April 2012 Issue

Preparing to Win the Gold — Sports RDs Discuss the Nutrition Needs of Olympic Athletes
By Mark J. Miller
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 4 P. 20

When the runner enters London’s year-old $760 million stadium on July 27 with the Olympic Flame held high amidst a roaring crowd and thunderous applause for the Opening Ceremonies of the Summer Olympic Games, there will be five women with the US Olympic team who won’t be competing in a single sports event. Instead they will have a lot to do with how the more than 550 American athletes taking part in the games will perform: They are the US Olympic Committee’s Sports Nutrition Team.

The Opening Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympic Games mark the beginning of the XXXth Olympiad. While the many different sports involved in the summer games each have their own governing body, none employ their own dietitians. Because of this, athletes of all stripes and sizes will turn to this cadre of five women to help them fuel their bodies as effectively and efficiently as possible throughout the preparation, training, and sports events in hopes of winning the gold.

Due to the vast array of summer Olympic events, from archery, badminton, basketball, and cycling to equestrian, gymnastics, judo, and volleyball, there are a large number of different body types and nutrition needs with which these dietitians must work. For example, a table tennis pro doesn’t need the same dietary meal plan as a hammer thrower, and a rower doesn’t require the same supplements as a water polo player.

While this summer’s US Olympic team isn’t fully assembled as of yet, since the Olympic Trials are still under way (and will be for some sports until the beginning of July), the dietitians of the US Olympic Committee (USOC) are on duty throughout the year for all the member sports’ events. And, as a result, there’s a constant need for their guidance, as they’re often found somewhere around the world near ski slopes and soccer fields (and every other playing field) at any given time to provide their nutrition expertise to the athletes who need it.

Today’s Dietitian interviewed the USOC’s five dietitians who make their living working with America’s finest athletes. They discuss what it’s like to work with such talent, the athletes’ nutrition needs in various sports, and how these needs differ among the sports to achieve optimal athletic performance.

Day in the Life of an Olympic RD
The sports dietitian does much of her work in the field, often assessing athletes on the fly in a hotel or locker room, says Nanna Meyer, PhD, RD, CSSD, senior USOC sports dietitian and a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “We go to the athletes,” she says. “The athletes don’t necessarily come to us.”

Four of the USOC’s dietitians specialize in different types of sports, but they all have the training to work with award-winning athletes. “Sports dietitians are professionals with specialty certification to work with athletes,” Meyer says. Sports dietitians typically have an undergraduate or graduate degree in exercise science as well as a degree in nutrition or dietetics.

“The work of a sports dietitian encompasses many areas that are common to the [general] dietitian, but it demands the knowledge and skill of the sports dietitian,” Meyer explains. “Similar to [general] dietitians, sports dietitians go through the Nutrition Care Process, from assessment to diagnosis to intervention and monitoring. The sports dietitian goes through this process more on an interdisciplinary level, meaning that she or he gathers data from a variety of sources, including the coach, sports physiologist, sports medicine professional, and psychologist.”

Meyer notes there are many hands-on assessments the sports dietitian performs to get a full picture of each athlete that’s similar to other RDs’ work. Some of the data sports dietitians look for, she says, include resting metabolic rate, energy intake, energy expenditure, exercise-related energy expenditure, hydration status, body composition, bone health, and blood biochemistry. The difference, Meyer says, is that this information is integrated with data from the rest of the team working with the athlete to create a battle plan.

The work is challenging because it demands long hours and a great deal of travel. While traveling around the world is easy to romanticize, the reality is that when these dietitians are out in the field, they’re working 15-hour days and experiencing ever-changing situations. “A lot of our work needs to be very flexible,” Meyer says. “If you come into the [training] camp with a plan, you’ll realize quickly that it probably won’t work out the way you want. Thus, I would say the biggest challenge is related to the ever-changing schedule around the athletes’ training and competing.”

