If you’re anything like me, you’ve been glued to the TV night after night cheering on team USA in the 2012 Summer Olympics. As a gymnast for over 18 years, I have always lived an athletic life, which gives me a lot of perspective on the amount of dedication, determination and hard work these athletes put into their sports. As a dietitian, I can also speak to the importance of nutrition for optimizing performance.
Sure, most athletes—even Olympians—indulge from time to time, but you may be surprised to know that some really simple foods provide pretty amazing performance benefits. Here’s a peek at some of the foods our Olympic athletes nosh on day after day. As you’ll see, most provide more than just calories, fat and protein.
Hydration is essential for all athletes, particularly in the summer months. In addition to water, pro athletes achieve maximum hydration by consuming foods that are rich in water, too.
• Applesauce: At the last Olympic Games, 6,000 tubes of applesauce were distributed to the 750 U.S. Olympic athletes and 250 coaches as they boarded their flights to China. Applesauce will definitely replenish your fluids, just be sure to stick with the natural, unsweetened stuff.
• Veggies: Most vegetables are a great source of water, though some can really hydrate. With 95 percent water by weight, zucchini is one of the most hydrating vegetables you can eat and an excellent source of folate, potassium, and vitamins A and C. Many athletes nosh on salads with lean proteins like chicken, fish and beans.
Leg cramps can cripple an athlete, so preventing them is essential to performing at peak potential.
• Nuts and dried fruit: Almonds are a great source of magnesium, and when combined with the potassium in dried fruit, these snacks can combat even the most intense cramping. Olympic gold medal gymnast, Shawn Johnson, reportedly carried KIND nut and fruit bars on her at all times to snack on and ward off cramps. Dried fruits and nuts are also easily portable and nutrient dense, which makes them a perfect snack for travel.
• Bananas, raisins and apricots: Bananas and dried fruits provide rich sources of potassium, combating mineral deficiencies that lead to cramping.
Replenishing and Refueling
Food choices both before and after workouts can make or break energy levels.
• Milk: Olympic gold medalist Dara Torres drinks chocolate milk after workouts. Chocolate milk is the perfect combination of carbohydrates and protein to replenish glycogen stores and rebuild muscles. Some high-level athletes will actually eat ice cream for the extra calories and sugar.
Making the Final Push
To get that final surge of energy to cross the finish line, loading up on carbohydrates is key. A burst of sugar will often do the trick.
• Jelly Beans: Many runners will pop a few of these in their mouths as they near the finish line for a surge of pure sugar that provides immediate energy.
• Beet juice: Beetroot juice is purported to increase stamina by increasing the nitric acid in the body, which reduces the energy requirements of muscles. Olympic marathoner, Ryan Hall, found beetroot juice to be the solution to his chronic fatigue.
• Honey sticks: Like jelly beans, honey provides immediate energy as it is an easily digestible carbohydrate. Fun fact: Our own Philadelphia Phillies snack on honey sticks for a mid-game energy boost.
Katie Cavuto Boyle is a registered dietitian, chef, and owner of Healthy Bites Delivery. She also pens Be Well Philly’s Cheat Sheet series, offering tips for what to order at Philly’s best restaurants.