“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.”
Secrets of the Pros
“You’re only as good as your last meal.”
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.