As difficult as the job is, the USOC dietitians also reap some great rewards, such as visiting beautiful locations, witnessing incredible athletic feats, and connecting with people across the globe. “Most rewarding is for all of us to see athletes come around—be it from injuries or eating disorders—and win!” Meyer says. “Wow! This is what makes my heart explode.”

Quality Time and Teachable Moments
These dietitians don’t work with the athletes just during the Olympic trials and events. Athletes enter into the Olympic family at many different points in the process of training and competing and are encouraged to turn to the dietitians for assistance. Meyer enjoys teaching the athletes how to cook during their stay in the training camps or when she travels with them to events such as the quadrennial Pan Am Games or the Olympics.

At three different Winter Olympic ceremonies, Meyer has cooked at the safe houses where the athletes reside for a few days before their events to relax and escape the hubbub of the Olympic Village. “At each Olympics, I had athletes who wanted to learn some new [cooking] skills or make their own bread,” she recalls. “The kitchen and cooking is a mindful experience, and perhaps it creates a calm, noncompetitive environment where they can relax.”

Within the next 12 months, the USOC plans to introduce an educational kitchen to help train athletes. The dietitians will teach them how to make grocery lists and take them shopping so they can discuss which foods are best for them and why. “Best would be if they could grow some of the food to learn [about the food] chain,” Meyer says. “Eventually, this is how our educational initiative needs to look like.”

Nutrition Needs Among Various Sports
Not only are the dietitians’ teaching skills evident between the Olympic games but so are their abilities to determine the nutrition needs of the athletes across a wide variety of sports. Here are some examples of the different sports classifications and the nutrition requirements for each.

Team Sports
What’s notable about the USOC Sports Nutrition Team is that each member works with different types of athletes. For example, Shawn Dolan, PhD, RD, CSSD, handles the team sports, such as water polo and soccer. “Team sports are typically characterized by moderate-to-long duration exercise with repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise interspersed with low-to-moderate active recovery or rest,” she says.

But different sports require different types of diets, she explains, depending on “environment of play, practice compared to competition duration, different field positions, distance covered within a match, and opportunities for fueling and drinking during play.” Dolan uses soccer as an example, explaining that a goalie who’s had a full breakfast may not need any fuel during a practice if he or she is focused on the offense, while a forward at the same practice may need to regularly sip a sports drink and eat a sports bar to perform well. “Fueling should consist of readily accessible and easily digested carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels, gummies, or fruit,” she says.

Hydration recommendations also vary for athletes based on “individual sweat rates, player position, access to fluids, breaks in training or matches, and environment,” Dolan adds. “A general rule of thumb for team sports athletes is to prevent significant—or more than 2% to 3%—fluid weight loss during training and competition based on pre-/post-weigh-ins.” So recommendations need to be made on an individual basis for this rather than broadly for the team as a whole.

Acrobat and Combat Sports
USOC teammate Jennifer Gibson, MS, RD, is responsible for the athletes in the acrobat and combat sports, such as diving and gymnastics.

She uses divers as an example, noting that they want to be lean and muscular and have explosive power and high flexibility in their lower body. “Optimizing body composition is a common request of athletes and coaches,” she says. “Screening and treating female athlete triad issues—disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis—is an essential part of the nutrition assessment.”

For these types of athletes, she recommends restricted energy, moderate-to-lower carbohydrate intake (3 to 5 g/kg of body weight) and high protein intake (1.5 to 2 g/kg of body weight).

Because of the long hours spent on the pool deck or doing dry land training, “Food and fluid needs for divers must provide long-lasting energy and be well tolerated,” Gibson says. Since divers often deal with nerves and fear, “Meal patterns should focus on small, frequent feedings that provide good carbohydrate availability combined with protein sources that divers feel ‘sit well’ in their stomachs.”

