Olympic Nutrition and Nutrition for Us Mortals


The summer Olympics are my favorite, have you been watching? I love it because I get to live vicariously through the athletes and imagine myself running as a Team USA marathoner or as one of the tri-athletes. Ah, one can dream right? So you know when it comes to excelling at athletics 3 things must align: genetics, nutrition and training. There’s nothing you can do to change your genetics, so when it comes to making team USA it is all about training and nutrition.
Team USA has a whole crew of registered dietitians (RD) who are also certified specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD) who track the intake of and plan the meals of all of the athletes. It is based on science because there is no room for guessing when it comes to the food and hydration necessary to fuel these athletes. Even a miniscule drop in performance can be the difference between winning the gold and finishing third or fourth in an Olympic event.
Specialized Support
There is no one-size fits all approach to nutrition. Each athlete has unique needs influenced by the demands placed on their body of their respective sport. The dietitians must ensure that the athletes eat and drink the right type of fluid and fuel at the right time and in the right amount. They also assess the needs of the athletes to see if any supplements are warranted and appropriate. Supplementation is an area that is under great scrutiny especially at this level, and only supplements that are tested to be free of banned substances are used. There are very few select supplements that are supported through research and legal in the Games, two of which are creatine and caffeine in controlled amounts. There is a published list of prohibited substances that can be found on the World-Anti Doping Website http://list.wada-ama.org/prohibited-all-times/prohibited-substances/and it includes substances such as anabolic agents, diuretics, and blood doping agents to name a few. They also break it down by sport. The IOC takes a hard stance on supplementation and doesn’t accept inadvertent doping (using a supplement that was contaminated) as an excuse. But from what I have learned from my esteemed colleagues who work with Olympic athletes, the emphasis is ALWAYS on food first and supplements second and only when necessary and where warranted. 
Hydration
Hydration is another key area for athletes. Even if an athlete is in the pool or running in cooler temps in the rain, just a mere 2% loss of body weight via sweat can mean a significant decrease in performance. At the Olympic level athletes will most likely have individualized hydration plans developed for them based on their calculated sweat rate.
Tips for Mere Mortals (myself included)
If you are outside this summer getting those workouts in despite the intense heat and humidity you will want to be certain that you following the lead of the champions and make sure you are hydrating adequately. Exercising in the heat decreases your efficiency and as you become more dehydrated you rely more heavily on your stored fuel, aka stored glycogen. This means you will tire faster due to the buildup of lactic acid (that nasty burning sensation you feel in your muscles).
If your workout is longer than 60 minutes then you will want something that includes electrolytes like a sports drink. Check the label – you want to have at least 100 mg of sodium, 30 mg of potassium, and 14 g of carbohydrate per 8 ounce serving. If you prefer electrolyte chews, they generally have more carbohydrates and less sodium but are still a good choice. Wash them down with at least 8-12 ounces of water. Electrolytes are important for fluid balance and for allowing nerve impulses to travel throughout the body. When we take a look at food sources of these minerals we find that sodium is most commonly found combined with chloride, in what we call table salt. Generally speaking, our bodies are very good at regulating our electrolyte balance. If you are not out exercising in the heat and eat a lot of processed foods then you might get too much sodium and too little potassium. But if you are out there sweating it out, then you may need a bit more salt and just about everyone could use more potassium.
The Daily Value for sodium for adults is 2400 mg, about the amount in one teaspoon of table salt. Take a look at your food labels to gauge your intake. You can also check to see if you are a heavy sweater by looking at your workout clothes for some white lines which are actually the salt from your sweat If you aren’t getting enough your body will trigger a salt craving. The Daily Value for potassium is 4000 mg and one banana has 400 mg, which means you need to be diligent about getting your fruits and vegetables every day. Good sources of potassium include fresh fruits and vegetables like spinach, kale, oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, dried beans, honeydew, bananas, and cantaloupe.
Make sure you are getting at least the minimum amount of sodium in your diet and to increase your potassium aim for at least 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
Now back to the Games!