Sunday 21 January 2018

Food of Champions: How to eat like an Olympian

During the Beijing Olympics, rumour had it that US champion swimmer Michael Phelps consumed a whopping 12,000 calories a day.

He has since dismissed this story as "all a myth", dashing the hopes of would-be gluttons everywhere, but athletes of his calibre nonetheless need more food than the average person to fuel their tough regimes.

Alex Popple, a performance nutritionist at the English Institute of Sport, is working with the British Olympic swimmers as the 2012 Games approach.

He explains: "We try and make their diet match their energy requirements and protein needs. Their diet is generally higher in carbohydrate compared to the average person because they're expending a lot more energy on a daily basis.

"They deplete their stores of muscle glycogen during training, and eating more carbohydrate will help replenish them more quickly.

"It's ultimately about allowing the athletes to come back and train as hard as they can in every session so they can get long-term gains in performance."

With this in mind, swimmers in training will eat three or four main meals a day, with recovery shakes and snacks to top up their energy levels in between.

Calorie-wise, they tend to consume about double that of the average person - which means around 5,000 a day for men and 4,000 for women.

Main meals should include complex carbohydrates - the starchier carbs like potato that are rich in other nutrients - and a high-quality protein source. Think chicken fillets or prime cuts of beef rather than sausages or pork pies.

"Protein provides the building blocks to allow the muscles to adapt to the training so they become faster, stronger and fitter. Every time athletes train they damage the muscle, so the protein helps the body repair it," says Popple.

He also advises the swimmers to include one or two servings of fruit or vegetables per meal so they can stock up on essential vitamins and minerals.

As elite athletes follow strict timetables and can have limited financial resources, meals that can be cooked and eaten in under an hour and cost less than £5 to make are also a winner. And if it tastes good, so much the better.

"Athletes are humans with preferences and dislikes," says Popple. "We try and make sure the recipes we suggest meet all the performance nutrition essentials and requirements, but that they are also tasty. If not, you won't get a lot of athletes who want to eat it."


Although all athletes' needs are different, here's a snapshot of what a performance swimmer might eat during a typical day of training...

6am: A medium-sized breakfast of cereal or toast before training.

7am-9am: Sports drinks to hydrate during the early-morning training session, and a recovery shake of protein and carbs afterwards.

10am: A second, more substantial breakfast, such as scrambled eggs, toast and beans and a fruit salad with yoghurt. Then they may sleep for a few hours to help the body recover.

1pm: A lunch of pasta, cous cous, rice or potato with salad and a high-quality protein such as chicken.

3pm: Some swimmers will have a high-carbohydrate snack to fuel up for the evening training session, such as bananas, bagels, toast with jam or cereal bars.

4pm-6pm: Sports drinks during training and another recovery shake afterwards to prevent hungry athletes from over-feeding when they get home.

7pm: An evening meal combining complex carbs and a different protein source from that eaten at lunch - perhaps a red meat to boost the athlete's iron intake.

9pm: Some swimmers will have a supper of cereal or toast. Nutritionists encourage them to have a milk-based meal that will help the body recover during sleep.

Try these winning meals for size:


(Serves 4)

200g/8oz quinoa

1tsp olive oil

1 shallot or 1/2 onion, finely chopped

2tbsp tarragon, roughly chopped

400g can Puy or green lentils, rinsed and drained

1/4 cucumber, lightly peeled and diced

100g/4oz feta, crumbled

6 spring onions, thinly sliced

Zest and juice of 1 orange

1tbsp red or white wine vinegar

Cook the quinoa in a large pan of boiling water for 10-15 mins until tender, drain well, then set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a small pan, then cook the shallot or onion for a few minutes until softened. Add the tarragon, stir well, then remove from the heat. Stir the softened shallot and tarragon into the cooled quinoa along with the lentils, cucumber, feta, spring onions, orange zest and juice and vinegar. Toss well together and chill until ready to serve.


(Serves 2)

Olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

1 red pepper, sliced

1 garlic clove, chopped

150g paella or long grain rice

A large pinch saffron

A large pinch smoked paprika

400ml chicken stock

150g large cooked prawns, shell on or off

100g frozen peas, defrosted

A small bunch of parsley, chopped

Lemon wedges to serve

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan and cook the onion, pepper and garlic until soft. Stir in the paella rice, saffron and paprika until well mixed. Pour in the stock and simmer for 15 minutes until just tender (add a splash more water if you need to).

Add the prawns and peas for the last few minutes until heated through. Season, stir through the parsley and serve with the lemon wedges.


(Serves 1)

85g pasta shapes

1/2 chopped red pepper

A handful of halved cherry tomatoes

1 cooked chicken breast, sliced

1tbsp basil pesto

2tbsp low-fat creme fraiche

Cook the pasta following pack instructions. Meanwhile, mix the red pepper with the halved cherry tomatoes and the chicken breast.

Drain the pasta, then stir through the basil pesto mixed with the low-fat creme fraiche. Toss through the veg and chicken and eat immediately, or pack into a container for lunch.


(Serves 1)

225g can tuna

1/2 chopped red chilli

1 sliced spring onion

A handful of halved cherry tomatoes

1/2 small bunch of coriander, chopped

1 medium-sized jacket potato

150g low-fat cottage cheese

Mix the tuna, drained, with the chopped red chilli, spring onion, halved cherry tomatoes and chopped coriander. Split the jacket potato and fill with the tuna mix and the low-fat cottage cheese.


(Serves 2)

400g tin chickpeas

1/2 small red onion, sliced

100g cherry tomatoes, halved

A small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

About 200g sirloin steak, trimmed of all fat

150ml natural yoghurt

2tbsp harissa

Toss together the chickpeas, red onion, tomatoes and parsley. Season the steak well and cook for 90 seconds each side then rest for 5 minutes. Mix the yoghurt with the harissa and a splash of water. Slice the steak, toss with the chickpeas and serve drizzled with the yoghurt.

:: These recipes are taken from ‘Good Food Magazine’. The August issue is on sale now.

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