Once upon a time, some pro athletes were notoriously bad eaters. But it didn’t seem to matter because they incinerated calories training and racing. Take Michael Phelps, for instance. During the 2008 Olympics, NBC broadcast his supposed 12,000-calorie a day diet much to the jealous horror of everyone watching. Breakfast alone seemed like a binge of epic proportions: three fried-egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, and mayonnaise, an omelet, a bowl of grits, three slices of French toast with powdered sugar, and three chocolate-chip pancakes. His dinner, The New York Post and Wall Street Journal reported, was a pound of pasta and an entire pizza.
Fast-forward eight years, and Phelps has had a diet makeover. Going into Rio, he told viewers in a recent Facebook Live session, he doesn’t eat many calories a day—just what he really needs. In the background of the video, the Washington Post pointed out, Phelps’ housemate and training partner was “making a cucumber, tomato and asparagus salad…to go along with the chicken Phelps ended up tossing on the grill.”
Phelps isn’t the only athlete who’s undergone a diet overhaul in the past several years. Even veteran NBA players who were known for pre-game indulgences like pepperoni pizza and grape soda have cut those things out in favor of lean meats and veggies. And if our poll of five elite athletes in calorie-destroying sports is any indication, the days of athletes letting loose on pasta and junk food are gone. Their bodies are highly tuned, and nobody’s fueling with regular gas.
Without further ado, we present the oddly normal splurges of elite triathletes, an Olympic track cyclist, and a record-setting ultramarathoner. Warning: Reading this may cause personal diet anxiety.
Bobby Lea, 32, 2x Olympian in track cycling who’s headed to Rio
“If it’s been a pretty good run of training, and it’s a hot day, then a really good cold beer after the workout just tastes so good,” Lea says. “I’m a Pennsylvania guy, so a Yuengling lager out of the bottle is as good as it gets.” He’s not opposed to having a beer whenever, but when he ramps up training and gets close to a competition, he says, he pulls “back on the throttle so it becomes more of a treat.”
Don’t get to thinking his only vice is a cold beer on a hot day. Lea adds that he’s fond of ice cream. But nothing crazy like downing a Vermonster solo. “I’ve got a really great ice cream joint just down the street from my house. A trip down to Herman’s Drive-In definitely falls into the treat category,” he says. His favorite chocolate ice cream is truly a treat, though. “Maybe I only pull the trigger on that one a couple of times a summer.”
Michael Wardian, ultramarathoner
If anyone has an excuse to eat whatever he wants, it’s Wardian, who recently completed three 100-milers in six weeks, placing first at the final event on June 18. But Wardian, who’s been a vegetarian since 1995, says he doesn’t really stray from his healthy diet, no matter how many hundos he runs in a row. “I weigh myself every day and try to be pretty cognizant of my food choices,” he says.
His splurge? “It used to be ice cream, but now I don’t eat ice cream,” he says. “So it ends up being a big, massive almond butter sandwich—almond butter on super, incredible fresh bread if I can get it.” He’s recently been eating olive bread with almond ginger butter, “really raw honey, and a nice banana. It’s kind of like an Elvis. I eat that all the time, but that’s been my go-to recovery treat.”
If that doesn’t count, he offers, he also likes to get Thai food. “Pad see ew with tofu and vegetables, and thick noodles.” And then there’s fresh fruit. He can easily down two pints of blackberries, he says. “And if I can get it, a fresh coconut—the kind where they machete it.”
Elite triathletes Molly Higgins, Rodrigo “Troy” Romero, and Felipe Mora
We caught up with these guys after an intense 1.5-hour swim-bike-swim-bike-swim workout in which they swam more than 4,000 yards and biked a little over half an hour hard. They hadn’t eaten anything yet post-workout, so if there was ever a time to dream about food, this was it.
Outside: If you were going to splurge on something food-wise, what do you go for?
Mora: Splurge, it means what?
Higgins: Like if you want to eat something that’s not healthy.
Mora: Oh, that’s so easy. A burger. Five Guys.
Higgins: Ice cream.
Outside: Do you have a favorite flavor?
Higgins: Ummm. [long pause]
Romero: It’s not that favorite if you have to think so much!
Higgins: Okay, chocolate chip cookie dough.
Romero: I will get pretzels with yogurt.
Outside: When do you usually get them?
Romero: When I want them.
Mora: I try to take care of myself a couple of months before my ‘A’ race.
Romero: No, when I want them after a hard training session, it’s better. To keep my mind focused. Like okay, that was hard, so I can eat it.
Outside: What’s so wonderful about yogurt-covered pretzels? What about these foods makes you want them?
Higgins: Ice cream is just cold and sweet and a great treat for after a race. That’s usually the go-to. But right after a race, I get Mexican food, actually—lots of salt.
Outside: Burritos? Tacos?
Higgins: Tacos, tortilla chips. Maybe a margarita.
And that’s as bad as it gets: maybe a margarita.