Olympians' diet can give you a competitive edge

By Danielle Wright

You can gain a competitive edge in your chosen sport simply by eating the right foods. Danielle Wright finds out how.

Rowing is an endurance sport requiring food fuel, like porridge. The benefits here are seen in how oats are high in complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly. Photo / Janna Dixon
Rowing is an endurance sport requiring food fuel, like porridge. The benefits here are seen in how oats are high in complex carbohydrates which release energy slowly. Photo / Janna Dixon

Before you sit back on the couch to watch the Olympic action on the television, consider the nutritional puzzles your favourite athletes have mastered to not only eat for life, but also to eat to win. While the basics of a healthy diet are important for success at any sport, each discipline has additional specific requirements that can make the difference between running out of steam halfway down the track, and crossing the line first. Once you've been inspired by the Olympians to take your sport to the next level, here are some tips on planning your menu for success:

Cycling

The main difference with cycling and other sports, in terms of nutritional needs, is the weight of the food to carry on the bike. Cyclists like light foods such as gels and sports bars. Because you sit on a seat, there's the opportunity to stop for a proper meal on long training sessions, something you could never do if you were on a long-distance run.

"One of the biggest things for cyclists, especially on long events, is the practical consideration of what you can carry. Often cyclists compromise hydration because it's heavy on the bike," says Claire Turnbull, managing director of Mission Nutrition and nutritionist for the Millennium Institute of Sport.

"It's important to trial different foods before a race to make sure you are consuming the one that's right for you, then don't try something new on the day. Trial how many water bottles you need, whether to have gels or sports drinks or solid foods," says Turnbull.

She says that sports drinks have their place for high-performance athletes, but they're not needed if you just go for a 40-minute cycle on the weekend.

"Don't overcompensate - you haven't burnt enough calories to go for the eggs benedict at the cafe stop at the end," warns Turnbull, who says spots drinks can contain 14 teaspoons of sugar and the same calories as a chocolate bar.

Key competition or race foods for cyclists include cereal bars, flavoured milk drinks for recovery and bananas. The ideal breakfast, 3-4 hours before the ride, would be hot oats or wholegrain cereal with fresh or canned fruit, and low fat milk. Top up one hour before the ride with wholegrain toast with peanut butter.

Triathlon

Triathlon is an endurance sport combining swimming, cycling and running. Triathletes generally train twice daily so recovery is an important nutritional consideration with iron man triathletes training for up to 40 hours per week in long aerobic sessions and high-intensity interval sessions.

"Recovery is the most neglected part of a person's sports nutrition, but one of the easiest to fix," says sports nutritionist Olivia Green, who suggests eating soon after training.

Food and fluid intake after training helps your muscles to recover and strengthen, your body to rehydrate, and your immune system to recuperate. Snacks rich in carbohydrates and protein, perfect for triathlon training recovery, include milkshakes or smoothies, cottage cheese on a toasted bagel or crumpets with peanut butter and flavoured milk.

Olympian Andrea Hewitt says: "Pasta with cherry tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, zucchini and prawns with pine nuts and olive oil is a combination of ingredients to make my favourite pasta dish. Apples are also easy to put in my training bag for after a session."

She also suggests changing to plainer foods during a competition phase.
Pre-race meals for triathletes include spaghetti on toast or hot oats with low-fat milk and brown sugar. Key foods for a triathlete's fridge include eggs, edam cheese, cottage cheese, fresh and frozen vegetables, lean meat, fish or chicken.

Swimming

Swimming demands strength, power and endurance from both the upper and lower body, and relies on aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Top swimmers train up to six hours a day so while they need to watch their weight and fat intake, they also need plenty of carbohydrates to burn during training and carbohydrates with protein after training to assist recovery and increase strength.

"Sometimes, being in the water, swimmers forget they need to keep well hydrated," says Turnbull.

She says an individualised nutritional plan should be developed to work out the best foods for you- for some a banana is perfect, for others, it reacts badly with their performance. It's trial and error to find the perfect mix.

