The meal-planning strategies used by medal contenders have lessons for us mere mortals.
Chobani-gate notwithstanding, there’s no doubt that the Olympic athletes are staying laser-focused on fueling up for the competitions in the coming weeks. “A lot of elite athletes are very superstitious about their routines and what they eat,” says Brian St. Pierre, sports dietitian at Precision Nutrition, an idiosyncrasy that makes competing in a new country especially challenging. The athletes, of course, are not out braving Russian grocery stores or ordering borscht by the bowlful—Team USA nutritionists and chefs source food products and get them approved by Russian officials months before the games even begin, then shop local markets for familiar foods to feed athletes.
"Elite athletes already know what works and doesn’t work for them,” says St. Pierre. The trick is to stay close to the regular routine, while also accounting for a crazy competition schedule. "I try to get into a routine as quickly as possible," says Team USA hockey player and 2010 silver medalist Hilary Knight (pictured, center). "I make sure that I am eating foods that have an adequate amount of nutritional content on the days we are not competing, and on the days we are competing, I tend to stick to my basic habits of heavy carbs and some protein, hours in advance. And never forget the coffee!" (Hence the Starbucks selfie!)
Here’s how medal contenders eat when it really matters—and what it can teach us mere mortals.
The scenario: Back-to-back events
The strategy: A liquid lunch break
When athletes have to really hustle between events they’ll likely be sipping on an electrolyte beverage, a strategy you should apply to your next basketball tournament or double-header cycling class. “When you’ll be competing soon after you finish a race or performance, you need a little more fuel but you probably can’t handle a whole-food snack or even a smoothie,” says St. Pierre. Instead, go for quick energy with a sports drink. “It will be easy to digest, electrolytes will help you stay hydrated, simple carbs will give you quick fuel, and the water will replace some of the sweat you lost during your last event.”Then, eat to recover immediately afterwards.
The scenario: Same-day competitions
The strategy: A balanced meal
With two or more hours in between events, an athlete will likely need some sort of meal. According to St. Pierre, here’s the ideal: For men, it’s two palm-sized servings of protein, 2 fists of vegetables, 2 handfuls of carbohydrates like starch or fruit, 2 thumbs of healthy fat and a low-cal beverage like water. For women, it’s about 1 serving of each of those elements. An endurance athlete may need more carbs, for example, while a power lifter could try more protein. This is the right recovery meal even if your two-a-day workouts aren’t in the international spotlight, says St. Pierre. “A meal built around this template will have enough protein to help you recover from muscle exertion and adequate carbs to refill your glycogen stores and fuel whatever comes next. Healthy fats aid immune function and up calorie intake to account for everything you’re burning off.”
The scenario: It’s all over
The strategy: Play it cool
Though we’d love to imagine Olympians throw down like the cast of the Real World once they’ve scored their final medal, chances are they know better, says St. Pierre. “Excessively overeating and overdrinking can affect brain chemistry and hormone balance and make it harder on yourself in the long term to have the body composition you need to compete in your sport.” But that’s not to say the Athlete’s Village is a nunnery. “The athletes have been training for four years for this moment and so, sure, they can loosen the reins a little bit and enjoy the moment.”