By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD
What does it take to fuel the strength, speed, endurance and grace of the athletes we see on TV? It takes years of training to obtain a coveted spot on an Olympic team, and sports dietitians are part of that team—helping to propel athletes to achieve the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger).
For athletes, nutrition is one leg of a three-legged stool. Genetic endowment coupled with sport-specific training and coaching cannot stand on their own without proper food and fluid intake.
Registered dietitians are finding creative ways to feed athletes to help them get the most out of their training. Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior United States Olympic Committee (USOC) sport dietitian, provides nutrition coaching for team sports including volleyball, beach volleyball, water polo, field hockey, rugby and archery. Many of her athletes focus on achieving and maintaining lean body mass to have the endurance, agility and skill they need. "I find that blanket nutrition recommendations are not always helpful, as different athletes on the same team have different nutritional needs," Dolan says. "The field hockey goalie is different from a midfielder who might run several miles during a match, so altering dietary intake based on physiological demands of the position is important."
Athletes and their nutrition needs can differ significantly from the general public's (recall gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps’ 8,000- to 10,000-calorie-per-day diet while training for the 2008 Olympics). The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) 2010 Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition recommends athletes eat enough carbohydrate-rich foods to maximize muscle glycogen stores before training and competition and replenish the stores after hard exercise. The timing of protein intake can promote muscle protein synthesis.
Jennifer Gibson, MSc, RD, IOC Dip Sport Nutr, USOC's sport dietitian for acrobat and combat sports, works with athletes who compete in weight class sports: judo, taekwondo, boxing and wrestling. A former competitive kickboxer, Gibson knows the culture of the sport in which dropping weight by any means—no matter how it might negatively affect performance and health—is often seen as a necessary evil. Gibson starts by explaining to her athletes the physiology of weight cutting and yo-yo dieting and the "negative effects of dehydration and starvation" on performance.
Working with each athlete, she develops a "body weight code of conduct" to identify the competition weight weeks before the event, so weight loss can be done in a healthful way. She uses a two-phase approach; in the first phase, athletes are given a target calorie goal and encouraged to “eat to energy needs" while at the same time stressing a good hydration plan. In the second phase, the last three or four days before weigh-in, athletes are advised to reduce fiber intake and increase aerobic exercise to help drop the last couple of pounds to make weight.
Athletes often drink low-residue liquid meal replacements to reduce fecal bulk while at the same time getting all the nutrients they need. After the weigh-in, Gibson starts an aggressive rehydration plan, but sticks to low-fiber foods to ease the gastrointestinal tract back into action. "[The athletes] are not starving for the three or four days before competition so they feel better and have the energy and nutrients they need to perform at their best," says Gibson.
Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, president of NutriFit Sports Therapy Inc. and nutrition consultant to United States Tennis Association Player Development, helps prepare future Olympians to take the court. Love helps athletes make healthful food choices and develop sound on-court hydration plans. Heat illness is one of the most common sports medical issues and it is completely preventable.
"Matches can be quite long—three to four hours with five sets—so they need more than fluids. I encourage them to eat high-carbohydrate energy bars, gels and bananas, in addition to high-carbohydrate sport drinks with packets of electrolytes to help them replace on-court losses," says Love.
Athletes seek every edge they can get, and proper nutrition can help provide it. "Good food choices will not a make a mediocre athlete into a champion," says Ron Maughan, professor of sport and exercise science at Loughborough University, U.K., chair of the sports nutrition group of the IOC Medical Commission, "but poor food choices may prevent the potential champion from realizing his or her potential."
Reviewed April 2013
Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD, is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University athletics and editor-in-chief of The Academy and SCAN's Sports Nutrition: A Manual for Professionals (5th ed.), and was an enthusiastic volunteer at the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta, Ga.