerbread

Weightlifting

While the sport of weightlifting doesn’t burn a significant amount of calories when compared to some Olympic sports, athletes still eat high-calorie diets in order to build muscle mass.

On average, an intense 30-minute weightlifting session burns between 180 and 252 calories, depending on an athlete’s weight, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Meagan Nielsen, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and team dietitian for USA Weightlifting, says the number of calories a weightlifter eats depends on things like their weight goals, current body weight, body composition — the amount fat, bone and muscle in your body — and training plan.

“Our smallest weightlifters might consume around 1,800 a day, depending on where they are in regard to competition day,” Nielsen says. “Larger weightlifters, or even those trying to gain weight, can consume between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day.”

Nielsen says energy from carbohydrates is key for weightlifters in helping both performance and recovery, along with proteins and fats.

“Protein is important to build and maintain the muscle mass that the athletes utilize in resistance training,” she says. “Healthy fats are also important to maintain their hormonal health, protect their bodies as they move heavy weight, and keep their brains and hearts healthy.”

Nielsen says that staying hydrated is also essential, given that dehydration can lead to decreased reaction time and cardiovascular strain.

Tim Swords, coach to Sarah Robles, an Olympic weightlifter who will compete this year in Tokyo, says that her focus is simply on making smart, healthy choices.

“Her thing is commonsense food choices, staying hydrated, doing things you need to do to rehab, and eating whole foods,” he says.

Olympic weightlifter Morghan King told Elle magazine that on rest days, she eats fewer carbs:


WebMD Health News


Sources

Allison Mankowski, registered dietitian; sports dietitian, Eastern Michigan University.

NBC Sports: “How Many Calories Michael Phelps Consumed as a Swimmer.”

Livestrong: “What Sport Burns the Most Calories Per Hour?”


Men’s Health: “Olympic Swimmer Ryan Murphy Swears by This Breakfast Every Day.”

CNBC: “How the World’s Fastest Man Usain Bolt Mentally Prepares for a Race.”

USA Gymnastics: “Weight Management, Nutrition and Energy Needs for Gymnastics.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Calories Burned in 30 minutes for People of Three Different Weights.”


Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: “The Risk of Low Energy Availability in Chinese Elite and Recreational Female Aesthetic Sports Athletes.”

Dominique Dawes, three-time Olympian and Olympic gold medalist; owner, Dominique Dawes Gymnastics & Ninja Academy.


Cosmopolitan: “What Olympic Gymnast Gabby Douglas Really Eats in a Day.”

Team USA.


British GQ: “The Real-Life Diet of Usain Bolt.”


Elle: “Here’s What Olympic Weightlifter Morghan King Really Eats in a Day.”

Meagan Nielsen, registered dietitian; team dietitian, USA Weightlifting.

Tim Swords, coach of Sarah Robles; owner, Team Houston weightlifting.



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