Olympic Diet: What Olympic Athletes Eat to Fuel Their PerformanceDec 15, 2021
by Mia Zivkovic and Doc Mok
With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics underway, there has been an increased focus on what factors lead to athletic success. Among the most important of these is diet. People often wonder what Olympic athletes eat in order to maintain fitness and increase athletic performance. The truth is, an Olympic diet might not be all that different from the diet of an average person who exercises regularly, with the exception of macro splits and calorie needs.
What foods are included in an Olympic diet?
In general, “high-performance foods” are recommended for all Olympians, regardless of the sport they compete in. These include a variety of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein sources. According to Laurie Hernandez, an Olympic gymnast, and Ryan Murphy, a 3-time gold medalist in swimming, some typical foods athletes eat for each meal are as follows.
- Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, oatmeal with toppings, and yogurt with fruit are common breakfasts for Hernandez. Coffee with almond milk often accompanies these meal options. If training in the morning, Murphy will eat a banana prior to training and an omelet after.
- Lunch: For lunch, Hernandez says she commonly eats a salad with nuts, veggies, and meat, or a sandwich with lean meat. Her lunch is lighter to accommodate afternoon training.
- Dinner: Hernandez’s dinners vary, but are always similar in composition. They include plenty of vegetables, a carb such as quinoa or brown rice, and a protein like chicken or salmon. Murphy’s lunches and dinners both follow this same pattern, but his dinners have larger portions.
- Snacks: Fruits, nuts, and homemade protein bars are some of Laurie’s favorite healthy snacks. Ryan enjoys yogurt with granola and fruit as a snack between meals.
You may notice that many of these foods are also recommended for the average person trying to maintain a healthy diet while exercising. This is because, according to sports dietitian Travis Piattoly, the basic elements of a sports diet rarely change depending on the level of exercise. The only aspects that do vary from an amateur athlete to an Olympian are macro splits and total calorie consumption. This means that everyone can implement the principles of an Olympic diet to improve their own health.
What foods are limited in an Olympic diet?
Although the foods athletes eat to obtain the proper nutrients vary slightly, they all eat a diet relatively free of processed foods and junk food. With so much intense exercise, it may be possible to eat junk food without gaining weight. Although professional athletes sometimes indulge, they rarely eat unhealthy, processed foods because these do not provide them with the energy and focus necessary to succeed in their sport at the highest level.
Some athletes may avoid specific foods that cause them inflammation or lethargy. For instance, Jeremy Taiwo, a decathlon athlete, avoids corn, gluten, and soy because they cause his energy levels to drop.
Others will eat an entirely plant-based diet due to personal preference. Carl Lewis won an Olympic sprinting gold medal without eating any animal-based products, showing that it is possible to do so. However, plant-based athletes must make an extra effort to eat enough protein for their energy needs.
What are the macro splits of Olympians?
In general, Olympic athletes obtain about 55-60 percent of their daily calories from high-quality carbohydrates, including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. 20-25 percent of their energy intake consists of healthy fats, and 15-25 percent comes from lean protein. This split includes more carbohydrates than that of an average person in order to provide the energy needed for athletic performance.
However, there are slight variations on this macro split according to the sport. Some athletes, especially those in endurance sports, will eat a higher proportion of carbs in the 3 days leading up to a race while eating a typical amount one night before race day. This is known as carb loading. On the other hand, protein is more important for Olympic weightlifters, especially those looking to build muscle and lift heavier.
What are the calorie needs of Olympians?
The calorie needs of Olympians vary according to the sport as well. Distance runners and swimmers require the largest number of calories. Men competing in these sports will need 5,000-10,000 calories a day, depending on their event, height, and weight. Women need a slightly smaller amount, ranging from 4,000-6,000 calories a day. Michael Phelps, one of the most famous Olympic swimmers, ate 8,000-10,000 calories a day in his prime. To put this in perspective, the typical active man requires 2,400-2,800 calories a day, while an active woman needs anywhere from 1,800-2,200. More sedentary individuals require even fewer calories.
Athletes in team sports, such as basketball, soccer, and handball, consume 3,000-4,500 calories a day. Their energy needs are lower than those of endurance athletes but higher than that of athletes in aesthetic sports, such as gymnastics and diving. Gymnasts only require 2,000-2,500 calories per day.
Sports involving muscular strength, such as weightlifting, need anywhere from 2,800-6,000 calories a day, depending on the athlete’s gender, height, and goals. Although weightlifting does not burn nearly as many calories as endurance-based sports, weightlifters will often still eat high-calorie diets to build muscle mass.
Finally, athletes in sports involving weight class eat the lowest amount of calories. When trying to make weight, wrestlers, fencers, and taekwondo athletes will eat as little as 1,200-1,500 calories a day. However, they will eat in larger quantities after weighing in and prior to competing.
Other eating habits of Olympic athletes
Aside from meeting calorie and nutritional needs, Olympic athletes will also often follow these dietary habits.
- Eating breakfast: The vast majority of Olympians will eat a meal within an hour of waking up. Their breakfast almost always includes a source of lean protein.
- Eating small, frequent meals: To maintain constant sources of fuel, athletes are recommended to eat a meal or snack at least every 3-4 hours.
- Eating familiar foods on competition days: A major goal of an Olympic diet is to avoid any discomfort or lethargy during competition. This is why runner Alysia Montano, along with many other athletes, never introduces new foods on race days.
- Staying hydrated: According to the Institute of Medicine, it is suggested that athletes drink 11-15 8-oz cups of water daily. Meagan Nielsen, a dietitian for the USA weightlifting team, notes that dehydration can lead to slower reaction times and place more strain on the heart and vascular system. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that any athlete, especially an Olympian, remains hydrated.
Olympic athletes maintain a healthy diet in order to gain a winning edge in nearly any sport. According to Michael Joyner, an exercise science researcher at Mayo Clinic, the margin of victory in Olympic events is often less than 1 percent. The foods athletes eat to fuel their bodies can often be the factor that determines the extremely slim difference between a win and a loss. Therefore, athletes must pay careful attention to their diets.
The basic tenets of a healthy diet do not change; they can be applied to the average person just as much as the Olympic athlete. For both of these groups, it is important to eat a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats. Olympic athletes, in particular, must focus on avoiding processed foods and junk foods, but this is helpful to anyone trying to stick to healthy eating habits as well. Some athletes will also avoid certain foods because of intolerances, sensitivities, and personal preferences.
The macro splits and calorie needs of Olympic athletes vary greatly by sport, with endurance athletes practicing carb loading before races and weightlifters consuming more protein to build muscle. Endurance athletes also consume the most calories, while athletes in sports with weight classes consume the fewest calories when trying to make weight.
Finally, Olympians have other eating habits outside of consuming adequate nutrients and calories. These include eating breakfast, eating frequent meals, eating familiar foods before a competition, and staying hydrated. Although Olympians may have different macro and calorie needs than average people, the basic principles of a healthy diet apply to all.