What Does It Take to Be an Olympian? A Look at Diet and Health 

Published August 2nd, 2021 by Adriana Rodrigues
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

For Olympians, training is not the only heavily weighted component of their daily routine. Diet and nutrition also carry significant mass in their success. Looking at Olympic athletes, women will typically need between 1800 and 2200 calories a day while men require anywhere between 2400 to 2800 calories per day, depending on their age and activity level—or particular sport. (1)

Between one athlete to another, the caloric requirement for Olympians can be totally different. Even though they train an average of around six hours a day, six days of the week, other sports that require a different type of athleticism may. The kind of training is also different—say between an Olympic weightlifter and a long-distance runner.

Since their day-to-days look different, their daily caloric needs also do. 

Although you may not be an Olympian, you may wish to boost your performance level in a sport or activity that can help improve your health. Therefore, knowing what it takes to be an Olympian in diet and health—at their optimal level—can help you get to yours. 

This article will look deeply into how different Olympians eat when compared to the general population as they prepare for their specific sports. 

Swimming 

From a pool of all the Olympic sports, swimming is among the sports that burn the most calories—apart from cycling and running. 

And even between swimmers, the number of calories that an Olympian swimmer needs can change from event to event, depending on their weight, height, and training intensity. However, let‘s look at the average numbers: 

On average, female swimmers need between 4000 and 6000 calories per day while male swimmers need between 5000 and 10000 calories a day. (2)

For non-Olympians, that is an absolutely excess amount of calories.

And what do they need to heat? Within their diet, protein should take up around 15-25%, carbs about 55-60%, and fats approximately 20-25%. 

Track and Field

This can be hard to talk about since Track and Field covers such a wide variety of athletes—from extremely short, bursting athleticism to long-distance marathons. (3)

So, let‘s separate endurance from hard sprints. For marathon runners on the day of the race, they eat high amounts of carbs to ensure that they have enough energy to sustain them for the long distance. 

This is known as carb-loading.

Although you might think that carb-loading involves large plates of pasta, that can actually lead to poor performance and bloating. So instead, eating drinking smoothies rich in carbs is recommended. 

On the other hand, sprinters require fewer calories than marathon runners because they need short power bursts. As a result, Olympic sprinters eat foods high in performance such as whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats.

Gymnastics 

For gymnasts, a diet comprising of low-fat, high-carb, and moderate protein is recommended. Gymnasts also need to be eating at least 2,000 calories daily. (4)

That number is actually lower than other Olympic sports because gymnasts burn fewer calories. 

And within the sport, the different types of gymnastics have unique dietary requirements. For instance, in power tumbling, endurance, power, speed, and building muscle are the priorities that may require more energy. 

For rhythmic gymnastics, flexibility, aesthetics, and agility are critical to the sport. In addition, the gymnasts for this sport eat small meals throughout the day because they are focusing on having a small frame. 

Weightlifting 

Athletes participating in this sport eat food high in calories to build and maintain muscle mass. The specific number of calories a weightlifter eats depends on her or his current weight, weight goals, training plan, and body composition. (5)

On average, larger weightlifters eat between 4000 and 5000 calories, while the smallest weightlifters eat only about 1800 calories per day. 

What do they eat? For weightlifters, carbohydrates help in recovery and performance, proteins help build muscles, and fats help maintain their hormones. 

How to Eat Like an Olympian?

Keeping your fitness goals, personal health, and daily caloric needs in mind, here is how you can eat like an Olympian:

  • Plan your meals 

Planning saves you money, time, and calories. Before going to sleep, plan your meals for the next day. When going grocery shopping, write a list of foods that will last you for days to avoid impulse buying. 

An Olympian’s daily food includes 55-60% carbs from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, 15-25% lean protein from beans, poultry, fish, and dairy, and 20-30% fat such as nuts, olive oil, seeds, and avocados. (6)

  • Eat breakfast 

Olympians eat their breakfast between 30 to 60 minutes after waking up. Your food choices should be organic if possible and ensure that you include lean protein that is high in quality. Your breakfast should include:

  • Low-fat organic dairy.
  • Lean meat like turkey.
  • High-protein whole grains like oatmeal.
  • Omega 3-rich eggs.

Eat small, frequent meals

Olympians eat every four hours because regular meals reduce the risk of injury and prevent fatigue. In addition, when involved in high activity, proper nutrition prevents glycogen depletion, speeds muscle recovery, reduces muscle damage, and improves immune function. 

  • Don’t give up your flavor 

If you like spices, add them to your food instead of extra fat and salt. Eating bland, plain food can make it a chore, so make your food flavorful and enjoyable to eat. 

  • Eat for your sport

As discussed in this article, weightlifters, for example, have different nutritional needs than those of endurance athletes and gymnasts. Therefore, ensure that you are eating for the specific sport you want to train for or your fitness goals. 

  • Eat to repair your body 

Replenishing nutrients after a long-distance run or bike is an essential part of recovery and resilience. A shake packed with nutrients is an option because it is easy to digest. For example, a shake with nut milk, plant or whey protein, berries or bananas, and creamy peanut butter. 

  • Hydrate often 

Fluid requirements are different for every individual, but drinking 11 to 15 cups of water per day is healthy. Stick to filtered water and supplement with natural juices and herbal teas. Avoid overhydrating as it can cause electrolyte imbalance.

  • Improve your brainpower and energy with caffeine

Coffee is known to improve your memory and thinking skills. However, avoid drinking too much caffeine because it can cause headaches, restlessness and insomnia. Olympians need to sleep! 

  • Use supplements and vitamins 

If your diet does not provide all the vitamins and minerals you need, you can supplement them. However, always talk to your doctor for advice. 

  • Stick to it

If the eating plan you have been following works for you, stick to it. If you are getting enough energy and not experiencing food sensitivities and digestive issues, then stick to the eating routine. 

Following the Olympian Dietary Habits  

The principles of how Olympians eat don’t change regardless of whether you are an average exerciser, weekend warrior, or elite athlete. Everyone can learn lessons from an Olympian’s eating habits. The main difference is the daily caloric requirement. 

Whether you are training to be an athlete or want to incorporate the Olympic diet plan in your daily routine, focusing on the same principles, such as hydrating well and eating after training, will help boost your performance and recovery. 

References and Sources: 

How Many Calories Do Olympic Athletes Need?

Nutritional needs in the professional practice of swimming: a review

Track and Field Sports Nutrition

Fuelling Weighlifting

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