Back in 2008, when we were first introduced to the then–23-year-old merman Michael Phelps, what fascinated us as much as his mastery of water was his monstrous appetite. As the New York Post pointed out, during his week and a half of competition in Beijing, Phelps ate roughly 12,000 calories a day.
That's six times what the “average person” is supposed to consume. But it also made sense. Phelps swam competitively 17 times that year, expending more energy than the average person does over a week or two. Athletes are simply working with food differently from us normal folk.
“When athletes think of food, they don't think of it like we do,” says Becci Twombley, director of sports nutrition at USC. “Just as there's no good or bad tool in the toolbox — a hammer is not better than a saw, and a carb is not better than a protein, a protein is not better than a fat.”
To athletes, it's input and output, and depending on their sport and their goals within the competition, their consumption varies dramatically. “When we calculate how much an athlete needs, we do a body composition to see how much muscle they have,” Twombley explains. “Muscle is going to consume calories throughout their training, so we need to find out how much they require.” If the athlete wants to add or subtract mass, he adjusts accordingly.
“You might have a [shot put] thrower that needs to gain 20 pounds over the course of the year, so you're going to feed them more than what they need to maintain that weight.” But throwing a shot put is not just about who's the biggest, and so the diet needs to account for that. “Their sport requires a lot of balance, a good power-to-weight ratio,” Twombley says. “As opposed to an offensive lineman, who only needs to move in a small space.”
So the diet for the shot putter is going to be about 5,000 calories a day, split up between five or six meals a day. That is going to include about 30 grams of protein every three hours, no matter if it's midseason or during competition. “Throwers are going to lift the same amount regardless of whether they're throwing, because it's part of their training and prep,” Twombley says, “whereas a gymnast is trying to be extremely efficient with all their calories.”
To throw out a theoretical, let's say our gymnast is 5 feet tall, 125 pounds, and has 12 percent body fat (like your intrepid author, certainly). She is going to need roughly 25 to 30 calories per kilogram of body weight during training days. “They're going to eat more along the lines of 1,800 and 2,200 calories during the Olympics,” Twombley says. “They're not trying to bulk up, just repair and put back in what they used that day.”
Gymnasts also are going to eat about five or six meals a day, which is standard operating procedure for a lot of athletes. “Our bodies don't like to be freaked out,” Twombley says. “There's a certain way they like to burn calories. A thrower or gymnast still needs to eat five times a day, even if [for the gymnast] the portion size is smaller. But the ratio of protein to carb is going to be the same, versus, say, a marathon runner.”
Like swimmers, marathon runners use up so many calories during competition that their diets differ from other types of competitors. “A thrower or gymnast might have a ratio of three grams of carbs to one gram of protein, but a runner is going to have four grams of carbs to one gram of protein,” per Twombley. That's an average throughout the day, each meal slightly different from the last. Before a race, a runner may shift to a 10-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio to get boosted energy; after a race, that may go down to 1-to-1.
Of course, this information is all faulty because everyone is different, meaning every diet is different. To get a little more specific, let's take a real-life example: UCLA graduate Nicholas Scarvelis, who is competing in the shot put for Greece in this year's Olympics. (While Scarvelis graduated last year, and his current weight is very likely different from his time at UCLA, he used his listed stats of 6 feet, 1 inch, and 250 pounds.)
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“With that weight, he'd eat 4,000 calories a day,” says Beth Miller, director of sports nutrition at UCLA, who previously worked with Scarvelis. “That would be 190 grams of protein, 700 grams of carbs, 300 grams of fat, 100 grams of fat.”
That's for him to maintain weight and muscle, not for an offseason training regimen, where he'd change his routine. While, as Miller says, “there's a time and place for protein shakes,” Scarvelis' meals would center around whole grains, lean protein and colorful fruits and vegetables to get him to the thresholds.
If you want to get a sense of what it's like to eat as an Olympian, Team USA's Athlete's Plate fact sheet has meals for easy, moderate and hard training sessions, as well as tips on hydration intake, caffeine and altitude changes.
You'll also see the caloric intake of all alcoholic beverages. The big takeaway from that is, well, there's good reason you never see an Olympian drinking a Long Island iced tea.