Endurance Sports
US Olympic endurance athletes turn to Alicia Kendig, MS, RD, CSSD, who also handles winter sports for the USOC. She deals with a wide variety of athletes. In swimming alone, she has short-distance pool swimmers and open-water, long-distance swimmers. “The amount of calories that [open-water swimmers] burn through on any given day may be twice that of a pool swimmer,” she says. “Whole grains are a focus and provide a solid base of calories and nutrients—such as B vitamins—to provide energy and to assist in recovery. Recovery smoothies, shakes, and on-the-go snacks are popular choices for these athletes, as they’re often en route from one training session to another or to work or school.” It’s easy to fall behind on energy intake and carbohydrate refueling, she notes, so recovery nutrition is necessary daily.

Race day provides its own challenges. While the pool swimmers don’t need to refuel during races, the open-water swimmers are on a 1.5- to 2-mile lap course with one or two feed stations along the way. “The timing of fueling and the number of stops is part of race strategy,” Kendig says. “A hydration plan is crucial for an open-water 10K race. The limited opportunity to consume fluid along the course makes it imperative to plan out a strategy.” The amount of water and sports drinks vs. gels and solid foods depends on the temperature of the water and the surrounding environment on race day.

Strength and Power Sports
Strength and power sports athletes seeking nutrition advice turn to Andrea Braakhuis, PhD, APD, who handles sports that are part of track and field.
“The throws events include shotput, javelin, and discus, and athletes require strength to support good technical ability,” she says. These athletes have large caloric and protein needs (up to 2 g/kg of body weight), typically consumed in five to nine meals per day, including drinks such as smoothies, liquid meal supplements, and fortified milkshakes. “Throwers also need to focus on adequate hydration to maximize the benefit of resistance training,” she says.

Conversely, sprinters and hurdlers are lean and powerful. Their diets are nutrient dense with adequate carbohydrate (5 to 7 g/kg of body weight) and protein. “Athletes typically are expected to complete intense track sessions followed by resistance training and therefore need to have portable recovery nutrition such as nut bars, sports drinks, or commercial recovery drinks,” she says.

Braakhuis notes that middle- and long-distance runners are “very lean with surprisingly little muscle” and have caloric requirements that are large. However, they “need a higher percentage of carbohydrate—6 to 10 g/kg of body weight for training and up to 10 g/kg of body weight before racing,” she says.

Becoming a Sports Dietitian
Making a living as a sports dietitian is every bit as exciting as it is challenging. Meyer says if dietitians are interested in becoming sports dietitians they’ll need to do the following:

Study up. “Do not skip on professional training in exercise physiology,” Meyer says, adding that an RD will be useful to active individuals and their coaches only if they understand sports science, biomechanics basics, and training methodology.

Be flexible. Athletes may specialize in an event, but the programs RDs develop to improve their performance and health must be adaptable to their changing needs.

Know your stuff. Working with athletes is significantly different from working with nonathletes. Meyer recommends dietitians obtain a graduate degree in sports nutrition or receive an IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition, which requires completing a two-year distance-learning program in sports nutrition (www.sportsoracle.com/ioc).

Lace up your sneaks. To understand what the athletes go through during training, experience it personally by participating in the workouts to help understand the athletes and gain their respect. Participation helps break the ice and prepares RDs for a long, multiyear relationship, Meyer notes. “I used to be a conditioning coach for the Swiss ski team and participated in almost all the activities I made my athletes go through,” she says. “This felt good to them because they knew I did it too regardless of how hard it was.”

Meyer stresses this is especially true in sports that require weight cuts. Members of the USOC team take part in weight-cutting activities with the athletes, such as saunas, which help encourage struggling athletes. Meyer says she believes even nonathletes who become sports dietitians should take part in the training to gain a better appreciation of what they experience.

Going the extra mile to establish a good rapport with the athletes is what sets this group of dietitians apart from their peers. Their dedication and ability to creatively apply food science in practical ways to the athletes’ daily lives is part of the reason the US Olympic team consistently collects so many medals at during the Olympic games.

— Mark J. Miller is a freelance sports writer for MSN Now. His work has appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Glamour, Wine Spectator, Salon, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Details.