Olympic appetites: how 8 top athletes eat to win

Published on July 10 2012 - 4:24 PM
Courtesy Fédération Internationale de Volleyball

The world’s fastest, fittest athletes are competing in the summer Games, but what fuels their power? I talked with some top athletes who are competing or hoping to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London about how they eat to win.

Misty May-Treanor, 34, beach volleyball player and two-time Olympic medalist

What’s your favorite power food?
My favorite power food is Greek yogurt and honey. Before soccer games when I was little, my dad would make me have a spoonful of bee pollen and honey. He told me it would give me energy.

Do you have a sort of food mantra or philosophy that guides your eating?
The more colorful the food the better. I try to add color to my diet, which means vegetables and fruits. If I need the sugar or something my body is craving, I’m not one to steer away from eating it.

Why do you think cooking is so relaxing for you?
I think it’s because I’m being creative and putting my own little touch on it and I’m just really thinking about what I’m doing at that time and not 30 other little things.

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Photo Courtesy Fédération Internationale de Volleyball

Kerri Walsh Jennings, Courtesy MAGKerri Walsh Jennings, 33, beach volleyball player and two-time Olympic medalist

How has good nutrition improved your performance?
When I eat every 3 hours I can focus better, feel stronger, last longer.

Describe your food philosophy?
The greener the better. My husband and I are both professional athletes and we’re parents now, and that’s definitely affected the way we eat and the way we think about food because we want to put the best things in our children. I’ve heard this so many times and it sounds so cheesy, but “feed the rainbow of colors” and you’re doing yourself and your body a lot of good.

So what kind of stuff do you like to cook?
In my head I’m taking Cooking 101, so just grilling chicken, grilling vegetables, that kind of stuff. It makes me really happy if I can make a successful dinner.

What do you eat before you compete?
I eat a lot of almond butter and honey sandwiches throughout the day, because that keeps me satisfied. I can just shove it down and I’m good to go.

Are you concerned with good or bad carbohydrates?
Yes. I don’t want to have a lot of refined sugars in my diet so I try to pay attention and it definitely makes a difference in my blood sugar levels.

And what’s your biggest eating challenge?
Eating. It sounds silly because I truly do love food, but I pack my kids’ lunches and sometimes I don’t get to my own, so that’s been a bit of a challenge, but it’s also something I’m really aware of, and I’m working on that.

Photo Courtesy MAG

Eric Shanteau, Courtesy ArenaEric Shanteau, 28, swimmer

You were diagnosed with testicular cancer right before competing in the 2008 Olympics. You’re now cancer-free—how has cancer changed your philosophy?
Having cancer changed my whole perspective on swimming and life. I think I was a really good swimmer before cancer, but I was a great swimmer after cancer. I realized there are much bigger things in life than competing. When I came back after treatment I just relaxed and had fun. A happy athlete is a better athlete.

What do you typically have for breakfast?
I shred a plain wheat biscuit, dump some Grape-Nuts on it, and add some kind of vanilla almond nut cluster. Then I put in a handful of raisins, a big spoonful of ground flaxmeal, a handful of walnuts, raspberries and cut-up kiwi with the skin on. I put a splash of almond milk on there, then put some type of organic yogurt on top. It’s a pretty heavy bowl. The dietitians I’ve talked to say, “I can’t believe you can digest that.” But it doesn’t hurt me—it kind of just sits in my stomach like a ball of energy, which is great.

What’s the best nutrition advice you’ve received?
Getting the right food in my body 30 minutes after working out helps so much more with the next workout and has really changed my training.

So what are some things that you cook really well?
I think I make a really great alfredo sauce. I cook a lot of chicken, too, and I go as organic as I can afford.

What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
A little stovetop smoker. That thing is awesome.

Photo Courtesy Arena

Nick McCrory, Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC OlympicsNick McCrory, 20, diver

What’s the best nutrition advice you’ve ever received?
“Want a gold medal or an ice cream cone?”

How many calories a day do you eat?
I eat around 2,500 calories a day.

What’s your power breakfast?
I love to have scrambled eggs and yogurt for breakfast. And, of course, coffee.

Are there any foods you won’t eat?
Mayonnaise! And fast foods in general I usually try to stay away from.

What kind of junk food do you allow yourself, if you allow it?
Ice cream is my biggest weakness, but I don’t think that the occasional bowl of ice cream for dessert is necessarily too bad.

What do you eat before an event?
I usually try not to eat too much before I compete because I don't like to dive on a full stomach, especially during an event. I usually have a protein bar to give me some lasting energy and I like to snack on a little something during my event, like nuts.

What’s your biggest eating challenge?
My biggest eating challenge is whenever I am just finished with practice I always am so ravenous and can eat anything that is in front of me. Also, I don’t always crave the healthiest foods then.

