London Calling: Sports Dietitians Are Helping Prepare World-Class Athletes for Olympics

The last time London hosted the Olympic Games was in 1948, when 4,104 athletes from 59 nations competed in 17 sports. Fast-forward to July 2012, and there will be 10,500 athletes from 204 countries in London competing in 26 sports  About 600 athletes will represent Team USA and the United State Olympic Committee  is sending more sports dietitians to London than to any previous Olympics.

For athletes, nutrition has been described as one leg of a three-legged stool. Genetic endowment coupled with sport-specific training and coaching cannot stand on their own without proper food and fluid intake. In recent years a shift has taken place in nutrition tactics in fueling athletes.

“There has been a shift toward looking for ways in which nutrition can promote the adaptations that take place in tissues in response to the training stimulus,” says Ron Maughan, professor of sport and exercise science at Loughborough University, U.K., chair of the sports nutrition group of the International Olympic Committee  Medical Commission.

Registered dietitians are finding creative ways to feed athletes to help them get the most out of their training. Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior USOC sport dietitian, provides nutrition coaching for team sports including volleyball, beach volleyball, water polo, field hockey, rugby and archery. Many of her athletes focus on achieving and maintaining lean body mass to have the endurance, agility and skill they need. “I find that blanket nutrition recommendations are not always helpful, as different athletes on the same team have different nutritional needs,” Dolan says. “The field hockey goalie is different from a midfielder who might run several miles during a match, so altering dietary intake based on physiological demands of the position is important.”

Athletes and their nutrition needs can differ significantly from the general public’s (recall gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps’ 8,000- to 10,000-calorie-per-day diet while in training for the 2008 Olympics). The IOC’s 2010 Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition recommends athletes eat enough carbohydrate-rich foods to maximize muscle glycogen stores before training and competition and replenish the stores after hard exercise. Protein needs for athletes are higher than for sedentary individuals and the timing of protein intake can promote muscle protein synthesis.

Dolan advises athletes to eat a mixed snack of protein and carbohydrate after a hard workout – a challenge for athletes who travel. “We want to make sure our athletes maintain muscle mass when they travel for competition and we help them these snacks even when the choices at the competition site are limited.”

Jennifer Gibson, MSc, RD, IOC Dip Sport Nutr, USOC’s sport dietitian for acrobat and combat sports, works with athletes who compete in weight class sports: judo, taekwondo, boxing and wrestling. A former competitive kickboxer, Gibson knows the culture of the sport in which dropping weight by any means – no matter how it might negatively affect performance and health – is often seen as a necessary evil. Gibson starts by explaining to her athletes the physiology of weight cutting and yo-yo dieting and the “negative effects of dehydration and starvation” on performance.

Working with each athlete, she develops a “body weight code of conduct” to identify the competition weight weeks before the event, so weight loss can be done in a healthful way. She uses a two-phase approach; in the first phase, athletes are given a target calorie goal and encouraged to “eat to energy needs” while at the same time stressing a good hydration plan. In the second phase, the last three or four days before weigh-in, athletes are advised to reduce fiber intake and increase aerobic exercise to help drop the last couple of pounds to make weight.

Athletes often drink low-residue liquid meal replacements to reduce fecal bulk while at the same time getting all the nutrients they need. After the weigh-in, Gibson starts an aggressive rehydration plan, but sticks to low-fiber foods to ease the gastrointestinal tract back into action. Gibson says athletes have been receptive to her new approach to making weight. “They are not starving for the three or four days before competition so they feel better and have the energy and nutrients they need to perform at their best.”

Working with elite athletes at the USOC has its advantages. High-tech equipment is used to monitor athletes and provide feedback about nutritional strategies. Gibson uses dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA) to assess and monitor body composition as well as taking core body temperatures to monitor safety of the athletes. Dolan also analyzes body composition with skin folds and monitors blood sugar and assesses hydration needs for athletes.

