When the difference between gold and silver can be a hundredth of a second, it’s no surprise that Olympic athletes not only optimize their training to perform at their best, but typically follow customized performance nutrition programs identifying when, what and how much they need to eat and drink daily. In fact, most elite-level athletes have had access to a certified registered sports nutritionist since college, and virtually all professional sports teams have nutritionists on staff.
Here, sports dietitians working with Olympic athletes share some of the best winning sports nutrition secrets that help some of the world’s most decorated athletes win gold:
1. They Treat Food as Fuel
The best athletes consider food as fuel, explains Nancy Clark, a certified sports nutritionist who has worked with elite-level athletes competing in several Olympic Games. “Good nutrition is part of their overall lifestyle – just like the attention they have to training, bodywork and sleep.” Today’s Olympians eat right not only for improved performance; they do so to recover better and stay healthy.
Why you should too: “Many people fuel their cars better than their bodies,” Clark says. “If you wouldn’t put low-octane gas into a Porsche, then why would you eat low-quality food?” Instead, before taking a bite, ask yourself: “How is this going to make me feel, perform and improve my health?” Take it even further and track what you eat in an online app, then record how you feel. People who record what they eat – even if it’s only for a few days a week – generally have healthier diets.
2. They Eat Every Four Hours
To have enough energy to train (often for hours every day) and recover, athletes eat frequently to fuel themselves and to build and repair post-exercise. Most stick with an eating pattern that includes breakfast, lunch and dinner with two snacks (generally within 30 minutes of finishing a workout).
Why you should too: You don’t need the same quantity of food (read: calories) that Olympians do, but the same performance nutrition guidelines apply: Eat about every four hours, and plan meals or snacks that provide both carbs and protein within 30 minutes of finishing your workout. A more equal distribution of calories throughout the day can help optimize energy levels, and the right post-workout fuel enhances the body’s ability to recovery and create gains from the workout. It may even help you manage your weight better because you’re less likely to feel famished, which leads to poor choices and overeating.
3. They Optimize Their Protein
Protein provides the essential amino acids athletes need to recover and rebuild post-exercise. “We plan our athletes’ meals and snacks so they have quality protein options at breakfast, lunch, dinner and especially post-exercise,” explains Alicia Kendig, a senior sport dietitian at the United States Olympic Committee. Fish and seafood, Greek yogurt, beef, poultry and beans are all good protein choices, she adds.
Chobani, an official sponsor of Team USA, shipped more than 70,000 individual containers of their yogurt made with only natural, non-GMO ingredients to Rio to help Team USA athletes perform their best. Because it’s strained, Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt. Chobani also has 40 percent less sugar than regular yogurt. “Probiotics in yogurt also help keep athletes’ GI tracts in balance and promotes a healthy immune system,” Kendig says.
Why you should too: Studies show that protein enhances satiety more than carbs or fats, so try to get optimal protein at each of your three main meals (20 to 30 grams of protein has been recommended), as it may help keep you satisfied. That equals about 3 to 4 ounces of lean fish or poultry or 8 ounces of Greek yogurt. For optimal recovery, choose protein with carbohydrates within 30 minutes to an hour after exercise, like Kendig’s “Crowd-Pleaser Smoothie,” made with Chobani Vanilla Greek Yogurt, orange juice, soymilk and frozen banana.
4. They Hydrate Early and Often
“My athletes call me the ‘hydrationist,’” says Meg Mangano, team nutritionist for the LA Clippers and member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Science Network, “because I’m hyper-focused on hydration.” She recommends athletes start drinking water as soon as they get up, and continue drinking fluids throughout the day. Dehydration can significantly impact performance, and drinking more fluids is one of the easiest things athletes can do to improve their performance. Most top athletes drink about 1/2 to 1 ounce of fluid per pound of body weight every day, and at least half of those fluids should be from water.
Why you should too: “Most people live in a constant state of mild dehydration,” Mangano says. Being dehydrated not only impedes athletic performance, but can lead to a sluggish metabolism. Drink water (or other calorie-free beverages) until your urine is pale yellow, like the color of lemonade. A good goal is to drink about half your body weight in water (or other calorie-free beverages) every day. If you weigh 150 pounds, you should drink 75 ounces – nearly 10 cups – of water.
5. They Eat Tons (Literally!) of Seafood
Raw egg shakes and steaks may have been popular with athletes in the past, but today’s Olympians are looking for protein that goes beyond building muscle. As a result, athletes eat a lot of seafood. And canned and pouch tuna (read: convenient and inexpensive) are staples in athletes’ cupboards. In fact, at the 2016 Summer Games, they’re expected to eat more than 82 tons of seafood. “What’s great about fish is that it provides lean protein, plus the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids that have a lot of health benefits and aid recover,” Kendig says.
Why you should too: Most Americans eat just 10 percent of the 8 to 12 ounces (about two fish meals) per week recommended in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Getting enough seafood ensures that your body will have an optimal amount of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, which improve heart health, reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes and help maintain a healthy weight. What’s more, a new study published in theNutrition Journal reported that pregnant women who eat the recommended servings of seafood could boost the IQ of their children by up to three points at age 9, thanks to the neurological benefits provided by marine-based omega-3 fats.
6. They Enjoy Quality Carbs
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for your muscles, so Olympic athletes know the type, timing and amount they need to optimize performance. For most, more than half of their daily calories come from nutrient-rich options such as whole grains, fruit, potatoes, beans and legumes, and yogurt. Sports drinks and other primarily simple-sugar options are generally reserved for before, during and post-exercise.
Why you should too: There’s no need to fear carbs, as long as you eat nutrient-rich options and keep tabs on both the amount and the time that you eat them. To keep energy levels up, enjoy carbohydrates before, during and after exercise, and back off them at other times of the day.
7. They Follow an 85-15 Rule
No one eats perfectly all the time – including the most decorated Olympians. Most athletes stick to their performance nutrition guidelines about 85 percent of the time, and are more relaxed about their choices for their remaining meals and snacks, Clark says. This doesn’t mean they’ll eat anything that winds up on their plate, but they may indulge occasionally by eating some baked goods, fried foods or salty snacks.
Why you should too: If you try to eat perfectly 100 percent of the time, you only set yourself up for failure. Instead, aim to make good choices for 18 of the 21 meals a week, and you can relax (read: not pig out) for three of them. For example, if you want to have your favorite pizza or know that you’re going to a party, you can make those meals part of your overall diet.