Picture this: My husband and I are sitting in a low-lit, Italian restaurant in downtown Chicago on the evening before our first anniversary. We have both enjoyed huge plates of pasta; I am asking for a to-go container while he is licking the last bits of sauce off of his fork, his plate clean. He looks at me as I scrape my pasta off of my plate and into the box and says, “I’m still hungry. I’m going to have to order another plate.” I raise an eyebrow at him and ask if he wants my leftovers. No, he actually wants another whole plate of pasta all to himself. You see, for the seven months before that, he had been training for his first marathon and this romantic anniversary pasta dinner was actually to help him prepare for his first marathon, which was the next day.
Before my husband started training for the marathon, I had no idea how much food he would consume. We don’t have kids, but as his training progressed, our grocery lists started looking like we had three teenaged boys in the house. He would eat calorie-heavy foods almost constantly, and he still lost weight. Training for a marathon, after all, is vigorous.
Marathon training is not, however, as vigorous as training for the Olympics, so when the Games started this summer, I turned to my husband and said, “Wow. These athletes must eat a million calories a day!”
It turns out that Olympic athletes don’t need a million calories a day. However, during the 2008 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps reported eating up to 12,000 calories a day — almost six times what the average person consumes. This makes sense; Phelps spends the majority of his day propelling himself through the water at record-breaking speeds. He, like my marathon runner husband, would be expected to do some serious carb-loading before an event in order to give himself the fuel he needs to have the necessary energy for what is essentially extended cardiovascular exercise.
However, the amount of fuel an Olympic athlete’s body needs is highly dependent on the sport in which they compete. According to NPR, if you’re an Olympic wrestler or gymnast, you’d be more likely to slow down your caloric intake before an event in order to keep yourself light on your feet:
Endurance athletes need the most calories because they are competing for hours, while basketball players go hard for a shorter period of time. Gymnasts, meanwhile, are stopping and going. Weight-lifters and shot putters harness a lot of energy for a very short burst. How much muscle mass each athlete has and their weight also affects how much energy they use.
The article continues to detail how athletes use journals and daily personal data to calculate how many calories they should be eating during the day, along with the help of professional dietitians. Generally, though, athletes whose sports require more long-term cardiovascular activity eat more calories — between 3,000 and 8,000 a day — and athletes whose sports are more anaerobic, like power lifters, gymnasts, and rowers, eat fewer calories a day — anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000.
While it is fascinating to see what fuels the world’s athletes, the most important thing we can learn from them is that food is fuel. Our bodies need fuel to function, and, whether we’re hitting the gym a few days a week, training for our first marathon, or preparing for the Olympics, it’s important to get the fuel we need to be at our best.
Photo Credit: The Wolf