Dolan educates athletes about the need for carbohydrate and hydration not just for physical health and performance but because being properly hydrated and having a normal blood sugar also affects cognition and focus. “It is challenging to get water polo athletes to drink enough fluids when they are in the pool as their water bottles are poolside and they spend most of their time in the middle of the pool.”

Page Love, MS, RD, CSSD, president of NutriFit Sports Therapy Inc. and nutrition consultant to United States Tennis Association Player Development, helps prepare future Olympians to take the court. In London, tennis will be played at historic Wimbledon, site of the longest match in history: John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played 11 hours over three days in 2010.

Love helps athletes at the USTA regional training centers make healthful food choices and develop sound on-court hydration plans. Heat illness is one of the most common sports medical issues and it is completely preventable.

“That 11-hour match was very unusual, although men’s matches can be quite long – three to four hours with five sets – so they need more than fluids. I encourage them to eat high-carbohydrate energy bars, gels and bananas, in addition to high-carbohydrate sport drinks with packets of electrolytes to help them replace on-court losses,” says Love.

“Tennis players tend to pay attention to on-court hydration but frequently don’t drink enough fluids the rest of the day.” Love provides education, demonstrations and web-based content to help athletes prepare for training and competition.

“Elite-level athletes realize nutrition plays a vital role in every aspect of their performance, including conditioning, training, recovery and health,” says Michele Macedonio, MS, RD, CSSD, director of Sports Dietetics-USA, a subunit of SCAN. Consequently, many seek the counsel of credentialed sports nutrition experts, especially registered dietitians who are Board Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics, bearing the RD and CSSD credentials.

Athletes seek every edge they can get, and proper nutrition can help provide it. “Good food choices will not a make a mediocre athlete into a champion,” Maughan says, “but poor food choices may prevent the potential champion from realizing his or her potential.”

Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD, is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University athletics and editor-in-chief of The Academy and SCAN’s Sports Nutrition: A Manual for Professionals (5th ed.), and was an enthusiastic volunteer at the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta, Ga.

Nutrition, Islam and the Olympics

More than 3,000 Muslim athletes will participate in the Olympic Games and this year, Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, will coincide with the competition. (Olympic Games are July 27-August 12 and Ramadan is July 20-August 18). Food or fluid intake is allowed only before sunrise and after sunset which could impair athletic performance. Athletes may choose to postpone the fast until after the Games to perform at their best. A recent article in the Journal of Clinical Sports Medicine studied athletes running middle distances (5000 meters) while fasting and found changes in muscular performance and oxygen kinetics could affect performance during middle-distance events. Sports dietitians working with athletes who fast for Ramadan can help provide the right balance of energy and nutrients before sunrise and after sunset.

Olympic Nutrition On the Road

All elite athletes face food challenges when traveling. Nanna Meyer, PhD, RD, CSSD, Senior Sports Dietitian for the United States Olympic Committee, breaks down the travel issues into four buckets:

  • food and water safety
  • long travel with multiple time zone changes
  • climate changes
  • meal logistics

“We provide our athletes and coaches with information, education, and tools to help them achieve peak performance at the competition,” says Meyer. Unsafe food or water, dehydration from long flights, or improper acclimatization to extreme environmental challenges can derail an athlete’s quest for a medal. To prepare, Meyer with her team of USOC sports dietitians developed a travel nutrition strategies pyramid to guide athletes and coaches through the various scenarios they might face when travelling.

“At the top of the pyramid is the ideal situation, the sports dietitian travels with the team, but that cannot always happen so we want them to be prepared to face every challenge when they travel.”  Meyer describes the traveling sports dietitian as a “Culinary MacGyver” who has to be ready for any eventuality to feed athletes, including working with not always cooperative hotel chefs to finding propane to cook on hot plates. The end result is worth it if it means a well fed athlete who is prepared for competition.

Christine Rosenbloom
Christine Rosenbloom, PHD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She has more than 30 years of experience in nutrition, with specialties in sports nutrition and gerontology.