Years ago, I fantasized about running marathons. Not because I liked jogging—I most certainly did not—but because long distance runners could, I surmised, eat whatever they wanted. Oops, did I just snarf an entire deep dish pizza? No prob, it’ll burn off by mile 12. Of course, I’m not the only one who assumes serious athletes are gluttons; in 2008, rumors circulated that swimmer Michael Phelps eats 12,000 calories a day—almost five days worth of food.
But according to a recent interview he gave to Details magazine, Phelps doesn’t really shovel two dozen eggs into his mouth at once. Sure, he eats a lot when he’s training—the morning of the interview, he had an omelet and three pieces of French toast. But at 27 years old and 6’4”, that’s not really an outrageous amount of food. Swimmer Ryan Lochte, who has long trailed behind Phelps, but who beat him to win gold in the 400 meter medley on Saturday, credits giving up junk food in favor of fruit, oatmeal and salads for his newfound success. It turns out that competitive athletes eat less like monsters and more like (healthy) regular people than you might think—but they also eat strategically to fuel their bodies.
Athletes try out different foods at different times to test their limits.
In 2009, the American College of Sports Medicine concluded that “athletes do not need a diet substantially different from that recommended in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines”—that is, the nutritional recommendations for average Americans. Athletes should consume the same percentage of calories from fat as regular folks do, the organization said, and they don’t typically need vitamin supplements or protein powders. (Endurance athletes and weight lifters are the exceptions: they need between 1.5 and two times as much protein as the average person to help build and repair muscle.)
Athletes do typically eat more than the average person—they’re exercising their butts off, after all, and have a higher ratio of energy-burning muscle to fat—but they don’t need to go crazy. U.S. Olympic beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh-Jennings eats almond butter and honey sandwiches when she’s training. U.S. Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin is “mostly vegetarian” and sips a lot of gazpacho. And Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt supposedly eats just two chicken nuggets before he races. (Ok, that’s a little odd, but he’s not eating, say, two whole chickens.)
And athletes do eat much more strategically, tailoring their fuel to their needs.
In 2008, rumors circulated that swimmer Michael Phelps eats 12,000 calories a day—almost five days worth of food.
The typical night-before-the-race carbo-load pasta dinner, for instance, makes good biochemical sense for endurance athletes: carbohydrates provide the building blocks for an easily accessible fuel called glycogen. The body stores glycogen in its muscle and liver cells and burns it for energy during high-intensity exercise that lasts more than a minute or two. (Low-intensity workouts tend to burn more fat than glycogen, which is why the “fat burning” setting on the exercise bike is way easier than the “cardio” setting.) This also explains why marathon runners often “hit the wall” around mile 20: this when their muscles and liver run out of glycogen, because their bodies can only store so much. Then they are forced to start burning fat, which is harder to do. (There’s also some evidence suggesting that more slowly broken-down carbs like brown rice, bran flakes, and lentils might boost performance compared to refined carbs like white bread, corn flakes, and pasta.)
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt supposedly eats just two chicken nuggets before he races.
But some athletes feel they can maximize their potential if they eat very differently. A 2010 study suggests that if athletes avoid carbs while they train, the body learns to burn fat for fuel more easily; according to a 2010 feature published in Running Times, Meb Keflezighi, the Eritean-born runner who won the New York marathon in 2009, swears by this strategy because it supposedly makes “hitting the wall” during a race a lot less shocking and difficult. This is all part of the training process: athletes try out different foods at different times to test their limits, “train” their stomachs, and plan for how best to fuel themselves during competition.
But even though food and performance are so closely intertwined, London Olympic officials decided that their priority was to serve the international athletes “local specialties” throughout the Games—brick-in-the-stomach meals such as Welsh lamb and Leicestershire Stilton pie. It may be a strange choice, leaving Kerri Walsh-Jennings looking for her sandwiches and Natalie Coughlin her gazpacho. But at least Usain Bolt won’t be complaining: there’s a 24 hour McDonald’s in the Athlete’s Village, and it’s just waiting to serve him up some pre-race McNuggets.