In August 2016, Rio de Janeiro will become the first South American city to host the Olympic Games. 10,500 athletes from 205 countries will flood the city with amazing energy along with countless patriotic sporting enthusiasts from around the globe.
With the Rio Olympics just around the corner, American athletes and coaches will frequently turn to the five sport dietitians on the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in the quadrennial quest for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” This team of dietitians focuses on service, education, science-based research and today’s best practices to provide the highest level of nutritional support to American Olympians. USOC dietitians play an important role in ensuring our athletes’ meet their needs on and off the field and during travel periods. The dietitians are frequently working alongside food service managers in order to serve up delicious, nutritious, performance-enhancing menus.
US Olympic swimming and track and field athletes go to Alicia Kendig, MS, RD, CSSD. She joined the USOC as a registered sport dietitian in 2011 and has helped athletes of all ages, levels and backgrounds achieve their personal performance goals. Kendig holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Here, we pick her brain on how the Olympians eat:
FoodInsight: How do Olympic athletes eat 7,000+ calories every day in a nutritious way?
Alicia Kendig, MS, RD, CSSD: Not just one strategy will work for everyone. I create a plan by first asking what their current eating habits are, then determine what parts of their training days they can improve. These areas could be:
- The timing of meals and snacks (are they eating enough?);
- Sport nutrition practices during training or recovery (do they need to include fueling into hard training days?); and
- Are they eating nutrient dense enough foods? (Not all high calorie foods are bad! High-fat snacks like avocados, nuts, fish, and peanut butter can help to achieve their energy intake goals).
Also, I recommend that they drink some of their calories in the form of smoothies and heavier soups. Liquids are easier to get down and digest and can be an easy way to get 300-400 calories on the go.
FI: Timing of fueling prior to competition is crucial, but what does an athlete do if their appetite is “off” leading up to an event?
AK: The stomach can be trained. I introduce the idea of performance fueling during heavy training, so that they can incorporate a nutrition strategy on race day that’s not new or distracting. Also, if they have a nervous stomach, I work with the athlete to find easy to digest foods that they feel comfortable eating. Many athletes think they need to consume larger meals to get enough fuel, but often it’s not as much as they think. I start small, and work up to reasonable.
FI: How do you determine the proper number of calories to an individual athlete?
AK: This can be a bit of trial and error. I have the luxury of the athlete coming to me and I have access to our Sport Science facility. I can test their Resting Metabolic Rate (the amount of calories they need on a daily basis to support normal bodily functions at rest)—that’s a great place to start. Then I add on lifestyle factors calories, and then the calories that I estimate they burn in training. That is, as I mentioned, a luxury. Often I work with athletes out in the field, or in their own training facilities or at competitions. In those cases I have to estimate their calorie needs. The wearable technology has come a long way in the last couple of years to help estimate calorie expenditure in athletes’ daily training, but it’s still not perfect. These estimations are usually exaggerated because the elite athlete is more “efficient” in their disciplines compared to the average person.
FI: How often do Olympic athletes prepare meals for themselves?
AK: On the Olympic level I see a wide range of comfort and experience in the kitchen. Some veteran athletes have been out of the university system and away from home long enough that they have picked up survival skills. Some have really taken an interest in food and cooking, and they could be exploring new and sophisticated recipes and food preparations. The other factor is convenience. Elite training athletes are exhausted after a long day or training or travel, and the last thing they want to do is prepare a meal.
FI: Can you take us behind-the-scenes of the U.S. Olympic Training Center athlete-teaching kitchen?
AK: Our recently opened state of the art Sport Science facility includes a nutrition-specific area that we’ve named the “Teaching Kitchen.” Our objective is to get our highest performing athletes into the kitchen, teaching them the basics of cooking and food preparation in a fun and encouraging manner. We teach basic knife skills and heating methods, all the way up to preparing a full nutrient-dense pre-game meal for a team. We also teach travel nutrition skills and ideas to better prepare athletes that travel internationally for a large chunk of the year. The space can accommodate up to 16-20 athletes comfortably at a time which encourages teamwork and relationship building. We have also recently added a fresh herb garden, to utilize for recipes but also educate on growing their own vegetable plants and herbs.
FI: What do you find most surprising about working with Olympic athletes and their diets?
AK: Many athletes, although they know how important nutrition is to recovery and performance, have limitations in their lifestyle or budget that keeps them from eating in the way they would like to. Some athletes are living on a limited budget while pursuing the Olympic dream. Other athletes have jam-packed training and travel schedules that limits their ability to shop for and prepare meals. Our jobs as sport dietitians is to find the middle ground, figure out more convenient methods, and educate on how to eat healthy meals/snacks that are realistically achievable.
FI: With Rio next year, are you using any novel techniques to improve nutrition for the athletes?
AK: It’s about this time of the year that we start looking for the cutting edge “tricks of the trade”…the magic bullet, that will unlock the true talent and potential of our hard working athletes. Check back after Rio. Until then we’re holding these cards close to our chests!
FI: If we were to see a headline about athlete nutrition and dietitians during the Rio Olympics, how would it read?
AK: USOC RDs work tirelessly as the ‘team behind the team’ to fuel Team USA with nutrient-dense foods. Our jobs on the ground at an Olympic games is to resourcefully give our Team USA athletes an “at home advantage” while eliminating distractions.
Athletes are always looking for a leg up on the competition. USOC dietitians provide that “golden” edge to our Olympians.
This blog was written by Emily Kaley RDE, Sport Nutrition Graduate Student at University of Colorado – Colorado Springs.