Active Voice: Getting Enough and On Time: Nutrition Strategies for Olympic Athletes

By Dan Benardot, Ph.D., RD, LD, FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

Dan Benardot, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., FACSM, is director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University in Atlanta, where he holds the rank of professor in both the departments of nutrition and of kinesiology and health. Dr. Benardot was the national team nutritionist for USA Gymnastics for the four years leading up to and including the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. In addition, he served as nutritionist for the USA marathoners at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and was national team nutritionist for U.S. Figure Skating from 2005-2015. Dr. Benardot was co-author of ACSM’s 1993 position statement on nutrition and athletic performance and also was a reviewer for the 2009 and 2016 ACSM joint position statements on this same topic.

Satisfying Nutrition Needs at the Olympic Games
It wouldn’t surprise anyone that there are sport-specific nutrition needs that would require boxers to eat differently than cyclists, and marathoners to eat differently than gymnasts. There also are clearly different individual nutrition requirements within each sport that also must be met. Over the years leading up to the Rio Games, through individual evaluations by national sport governing bodies and U.S. Olympic Center-associated registered dietitians, USA Olympic athletes have been taught what it takes to satisfy personal nutrition requirements to facilitate optimal performance. Satisfying athlete nutritional requirements at the Games takes logistical planning, coordination with sport venues and constant monitoring. Careful attention to these issues will assure that the dynamic relationship between the intensity of Olympic-level physical activity and nutrition is satisfied. Importantly, US Olympic athletes have learned that the desire to win must be matched with the desire to do the right things nutritionally.

Adapting to the Rio Games. The Rio Games represent a new environment that is likely to be multiple time zones away from home. Athletes require approximately one day per time zone shift for adaptation in order to allow for normal eating and sleeping habits to return. Getting athletes to the Games in time for this adaptation is critical for avoiding performance issues. Even adapting to the Olympic dining hall in Rio may take some time. It is double the size of a football field with cuisines to satisfy Asian, European, American, Halal, Kosher and Brazilian, as well as other food desires. While basic nutritional information on each food selection is provided (calories, protein, carbohydrate, fat and sodium), the size of the dining hall and number of eating options require familiarization and the self-control to consume foods and beverages that are both needed and familiar. In some cases, sports governing bodies provide off-campus housing with trained chefs who have coordinated with registered dietitians to more easily satisfy the nutritional needs of athletes.

Adapting nutrition strategies to the environment. Exercise in a hot environment results in greater sweat volumes and glycogen utilization than exercise in cooler environments. Athletes, therefore, must learn to drink more of the right fluid at the right times to sustain both blood volume and blood glucose. Failure to satisfy these needs prematurely results in both muscular and mental fatigue – with associated performance deficits. Temperature shifts in Rio may be 10oF or higher than in the home environments for many of these athletes (from predicted highs ranging from 72oF to 84oF or more). These conditions will require adaptation and planning for athletes competing outdoors and assurance that optimal fluids are readily available and consumed appropriately.

Timing of consumption is critically important. The rules “never get hungry, never get thirsty” are well-established in Olympic athletes. Hunger and thirst may be signs of low blood glucose and poor hydration, which are predictors of premature fatigue. Competition stress may result in a faster drop in blood glucose and blood volume, requiring an appropriate eating/drinking strategy to avoid a negative performance impact. Athletes also should have appropriate foods/beverages readily available for pre- and post-competition. This is especially important at the Olympic Games, where competitions in multiple preliminary events are needed for advancement to medal rounds. The goals are to assure optimal glycogen storage (both muscle and liver), maintenance of the immune system through the consumption of sufficient energy and anti-oxidant rich foods and achieving an optimal state of hydration in advance of the next event.

Satisfying unique individual needs. Individual athletes may have unique dietary requirements as a result of food allergies, food sensitivities, food intolerances and personal food requirements (vegetarian, kosher, halal, etc.). Athletes with these special food needs are taught what foods they should be consuming, in what amounts, and at what times, in order to avoid problems. The Olympic dining hall has multiple options to satisfy these needs, and national governing bodies make sure that specific foods/snacks that are known to be well tolerated by individual athletes are available to them. Athletes competing in “make weight” sports (judo, taekwondo, boxing, etc.) must consume foods/beverages in a manner that allows achievement of the necessary weight without compromising performance. Registered sports dietitians actively help these athletes achieve their individual weight requirements following recommended protocols.

Editorial Note: For more on this topic, see “Nutrition and Athletic Performance,” in the March 2016 issue of Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise®. This is a jointly published position statement by ACSM, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Dietitians of Canada.