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Eat Like an Olympian

By: Amanda Turner MS, RD, CSSD | August 15, 2016

From the 4’8” Simone Biles to 6’4” Michael Phelps, Olympian’s nutrition needs vary drastically based on size, age, and sport. So, how much can these two very different powerhouses eat? Caloric intake to fuel performance is based on a variety of factors: height, weight, age, gender, lean mass, and training demands put on the body. Both of these athletes are at the top of their sports, but you’ll see below that the amount they need to eat is very different. **All of the numbers below are estimates based on past reported training amounts! 

At 19 years old and in her small frame, Simone’s baseline nutrition needs are much lower than her swimming counterpart at the same age, Katie Ledecky. I’ve estimated that Simone would burn around 1300-1500 calories with no added exercise. I’ve seen reports that Simone spends around 50 hours in the gym each week. With that amount of added stress and demand on her body, I estimate that it increases her nutrition needs to around 2800-3000 calories daily, double her baseline nutrition needs! 

In contrast, at 31 years old and in a much different body, Michael Phelps has a lot more work to do in the kitchen. If Michael has ever had a lazy week in his life, I’d expect him to burn around 2400-2600 calories daily with no added exercise. You can see that Simone would have to put a lot of time in the gym to achieve Michael’s baseline nutrition needs. If we estimate that Michael is training for around 45 hours per week, he can easily eat 8000-8500 calories daily to sustain his performance and lean muscle mass, potentially even more. 

Compare these numbers with the average, active American who needs anywhere from 1800-2500 calories daily, and Michael is putting back at least 3x that amount daily just to maintain his lean physique. Think about six to seven hours of training on top of that, and it leaves very little time to squeeze in all of that food and necessary sleep. So, how do athletes with such high energy demands fit it all in? And trust me, their hunger tells them that they need each and every one of those calories! Liquids and energy dense foods are some of the best answers. For athletes with extremely high energy needs, we focus on creating high calorie shakes with juices, healthy fats, and dense proteins. For meals, foods like potatoes, oil, peanut butter, whole grains, dairy, and lean meats are all great contributors to total calorie intake. See below for a sample meal for both Michael and Simone: 

Sample 1500 calorie meal

6oz sirloin steak

3 cups diced, roasted potatoes

2 cups salad with 3 Tbsp salad dressing

3 cups fruit salad with ¼ cup slivered almonds

Sample 600 calorie meal

3oz sirloin steak

1.5 cups diced, roasted potatoes

1 cup salad with 2 Tbsp salad dressing

1 cup fruit salad with 1 tbsp slivered almonds

Olympic Fruit Rings

 The consequences of undereating are severe for all top athletes. With underfueling, they would likely have increased fatigue, increased risk of injury, decreased power, decreased stamina, decreased speed, and muscle mass would start to decline. These athletes literally eat, train and sleep as their jobs. It’s absolutely amazing the amount of dedication they have for their sport and the way they do it with such grace and seeming ease. Congrats to all of the top athletes competing in Rio 2016!