Photo Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics

Natalie Coughlin, Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC OlympicsNatalie Coughlin, 29, 11-time Olympic medalist, swimmer competing as part of the USA women's 4x100-meter freestyle relay team

What will be your post-Olympics celebratory meal?
Bangers and mash.

What's it really like behind the scenes at the Olympics?
I don’t think it’s as exciting as people imagine. In reality you are resting quite a bit in your room. The rooms are kind of bare, so I bring photos to entertain myself during downtime. We spend a lot of time in the cafeteria, which is good for people-watching and a good spot to meet athletes from all over the world. I describe is as something like a college campus but not as many parties and it’s still cafeteria food.

We’ve heard your favorite way to unwind is with a post-workout mustard bath—why?
One of the things I always travel with is Dr. Singha’s Mustard Bath. It opens up the pores with aromatic oils and pulls toxins from the skin. It doesn’t smell of mustard at all, but peppermint.

You garden and raise chickens—why are those your passions?
Gardening is important to me because it allows me to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that I can’t otherwise get at the market. I have an entire bed dedicated for kale and another for herbs. It also saves me money at the grocery store.

Raising chickens is a lot easier than you would think. All they really need is shelter, some space to roam, food and water, and they give me a fresh supply of eggs constantly and provide excellent manure for my garden.

Photo Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics

Nastia Liukin, Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC OlympicsNastia Liukin, 22, a gymnast and 5-time Olympic medalist

Your mom and dad are World Champion and Olympic gymnasts. How did your upbringing influence your food philosophy?
My mom raised me to believe that you have to treat your body like an expensive car—you have to put in the most expensive fuel. My approach is to have a clean diet and eat fresh food, and eating organic is definitely important to me.

What would be the best nutrition advice you’ve ever received?
Trying to eliminate everything that is processed and that comes in packages. Living that organic lifestyle and eating clean I’ve really noticed a change in my energy level as well. Eating well is not just about being in shape it also makes you feel better.

Are there any foods that you won’t eat?
I try to stay away from multi-processed foods but, at the same time, I think to deprive yourself of something that you really want is the worst thing because then you just want it even more. So if you want a cookie, than you should have a cookie, its just, like don’t have five cookies at once. That’s kind of always been my motto: if you want a treat or something, do it.

What’s your biggest eating challenge?
Eating breakfast, because I don’t really have an appetite in the morning, especially when I’m about to start going upside down and being in a leotard. But I need to put something in my body to give myself a little bit of energy in the morning.

Photo Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics

Bryan Clay, Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC OlympicsBryan Clay, 32, a decathlete and two-time Olympic medalist

How many calories do you eat per day?
I eat around 5,500 calories a day. I’ll have a big deli turkey sandwich with oil and vinegar, extra olives and ranch dressing. People say, ‘Wow, that’s a big sandwich!’

What’s the best nutrition advice that you’ve ever received?
Before you start taking supplements, do the best job you can to get all your nutrients from your food. If I need to supplement some things I try to remember that it’s exactly that—it’s a supplement—it’s not a meal, or a meal replacement. So that’s been great advice for me and I think that’s allowed me not to get too heavily dependent on supplements and that sort of thing.

And so what are your favorite power breakfasts? You said you drink a few cups of coffee before you go to the gym in the morning but what are you eating?
Usually my typical breakfast will be a couple slices of bacon, maybe one egg over hard—and I like my bacon done extra crispy—maybe one egg over hard and a small bowl of oatmeal with a little bit of brown sugar. I usually have a small cup of orange juice and then I drink a bunch of coffee.

Photo Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics

Dara Torres, Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC OlympicsDara Torres, 45, swimmer, 12-time Olympic medalist

Describe your typical day of training.
I spend two hours in the pool, five days a week, and I weight train four days a week—two days of lower-body and core and the other two days upper-body and core. I also do resistive stretching three days a week.

How many calories would you say you consume in a day?
I have no idea. I had an eating disorder in college so I don’t count calories.

Favorite power breakfast?
Berry-flavored Living Fuel shakes with some milk and fruit are the best!

What’s changed—in terms of physical activity and eating—with age?
The biggest change is recovery. I don’t recover as quickly as I used to, so now I try to eat more foods—lean protein in particular—that help me recover quicker.

Favorite dinner or recipe?
A mixed green salad, turkey-spinach lasagna, garlic bread and green beans. My favorite cookbook is one I got in college—Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her?

Best piece of nutrition advice you’ve ever gotten?
It’s OK to have bites of food that probably aren’t the best for you because that way you won’t deprive yourself and then want more of that food.

Do you have an eating mantra you try to live by?
I eat what I want, when I want, but I exercise so I can do that.

Photo Courtesy Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Olympics (Interview by Amy Paturel)

Michelle is the digital editor for EatingWell Media Group. She puts her background in journalism to work online at EatingWell.com and in EatingWell Magazine, authoring the Good Questions interview with interesting people in the world of food and health.