Olympic swimmer Melissa Ingram, makes her own muesli mix with oats, dried apricots, raisins and nuts and says it's healthier and cheaper than buying packaged muesli. She also adds berries, high in antioxidants, and low-fat yoghurt.

Elite coach Scott Talbot Cameron says: "I find that lots of small meals and snacks throughout the day helps fuel a swimmer while making sure they don't have too much bulk in their stomach when they are trying to train or sleep."

Gymnastics

Female gymnasts are generally required to be small and lean with a low body fat percentage and high power to weight ratio, while male gymnasts tend to be lean and heavily muscled. With long training sessions, the timing of meals and snacks is very important to make sure there's enough fuel stored in the muscles to meet needs before, during and after training.

The poster boy for New Zealand gymnastics, North Harbour Gym's Misha Koudinov, above, says: "I really like spaghetti bolognese, although you could serve me most pasta dishes."

Sports nutritionist Olivia Green agrees that spaghetti bolognese is a perfect after-training meal for gymnasts because it has carbohydrates and protein.

"The protein element is so important for muscle repair and to build muscles," says Green, whose mum used to bring her a healthy hot dinner to eat in the car on the way home from late gymnastics training sessions.

Koudinov says a well-balanced diet helped him meet the nutritional requirements of gymnastics to be lean and feel confident that muscles have the capacity to work through difficult sessions each day.

"Gymnasts train really long hours so they need to be good about planning their meals when training runs over mealtimes," says Turnbull.

Rowing

Rowing is an endurance sport so eating easily digestible carbohydrates before training is important. It uses all the major muscle groups, relying on about 65 per cent legs, 25 per cent back and 10 per cent arms, and is unique in that it uses both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems along with requiring strength and power.

"Training is usually early so get up and have something to eat at least 30 minutes beforehand and you need to take something to eat straight after training, and when you get to work," says Turnbull.

Porridge is perfect for a pre-training meal, rather than eggs. A banana, a tin of creamed riced and a protein shake are ideal to eat after a training session. Rowers need carbohydrates for fuel before the training and protein straight afterwards to build muscle and aid recovery.

Rowing NZ Head Coach, Richard Tonks says: "Try to consume 50-100g of carbohydrate 30 minutes before training and start consuming carbohydrates 15 minutes after exercise, before the levels of cortisol (hormone released in muscle breakdown) get too high."

Weightlifting

Weightlifters are able to eat a lot more than athletes in other sports such as gymnastics, but the challenge is not to overdo it and to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Protein is crucial for weightlifters, but it can be overdone.

"Having more than 2g of protein per kilo has no extra benefits. There is a limit," says Turnbull. "There's the perception that protein gives you muscles, but unless you're in high-level sports training, you probably don't need to stock up on expensive protein shakes."

Olympic weightlifters may train multiple times each day so recovery and food planning is important. Weightlifters are generally discouraged against cardiovascular exercise to make sure maximal body mass is maintained.

Weightlifter Mark Spooner says: "Tuna with grainy bread makes a great lunch. I find Udon noodles are a really simple and tasty source of carbohydrate that you can throw straight into a stir-fry."

Chris Olney, president and coach of NorthSport Weightlifting says: "Too often I see athletes eating chocolate bars, sweets and energy drinks that will not sustain the length of training and will inevitably be detrimental to their performance, once the 'sugar hit' has gone."

Olney encourages carbohydrate meals and rest breaks for digestion to be written into a weightlifters training programme. Key competition foods include Milo, muffins, crumpets and fruit bread.

* The Millennium Institute of Sport & Health in Auckland and Nestlé have developed excellent nutrition fact sheets for specific sports. They include information on what to eat before, during and after training and on competition days, key foods to keep in your pantry and fridge, examples of menu plans, recipes and nutritional profiles of star athletes. You can download them for free from here.

- Herald on Sunday

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