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To Olympic athletes, food is fuel.  But not every athlete eats the same things or the same amount.

Michael Phelps’ astonishing performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and his astonishing diet of eating 12,000 calories in a day is well known.  However, recent interviewsshow that the diet was a myth.

Regardless, endurance athletes such as swimmers, cyclists, marathon runners and rowers do carbohydrate load to fuel their intense, continuous activity.

Other sports don’t have the same calorie needs of course.  A table tennis player is not going to eat 8,000 calories.  You won’t see an Olympic wrestler or gymnast with a crowded tray in the cafeteria. These athletes restrict what they eat right before go time to be light and lithe, says Nanna Meyer, senior sport dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a professor of sports nutrition at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Swimmers eat the most, gymnasts eat the least.  Between them is a broad spectrum of what Olympians consume before competition. The numbers below are rough estimates, and even within sports, male and female athletes may eat very different amounts.  Remember, a normal person who spends most of the day sitting, needs anywhere from 1,600 to 3,000 calories.

  Type of athlete Pre-event nutrition Energy consumed per day
Endurance (cycling, swimming, marathon, rowing) Carbohydrate loading 3,000-8,000 calories
Team sports (basketball, soccer) Extra carbohydrate intake but not loading 3,000-4,500 calories
Other sports (sailing, kayaking) Moderate energy/carbohydrate intake 2,500-3,500 calories
Strength/power sports (shot put, weight-lifting) Moderate energy/carbohydrate intake 2,800-6,000 calories
Aesthetic sports (gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming) Some restriction likely before competition 2,000-2,500 calories
Weight-class (taekwondo, wrestling, fencing, light weight rowing) Some restriction likely to make weight followed by recovery before competition ~1,200-1,500 calories to make weight followed by increase in calories to recover and prepare for competition

(Chart from NPR)

Actually measuring how many calories athletes use is very difficult.  “We don’t have great data on many sports on energy expenditure because we can’t measure it,” Meyer tells The Salt. She says that’s because the methods available —indirect calorimetry and doubly labeled water — could interfere with training.

Instead, she asks athletes to share their journals where they record their training and what they eat. “If their weights are stable we can assume that what they’re eating reflects their energy balance. We can learn a lot from talking to them,” she says.

Not only does the amount of food eaten vary widely, what athletes actually eat varies widely.

Here are some surprising foods that Olympic athletes eat.

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Almond Butter
Two-time Olympic medalist and beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, from team USA says she has a lot of almond butter and honey sandwiches throughout the day, especially before she competes, according to EatingWell.com.

Beans On Toast
Talk about a breakfast for champions. U.K. diver Tom Daley says he has beans on toast for breakfast, according to Yahoo.com.

Clif Gels
When vegan ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek needs a quick shot of energy, he often chooses gel packs from Clif (which he also endorses).

Dry Bars
Well, Team Russia won’t be celebrating with booze this year. According to the Telegraph, the Russian Olympic team and delegation have been banned from drinking alcohol during the games. This was probably a good idea.

Egg Whites
Skip the yellow and keep the white. U.K. handball captain Bobby White likes to eat two scrambled egg whites with fruit juice for breakfast, according to Men’s Health.

When Team Brazil lands in London, we can ensure you that Feijoda will be on their menu. The black bean stew, which is a traditional meal in Brazil, is considered a team favourite, according to PostCodeGazette.com.

Goat’s Head
At the Birmingham base, some chefs were requested to cook up goat head for visiting athletes from the Caribbean. But after failed attempts, they stuck with goat curry instead.

Turns out the Kazakhstan wrestling team doesn’t like horsing around. The team specially demanded horse sausage for their journey to their games, claiming it boosts their weightlifting abilities.

Instant Coffee
Yes, athletes do need their caffeine. Australian basketball player Lauren Jackson says she likes to mix instant coffee with light milk for breakfast.

Jam Sandwiches
When Paralympic cycling champion Sarah Storey is hitting the road, she says she often gets jam sandwiches handed to her on her route while riding.

American swimmer Natalie Coughlin says she loves to garden and has a whole bed of fresh kale and herbs.

Swimmer Dara Torres says her favourite dinnertime meal is a turkey-spinach lasagna with garlic bread, a mixed green salad and green beans.

Diver Tom Daley also likes his chocolate milkshakes, especially at 12:30 p.m., according to Men’s Health.

Nugget lovers, rejoice — you can feel a bit healthy again. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican runner Usain Bolt says he was fuelled by chicken nuggets.

British rower Pete Reed has one ultimate secret for building those muscles: Adding a cottage cheese-covered oatcake to your evening snack, he told Men’s Health.

Malaysian badminton star Lee Chong Wei, who is recovering from a serious ankle injury, prefers hot soups and porridges — a staple back home.

American soccer player Abby Wambach says her go-to health foods are quinoa, sushi and Brussels sprouts, according to FoodAndWine.com.

Most athletes would probably say no to processed white rice, but if you’re in dire need of an Olympian body, add slow carbs like brown rice to your meal plan.

It may sound like a stereotype, but athletes really do rely on shakes to get hits of protein and vegetables. They can be full of powder or ‘greens,’ but almost every single Olympian interviewed will inevitably mention their breakfast or post-workout shake as part of their day.

Tuna Steak
Fish is a big deal for Olympians, serving as it does as a source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. For David Roberts, who’s competing in the Paralympics, the perfect dinner consists of a tuna steak and beetroot salad for a hit of both protein and vegetables.

Unsweetened Teas
For those who are running, green tea is a great option to help reduce muscle damage and speed recovery — but for Olympians who are taking in a lot of liquids, an unsweetened option is the best choice.

Vegetarian Diet
There have been many reports of athletes, particularly long-distance runners, taking a vegetarian or vegan approach to their diets to gain strength in new ways. But for the Chinese women’s volleyball team, they opted to stop eating meat because of the possibility of testing positive in the stringent drug tests performed at the Olympics — even if it’s affecting their athletic prowess.

The single most important component of any athlete’s diet, one recommendation includes consuming half of one’s body weight in pure water, as well as sports drinks if required.

Xtreme Dieting
Some of us get concerned when we eat a handful of almonds too many — and then there’s Korean rhythmic gymnast Son Yeon-jae, whose trainers measure her food each day in grams, knowing even the slightest fluctuation in weight could devastate her routines. She does admit, however, that if she had her way, she’d eat pizza and ddukbokki (sweet and spicy rice cakes) all the time.

Last time around at the Summer Olympics, Usain Bolt’s father attributed his son’s immense speed to the yams that are ubiquitous in Jamaica. And with the country’s athletes favoured in 2012, we wouldn’t surprised to see more athletes piling them on their plates.

Zero Processed Foods
Make sure your food comes from, well, food, say the athletes — and this can’t be news to anyone watching what they eat. According to triathlete Sarah Groff, she sticks to whole grains, fruits and vegetables, not even diving into bars or supplements.

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