What do the Olympians eat?
Swimmer Alicia Coutts. Photo: Colleen Petch
It probably shouldn't surprise to discover that athletes are not foodies, which isn't to say they're not food-obsessed. But judging by the Olympians we spoke with, the diet is simple and pretty standard. All that Weet-Bix for breakfast! Sometimes, it is a pretty relaxed attitude to what they eat; but mostly, they watch it carefully.
Lauren Jackson, basketball
Since bouncing her first basketball at the age of five, Lauren Jackson, 31, has made her presence felt in her chosen sport: three Olympic silver medals, World Championship gold and two WNBA titles in the US. Not that she's checking out. Lining up for her fourth Olympic competition in London, Jackson is certainly keeping the ball bouncing.
Lauren's day on a plate:
Breakfast I have five Weet-Bix with light milk warmed in the microwave for two minutes. An instant coffee with light milk and I drink lots of water.
Lunch In training I will eat rice or pasta with a tomato-based sauce. If I'm not in training, it's a salad sandwich or a wrap.
Mid-afternoon I won't eat anything if I'm in training. If I'm not training, it's four Vita-Weat biscuits and light cheese.
Dinner Some sort of meat with salad or vegies and potatoes.
Dessert Is just light yoghurt and a piece of fruit.
Guilty pleasure Jindera meat pies.
Favourite food Roast dinner (jap pumpkin is my favourite roasted vegetable).
Healthy indulgence Two light yoghurts at bedtime with a banana.
Cupboard staple Rice or pasta.
Favourite cuisine Indian food.
Alicia Coutts, swimmer
Canberra-based swimmer Alicia Coutts (pictured above) started learning to swim when she was 18 months old, and entered her first competition at seven. Now, fours days a week, she spends two training sessions in the pool. On two days a week she does one swim session of the same length. She also hits the gym four times a week, with each session lasting about 1½ hours. Sundays are her rest day.
7am I usually have honey porridge or toast and a coffee - nothing too big before training.
Lunch I have two sandwiches on wholemeal or multigrain with meat and salad, or sushi.
Mid-afternoon Sometimes I have something small - a snack, maybe a Vegemite sandwich, before I train in the afternoon at 3.15 or 3.30.
Dinner My boyfriend Steve Hardy usually cooks. He makes some really good things. He does sun-dried tomato and chorizo pasta, lamb shanks, beef and Guinness pies. I eat more than my boyfriend; sometimes I finish and I'm still hungry. I don't eat dessert very often, although sometimes I have some yoghurt with berries and muesli.
Favourite dish Sun-dried tomato and chorizo pasta.
Guilty pleasure I like chocolate. I wouldn't go and eat a whole block, but it's healthy in small doses.
How will your diet change ahead of the Games? We'll be tapering, so I'll probably be eating less because I'm doing less work. When it comes to the actual competition, I'll be eating pasta and other carbs.
How strict is your diet? I try to eat as little sugar as possible, and low-fat things. I weigh in every day - my goal weight is 66 to 67 kilograms, and I try to keep an eye on it. For racing, you want to be as light and strong as you can be.
How important is diet for performance? It's really important. The Australian Institute of Sport helps us with meal plans and guidelines.
Jared Tallent, race-walker
Ranked third in the world, 27-year-old Tallent (pictured above, with wife and fellow race walker Claire) is a medal hopeful in London, having won silver at the last Olympics. As we speak last week, he's staying at Lake St Moritz in Switzerland for his biggest week of training, at altitude (1800 metres), before tapering his training at the Australian Institute of Sport European Training Centre in Varese, Italy. His 20km race is on August 4 and his best event, the 50km, on August 11.
He's walking 200km a week in training, including sessions of more than 40km each. Which means he can afford to eat a fair bit, but Tallent is still careful about what goes in. He eats low fat, minimises meat, eats lots of vegetables, and ensures this close to an event that his diet includes nothing new. He needs to keep the weight off to maximise performance – “obviously you've got muscle mass but anything after that is going to make it harder”, he says. He's 58kg, which is about where he wants to be (his BMI is just 18) – but says during intense training, it's harder to keep the weight on than off. He has been as low as 56kg, a weight that leaves him without enough energy to train.
Wife Claire Tallent is also a race-walker, ranked eighth in the world. She struggles with her weight more, but Tallent says she's gone from 50kg to 44kg recently, resulting in a marked improvement in her performance – she's knocked three minutes off her 20km time this year (down to 1hr 28 min 53 sec).
As for Jared Tallent, his best 50km time is 3hr 38min; the world record is 3hr 34min. “So I've got a couple of minutes to go,” he says. “But I'm probably the fittest I've ever been.”
