For Olympic Athletes, Food is Fuel. And a Weapon.

Counting calories on the way to the gold medal.

There’s one hurdle to being an Olympian that we can all easily leap: eating. But to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, athletes eat at record levels.

Food, after all, is fuel.

On days when we sit on our couches and watch the Olympics on TV, we typically eat 1,600 to 3,000 calories.

Compare that with gold-medal swimmer Michael Phelps, who revealed one of the secrets to his success at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: He ate as much as 12,000 calories daily during hard training and competition days.

The amount that Olympians eat naturally depends on the type of sport they compete in. “Athletes needs all depend on their genetics, size, goals and activity level,” says Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, sports dietitian at Precision Nutrition.

For sports such as figure skating, competitors eat about 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day, according to U.S. Olympic dietitians. For endurance sports such as skiing, they’re likely to need closer to 8,000 to 9,000 calories or more daily.

“A figure skater would not require nearly as many calories,” explains St. Pierre. “While they are skating a lot, it is not as physically demanding as some other sports — though that doesn’t make it any easier! A downhill skier likely requires more because they are often more muscular than figure skaters due to the needs of their sport, and they have higher strength and muscle needs.

“Someone who competes in biathlon, for example, would definitely have high calorie and carbohydrate needs, due to the grueling nature of their support, similar to other endurance athletes who compete in the Summer Games.”

To try again to put this calorie intake into comparison, we Olympic fans may exercise for 4 to 5 hours weekly. Actual Olympians often train for 20 to 30 hours.

“To think any of us watching at home need as many calories as these athletes would be folly,” St. Pierre says. “Our activity levels, and the intensity and duration of our activities, are nowhere near theirs!”

So what foods do Olympic athletes eat?

At Experience Life, we believe that — for us non-Olympians — if you are eating the right foods and paying attention to your body, you don’t need to count calories. And the quality of those calories matters more than the quantity.

For Olympic athletes, however, eating mega-calorie diets is a challenge in itself.

Lolo Jones

Lolo Jones

U.S. Olympic bobsledder Lolo Jones told USA Today Sports that she’s been eating as much as 9,000 calories daily in preparation for the Sochi games. Her diet not only includes two 1,365-calorie protein shakes each day but also late-night trips to McDonalds for bacon double cheeseburgers. (For more on Jones, see “Chasing Lolo”.)

Another American bobsledder put on 35 pounds of muscle over the past two years, and with a training volume of 20 to 30 hours per week, “he had to eat a ton!” says St. Pierre. The bobsledder was eating about 6,000 to 7,000 calories daily. “He had to use fast food to help him do it. Simply because just eating real, whole foods would have made it nearly impossible. They are too filling and not calorie-dense enough.”

So if you’re an elite Olympic athlete, you might find that you actually do have to count calories — to make sure you are taking in enough.

The question then arises: Did Michael Phelps really eat 12,000 calories daily? Is that even possible?

Says St. Pierre: “Michael Phelps and his coach have come out and said that he didn’t actually eat 12,000 calories; it was an exaggeration to mess with his opponents. However, I am sure he had to eat a tremendous amount to maintain his weight and have adequate recovery from his training volume as well.”

So food is not only fuel; it’s also a weapon.

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Michael Dregni is the managing editor at Experience Life.

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