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Olympic nutrition


Going for the Gold takes the proper fuel supply!  About Nutrition Guide, Rick Hall interviews Sean on a daily diet for competition.

Courtesy of About Nutrition Guide, Rick Hall and Sean O'Neill

Rick: Sean, with the Olympics upon us, can you tell me about your training schedule when you were competing full time?

Sean: Sure, Rick. Let me tell you about a typical training day when I lived at the US Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs.

Usually, I would wake up around 6 a.m. and go for a 3 mile run around the lake at Memorial park. The run would be followed by some stretching exercises and a shower, before heading to the cafeteria at the OTC. After breakfast, the team would get ready for our morning 2.5 hour workout on the ping-pong tables. We would focus on consistency and footwork drills as well as game situation patterns. We finished up by 12 noon and went right to lunch.

A 2-3 hour rest period followed in which athletes did home work, if they were in school, laundry (we go through T-shirts like mad), or maybe watched ESPN's Sports Center on the large screen TVs. I'd grab some fruit to take back with me to the dorms for an afternoon snack.

The evening session was from 4-7 p.m. More drills and games amongst the team members. Often, we would do a drill called "multi-ball". In this drill, the coach has a bucket of 200-300 ping-pong balls. The coach rapidly feeds the balls to the player in either random or predefined locations on the table (depending on the drill). Quite aerobic! After the evening session, some of the athletes would head for the weight room for some cardio (Stairmaster) or light free weights. Afterwards, some stretching and one more stop at the mess hall before showering and bed.

Rick: Were the athletes ever seen by a nutritionist for the purpose of individualizing your diet?

Sean: Yes. When I lived at the Olympic Training Center, we had a full-time nutritionist, Judy Nelson. We were asked to track our caloric intake for 3 days at the beginning of the year and then submit the results to her for a computerized analysis. In addition to the analysis, the Olympic Training Center had very helpful placards above all the buffet items which listed the nutritional values. It turned out I was consuming 4000-5000 calories a day! If I didn't eat that amount, I would lose weight. I wish I could say the same today!

Rick: Let's talk about your individual needs. What types of foods did you try to increase or decrease?

Sean: Judy told to me that my first goal should be to eat well-rounded meals that balanced the major food groups, and then I could snack. With that strategy, I typically ate: fruits and cereals for breakfast, carbos and pasta for lunch, (more fruits for snacks), and protein for dinner. Since I had a sweet tooth and the Mars Company (Snickers, M&M's, Twix,...) was an Olympic sponsor at the time, I would have some of our sponsor's products to get some extra calories to keep my engine running.

During tournaments, I would always take extra fruit (mostly bananas) and water to keep me operating at my optimal level.

Rick: Sounds like they started you off in the right direction. Was it hard to find healthy foods you were familiar with in the other countries you visited? Did the team bring it's own food?

Sean: It is funny you asked that, because it was indeed a tough problem in some of the third-world countries we visited. In India, I remember living off of a bag of Nestle Crunches for a week since their cuisine and my stomach didn't get along. At the Pan American Games in Havana, we were fed steak at each meal! I guess it was to impress us they had cows there! Generally we did bring some food with us, but it was more our favorite snacks.

Rick: Were Olympians encouraged/discouraged from taking vitamin supplements? How well was this controlled? Did you have a list of supplements that were/were not allowed?

Sean: Our dietitian didn't suggest I take vitamin supplements, since she felt I was getting an adequate balance in my daily diet. One of the biggest challenges for the athletes is making sure not to ingest any banned substances when we eat or drink. The list of what you can't put in your system is longer than the list of what you can put in. At the Games, we were warned never to drink out of an opened container and to keep an eye on our plates of food.

Rick: Interesting challenges you faced. Nestle Crunches certainly wouldn't be on my list of expected 'power foods' for Olympic athletes, but neither would foreign foods that could result in potential digestive discomfort. That said, beyond fruits and vegetables, were you encouraged to eat any specific food types? Say carbohydrate-rich starchy foods to replenish glycogen storage?

Sean: I don't remember if I was specifically told, but usually I was a meatless spaghetti lover the week of all tournaments.

Rick: Lastly, considering the environmental challenges and availability of food -- what tips/recommendations would you have for future athletes going into major competition?

Sean: Don't get too nervous if your favorite meal isn't on the menu; your opponent is probably having the exact same problem. When in doubt, drink more fluid to keep your level of hydration at a maximum.

Rick: Sounds like our Olympians in Australia have some unique challenges. Hopefully, competitors from around the world are finding adequate foods full of healthy vitamins and minerals in Australia. Outback Bushfoods like 'lemon myrtle' and 'wattleseed' might be a little foreign to those who aren't accustomed to these traditional foods. The Australian Nutrition Foundation offers their own food composition tables that coaches, athletes, and team nutritionists can refer to.

Keeping well-nourished certainly will contribute to optimal performance. Although each athlete will have specific individual needs, sport nutrition recommendations are similar in many cases. Endurance athletes require optimum glycogen storage that can be maximized by consuming appropriate amounts of complex carbohydrates. Additionally, fuel sources during events (like the triathlon) may be needed. Quality lipid and protein sources should be consumed regularly for athletes of any event.

According to Dr. Bill Misner, competitive athletes should aim for 10-12 fruits and vegetables per day, ingest plenty of carbohydrates, consider protein supplements, and consume sources of omega-3 fatty acids (like fish).

Every sports nutritionist agrees that the primary nutritional concern for athletes during events is hydration. Not only will poor hydration hinder optimum performance, it can also lead to serious medical problems, in severe cases.

Courtesy of About.com


Last Update : 06 November, 2002

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