Tallent says it took him a while to get his diet right. “I used to carbo load and eat probably too much,” he says. Now, he concentrates on vegetables, rice, and only small amounts of meat – although limiting meat is more about general health than performance.
”I am not overly scientific about the food and nutrition. I just try to eat well and keep healthy. The food I put in needs to have some nutritional value to keep my body performing at its best.”
At St Moritz, he's eating from the restaurant buffet every night – and says there's a big salad bar, as well as pasta, fish, roast vegetables. He gets through two mains during hard training.
He works closely with AIS nutrition head Louise Burke who even joins him during training (she bikes) and will be on his drinks table at the Olympics, enduring he gets the right amount of liquid and energy. She has spreadsheets to track his diet during training, she uses scales to measure how much he's drinking and eating, and ensures he gets the 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour.
Races are held on a 2km circuit, which makes it easy “for feeding”, Tallent says. During the race, he takes in sports drinks and gels, drinking 140ml every 2km, a “Gel Blast” every 4km and a gel every 10km – something it took a while to learn to stomach.
It makes a huge difference. “I've had a few races where I've just totally hit the wall and that's because I haven't had enough energy intake,” Tallent says. This happened last year at Daegu, Korea, where Talent says he didn't force himself to drink. He hit the wall at 45km and basically “crawled home” the last 5km, falling from second to third place.
Food also plays an enormous role in recovery – so he's careful to eat protein straight after a session to help damaged muscle repair.
As we speak, Tallent is in the most intense week of his training before this week's tapering and says he's feeling tired, but the fittest he's been. “It's all getting pretty exciting. I'm just looking forward to getting through the last three weeks. I've never trained so hard up in mountains.”
Jared Tallent's day on a plate
Breakfast Six Weetbix and milk, banana, low-fat yoghurt and a cup of tea.
Morning Apple, low-fat yoghurt.
Lunch Two salad and meat sandwiches.
Afternoon food Low-fat muffin.
Dinner In Canberra, wife Claire Tallent cooks dinner - usually a rice dish with lots of vegetables and a small amount of meat, and vegetarian dishes often twice a week. Favourites are ramen, laksa, risotto, tandoori chicken with rice and homemade pizza.
Favourite meal Chilli basil chicken with rice.
Avoid anything? Mainly all types of junk food and fizzy drinks if I can.
Do you eat out? Claire and I eat out usually every second Thursday night. We like to have Asian food like Thai, Vietnamese or Balinese food. I love rice dishes with chicken. We are both quite adventurous with food. Nothing like sitting down in a nice restaurant with good food and good company.
Is this different in the lead-up to an event? Yes in the lead up to an event I will always try to have a very normal plain diet. Basically I go back to having steamed rice with vegetables and a nice sauce to go with it. This is during the week of the race. I just want to keep everything simple and not upset my stomach.
What do you eat in the hours before a race? Normally we race in the morning, so three hours before the race I have breakfast. This will be four slices of toast with jam or honey and a 600ml bottle of sports drink to make sure I am hydrated.
Melissa Breen, sprinter
100-metre sprinter Melissa Breen (pictured above) made her track debut when she was six, but says she was not an outstanding runner as a child. Attending the Sydney Olympic Games with her family at 10 galvanised her determination to one day compete and selectors used their discretionary powers to include her in the Australian team this year as an "emerging athlete". Breen, of Canberra suburb Kambah, trains six days a week and works part time as an athletics coach. She does three track sessions a week, each 2½ hours. She also does two gym sessions and a plyometrics session each week, of 2½ hours each.
Breen's day on a plate
Between 8 and 8.30 I normally have cereal — Sustain with strawberries and skim milk.
Lunchtime Straight after training I generally have a yoghurt and a banana, or an [liquid breakfast] Up&Go, if I don't feel too sick. Then I either have leftovers from the night before, or sushi or a Sumo salad. The risotto or pasta salads are my favourites.
Mid-afternoon I have physio or I coach in the afternoon, and just eat plenty of fruit, including mandarins, oranges, apples and pears. Mangos and pineapples are my favourites when they're in season.
Dinner I'm always starving when I get home. My mum's a great cook and she always has dinner ready when I get home. We have heaps of vegies, all kinds of meat, rice. She cooks a variety of food, it never gets boring.
After dinner I have a hollow stomach, so an hour after dinner I have cereal, Sustain or Weetbix, sometimes five of them. It's not a reflection on my mum's cooking, I'm just always hungry.
Fridge essential Milk, because I have cereal all the time. I can't live without it.
Guilty pleasure I eat chocolate, I don't deprive myself, but I try to only eat a few bits.
Favourite meal Nasi goreng and pavlova.
How will your diet change in the week before the games? I won't have chocolate.