Eating To Win

Forget Atkins. Olympians chow down on carbs to give them the energy they need to compete.

Athens Colympics

August 04, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

When triumphant Olympic medalists begin waving from the victory podium next week, you may imagine years of training and sacrifice, of singular focus and determination, of selfless family support. But letM-Fs not forget the food: the true stuff of legends.

Behind every Michael Phelps and Marion Jones, thereM-Fs a long, mostly overlooked, history of energy-rich meals: training and competition diets that allow the worldM-Fs fastest and strongest to be so fleet and so powerful.

Although every world-class athlete follows an individualized diet, such carbohydrate-rich foods as pasta and potatoes pave the road to world records, sports nutritionists and trainers say. The protein and fats so crucial to popular weight-loss diets as Atkins and South Beach play much lesser roles on the world stage of endurance athletics.

M-tCarbohydrates are the first and primary source of energy that the body uses,M-v says Troy Jacobson, a champion triathlete and coach of 2000 Olympian triathlete Joanna Zeiger.

M-tIf a swimmer like Michael Phelps or a bike rider like Lance Armstrong tried to focus on primarily eating proteins and fats, thereM-Fs no way they could ever perform the way they do. ... Depending on the time of year and the emphasis on their training, endurance athletes will eat upwards of 70 percent of their calories from carbohydrates.M-v

Some of those folks just concentrate on getting enough calories, period.

At 19, Baltimore Olympian Michael Phelps not only impresses folks with his grueling workouts M-y many of his days consist of two-hour swimming sessions in the morning as well as the afternoon M-y but also with the extra thousands of calories he needs to power his 6-foot-4, 195- pound body toward gold medals.

According to published reports and the observations of Debbie Phelps, the athleteM-Fs mother, a typical day of eating during PhelpsM-F heaviest period of training might consist of the following:

Pre-workout breakfast: a bowl of Basic 4 cereal.

Post-workout brunch: two fried-egg-and cheese sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and fried onions; three slices of French toast; a Western omelet; a bowl of grits; a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes at PeteM-Fs Grill in Waverly.

Pre-workout in afternoon: another bowl of Basic 4 cereal.

Post-workout meal/dinner: shrimp cocktail; a Caesar salad or fruit salad; steak with sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes; broccoli with cheese; ice cream or a brownie sundae.

A couple of PowerBars for snacks throughout the day.

(For the record, PhelpsM-F coach, Bob Bowman, has said he would prefer the swimmer space his calories more evenly during the day and pay more attention to the nutritional content of his food. )

Eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day is harder than youM-Fd think, says Jacobson, although he imagines a lot of folks might like to take up the challenge.

M-tWhen I was training 30 hours a week, putting in six-hour days, I would not only eat solid food but supplements [like Ensure] to give me extra calories,M-v says Jacobson, 35, who has won triathlons of varying distances.

M-tIn addition, I would also consume a pint of Ben and JerryM-Fs every night before dinner. It was 1,500 calories I needed to have so that I wouldnM-Ft start losing muscle mass.M-v

Of course, only a fraction of athletes competing in the Olympics regularly consume so much food M-y and even Phelps wonM-Ft live up to his own eating potential when heM-Fs in Athens.

In the days before competition, endurance athletes donM-Ft chow down the same way they do at the height of their training. Instead, it is customary for them to carefully taper their workouts, which reduces their appetites as well as their need for as many calories. In this period, their bodies rest and refuel in preparation for the intensity of their coming events.

The day before they compete, however, they may decide to load up on some extra muscle energy, perhaps at the pasta station in the Olympic Village dining hall.

M-tThey need to carbo-load before the event, fill up the levels of glycogen [quickly available energy] in their muscles,M-v says Nancy Clark, author of Nancy ClarkM-Fs Sports Nutrition Guidebook, third edition (Human Kinetics, 2003). Carbo-loading also carries the benefit of helping protect the body from dehydration. For each ounce of carbohydrate the muscles store, Clark says, the body also collects about 3 ounces of water.

Although carbohydrates supply the foundation for most athletesM-F diets, itM-Fs important that any regimen include protein M-y which helps the body repair itself after workouts M-y as well as calcium and healthful fats such as nuts and olive oil.

Competitors will discover that dining at the Olympics will give them lots of healthful choices.

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