The Secret Food of Athletes: Inside the Olympic Training Center’s Nutrition Lab
A rare look inside the nutrition lab at the Olympic Training Center reveals how America's best athletes eat to win
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“You’re only as good as your last meal.”
Secrets of the ProsTop athletes share their meal strategies.
Nowhere is this idea more ingrained than at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where hundreds of elite runners, triathletes, wrestlers, water-polo players, and other aspiring Olympians spend weeks, months, or, in some cases, years on their quest for gold. About 130 athletes live at the center, while another 15,000 visit annually for short-term camps, most of them teenagers who rank in the top 10 percent of their sport.
Athletes come here for the center’s state-of-the-art training facilities—to tweak their strokes in the aquatic center’s 50-meter pool, learn more about their bodies in the physiology lab, or nurse injuries in the world-class physical-therapy department. But perhaps the most important building an athlete will visit is the food-court-size cafeteria on the north end of the sprawling 35-acre grounds.
The Caf, as the residents call it, is the OTC’s nutritional nerve center, where all meals are eaten and where new thinking about food is giving America’s top-tier athletes their high-performance edge. This past summer, the U.S. Olympic Committee sent a staff of chefs and dietitians from Colorado Springs to London, where they re-created the menu Team USA had been living and training on back home. The result: Americans won more medals than in any previous Olympics.
I’ve often wondered what might happen if recreational athletes put the same emphasis on nutrition as Olympians do preparing for the Games. As a fortysomething outdoor athlete, I’ve jazzed around over the years with numerous dietary programs—the Zone, paleo, the Blueberry Muffin Diet (not recommended)—in hopes of improving performance, but nothing stuck, except to my waist. I was confused. If you trained hard enough, didn’t it all burn up in the lactic-acid fire anyway? Hoping to gain deeper insight into high-end performance nutrition, I made a pilgrimage to the OTC.
A lot of stories trickle out during every Olympic Games about the eating habits of the stars, like Michael Phelps’ reported 4,000-calorie breakfast—including a five-egg omelet, French toast, and chocolate chip pancakes—or the 16 bananas Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake supposedly eats every day. But as my OTC guide, 32-year-old registered dietitian Jennifer Gibson, assured me, the real secret to performance nutrition is keeping things simple. Gibson has worked with everyone from skiers to wrestlers to professional soccer players, but she says the OTC’s nutritional principles can be applied by anyone, from age-group experts to enthusiastic neophytes.
I spent a day with her and put together the following eight-step peak-performance nutrition plan based on what I learned. I also discovered that, when it comes to eating right, the stars, well, they’re just like us. “We can’t follow our athletes around constantly, but we do try to be the voice in their head,” Gibson told me. “You think just because you’re burning 4,000 calories in a workout, you can eat whatever you want. And we’re here to say, um, actually no, you can’t.”
STEP 1: KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
Before any dietary interventions take place, OTC nutritionists put their athletes through an extensive clinical screening. This includes urinalysis to assess hydration, skinfold tests to determine body composition (your fat-to-muscle ratio), resting metabolic rate, or RMR (how many calories you burn at rest—dietitians rarely want their athletes to consume less than this in a day), and blood work to identify nutrient levels and deficiencies like anemia. “If there’s anything systemically wrong, we need to fix that before we can go to the next level,” Gibson says. Clinical testing provides the baseline data to help measure progress (or lack thereof). Olympians are rescreened as frequently as once a month. Being tested a couple of times a year by a doctor or sports nutritionist should suffice for the rest of us, she says.
STEP 2: ADDRESS YOUR ISSUES
One of the biggest problems Gibson has worked to correct in athletes is iron deficiencies. Iron is essential for helping your blood transport oxygen to hardworking muscles. Female athletes are particularly susceptible to iron loss through menstruation. High-mileage runners may also suffer something called foot-strike hemolysis, where hemoglobin cells are destroyed by stride impact. And a growing body of research suggests that chronic inflammation may trigger a hormone that blocks iron absorption. “Optimizing iron is huge for us here,” says Gibson. “As many as 90 percent of my female athletes, and 50 percent of the males, have low readings when we first test them.” Iron supplements usually correct the problem, says Gibson. Vitamin D is another keen area of interest. Compelling evidence suggests that vitamin D helps reduce inflammation, increase VO2 max, boost immunity, and promote stronger bones. In 2008, when Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor broke her foot at the Beijing Games, it turned out that she had only half the recommended vitamin D levels (normal measures are 35 to 55 nanograms per milliliter). Gibson told me that 80 to 90 percent of the athletes she has screened have turned out to be low in vitamin D, in some cases despite training for hours outdoors (sunscreen blocks vitamin D absorption). She recommends supplements to help bring D levels back up to baseline.
STEP 3: EMBRACE WHOLE FOODS
Gibson and the other dietitians at the OTC push a whole-foods philosophy for an athlete’s core diet, with a heavy emphasis on organic, sustainably produced fruits and vegetables, lean proteins (like chicken and fish), healthy fats (like avocados and olive oil), and complex carbohydrates (like steel-cut oats and sweet potatoes) that ensure a steady stream of nutrients to training-ravaged bodies. The quality and quantity of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and phytochemicals provided by fresh whole foods simply can’t be matched by processed alternatives, no matter how sophisticated that protein shake may appear. This is where the Caf comes in. A sign at the entrance outlines the three commandments: 1) Get more veggies, nuts, and seeds in your diet. 2) Adjust the amount of carbohydrates you’re eating based on activity level. 3) Add a lean protein to every meal. The Caf line progresses through a salad bar, soup station, vegetable side dishes, and entrées, like baked tilapia and pad Thai, that vary every day. Each item has a full nutrition panel accompanying it, along with an Athlete’s Plate diagram, a pie chart showing exactly what your plate should look like, with appropriate portions of vegetables, protein, and carbs. (Many athletes go so far as to take photos of their plates to send to their trainers.) This spring, as part of its makeover, the OTC will open a gourmet demonstration kitchen to teach athletes how to prepare meals at home. “We lay it out to make it as appealing as possible, to ensure they’re getting enough good food,” says Jacque Hamilton, the OTC’s senior executive chef. “Generally speaking, at this level there are very few athletes who do the low-carb or no-carb thing. It’s just not conducive to performance. You need carbohydrates if you’re going to perform at 100 percent.”
STEP 4: MAP OUT YOUR MEAL PLAN
“A meal plan isn’t static,” says Gibson. “It’s based on activity, so nutrition will vary according to activity level or phase.” This interplay—what some athletes call nutritional periodization—is a functional way of scheduling when, what, and how much you eat. That may involve raising or lowering total calories; manipulating ratios of proteins, carbs, and fats; or timing food based on energy output. Gibson produces detailed eating guidelines for some of her athletes, so they simply follow the plan. Others manage their regimens more intuitively. “I typically try to front-load my food,” says Olympic triathlete Gwen Jorgensen, 26. “I do my workouts throughout the day, so I try to get a lot of calories early. That’s usually a hearty breakfast of oats mixed with peanut butter, raisins, bananas, cinnamon, honey, and poached eggs, which I stir right into the oatmeal. During the off-season, I’ve been trying to put on a little muscle mass, so that means getting a complete meal with protein soon after a workout. These are the kinds of things you’re always working on.”
STEP 5: ADJUST THE LAST ONE PERCENT
The final tier is sports nutrition, when athletes dial in race-day fueling, adjust ergogenic aids—any substance that enhances physical performance, like caffeine—and might try supplements like beta-alanine, an amino acid that fuels muscles during exercise. “This last stage is dictated entirely by your sport, your activity level, and your goals,” says Gibson. These tweaks make up a small fraction of an athlete’s total caloric intake but help you get the most from your body in training and competition. Once you’ve committed to eating whole foods consistently, Gibson recommends that you experiment to see what kind of sports nutrition works best for you—carbohydrate loading the night before a race, for example, or drinking beetroot juice, a high-octane energy booster, before a hard training day. She warns against relying on shakes, bars, pills, gels, and drinks, however. “It’s the Wild West out there,” she says. “Everyone’s an expert about nutrition, and everyone’s got a product for you. But we’re not flashy or trendy here.” Olympic triathlete Lukas Verzbicas, 20, restricts caffeine until the day of a race to feel its maximum effect. He’s also a big fan of chia seeds, a complete protein that contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory flavonoids. Triathlete Jorgensen tries to get in good fats by gulping down a spoonful of coconut oil after a hard workout or race.
STEP 6: HYDRATE OR BONK
Gibson calls hydration “the other macronutrient” and says it’s too often neglected in a high-performance diet. She tests the composition of her athletes’ sweat and formulates custom sports drinks—with water, sodium, and sometimes potassium, as well as glucose, fructose, or maltodextrin for carbs—to replace the appropriate amounts of sodium and electrolytes. (She also occasionally flavors them with lemonade or Crystal Light packets.) Recreational athletes may not have access to such precise lab analysis, but they can approximate their needs by weighing themselves before and after a race or a hard training session. You should be hydrating enough to lose less than 2 percent of your body weight during exercise. If your clothes are marked with white salt rings, your sweat has a fair amount of sodium in it, so experiment with an existing sports drink, adding sodium as needed to replenish the salt.
STEP 7: CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD
“Nutrition is ultimately behavioral,” says Gibson. “Athletes are under a lot of stress, and sometimes food is the only thing they can release with. A lot of them don’t drink, and they don’t have much of a social life because they’re training all the time. So, like a lot of busy people, they’ll turn to food for comfort.” One trick Gibson and others use is to avoid demonizing foods, since designating something off-limits makes the temptation greater. The key is to emphasize the value of healthy foods and how they’ll improve performance. This begins to override the mindless emotional eating that can derail the hard work athletes put in every week.
STEP 8: COMMIT
For weight-class competitors like boxers and wrestlers, managing weight while continuing to improve performance is the holy grail of any diet program. “Sweets are my kryptonite,” says wrestler Adeline Gray, 22. “And I love sweets.” Gray, who has her sights set on a gold medal in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, is one of the full-time OTC residents. A couple of years back, she was working with Gibson to optimize her nutrition when she had a particularly depressing Oreo bender. “I was lying to myself about it. I’d eaten a whole box of them, then tried blaming it on my roommate,” she says, laughing now. The bingeing was making it tough to reach her weigh-in targets. After the Dark Night of the Cookie, Gibson had her quit sweets cold, filling her diet with vegetables, lean proteins, and good fats like avocados and almonds. “I logged everything into my phone. I drank two glasses of water before every meal and a gallon throughout the day. I started losing a kilo a week. It wasn’t that I didn’t want an Oreo. I just wanted a gold medal more.” She adds, “The main thing is commitment and consistency. Until I decided that this is what I was going to do, it didn’t happen.”
Contributing editor Nick Heil wrote about adventurer Erden Eruc in February.