History of the Olympics Page 3

Nutrition in Health and Fitness for the Olympics

While nutrition and its importance to sports performance has become more scientific and our understanding more advanced, it has actually always been a part of an athletes preparation for the Olympics, even going back to the Ancient Olympics in Greece. Records and historical references have shed quite a bit of light on the eating habits of Ancient Olympic athletes at various points in history, with perhaps surprising similarities with diet and nutrition today. The foods of the athletes have in many cases become part of their legend, for example Theagenes of Thasos, who is said to have eaten a whole bull in a single meal, as noted by Poseidippus in his Epigrams. Indeed, many of the legendary eating habits of Ancient Olympians tell of great feasts and eating of large animals, almost as a marker for their strength and athletic ability. A meat-only-diet craze was even established for a time due to the success of one athlete allegedly to have only eaten meat.

Although much of the legendary appetites of the great Ancient Olympians have been largely exaggerated like all tales, we do have a good idea as to what was actually consumed. It is true that larger quantities of meat was consumed by athletes compared to the ordinary population due to their higher social background and greater wealth, particularly in the latter periods of the Ancient Games, which perhaps was an added fuel to the legends that built up. However, it is perhaps unsurprising that athletes, for the large part and particularly early period athletes, ate largely what we would call a Mediterranean diet today. Most of the meat eaten was fish, due to most communities being close to the sea, along with fruits, vegetables, breads and wines. This diet of large amounts of fruits, vegetables, legumes, healthy oils, high quality protein and plenty of carbohydrates for energy is highly similar to what Modern Olympic athletes will eat today.

Although the food types of Ancient Olympians may have been similar to that of today’s athletes, there are of course many differences between the two diets as you would expect with much more scientific understanding of the effect of nutrition on exercise. However, there is a very large amount of variation even today between athletes in different sports, different events and from different countries. These differences arise due to the varying physical demands of different events, cultural food differences between countries, the variations in the scientific views of sports nutritionalists and the personal preferences of athletes. It is also the case that sports nutrition is a relatively new discipline, continually evolving as the effects of different food intakes on performance in different sports and conditions is monitored, assessed and analysed. Although sports nutrition is perhaps behind other areas of an athletes training regime in terms of research and understanding, its development has been ongoing since the start of the Modern Olympic Games.

Modern Olympics

The importance of good nutrition for the working man was well understood by industries of the Industrial Revolution in Britain by the time modern sport started to develop in the mid 19th century. By the time of the first Modern Olympics in 1896 current thinking on diet and nutrition was already being applied to sports and physical recreation activities, so it was natural that athletes at the first Games in Athens saw the food they ate as important for their preparation. However, nutritional understanding was relatively limited compared to that of today, and much like the food of the Ancient Olympians, dietary intake could be rather hit and miss.

Since that first Olympics the role of food and nutrition in athletic performance has developed and the Olympics has played a big part in driving that. The Olympic movement quickly became an important world event, a showcase for nations, and with nationalism reaching its peak in the first half of the 20th century the Olympics became ever more important in proving the status and worthiness of nations, with attempts even made to use the Olympics to prove more sinister beliefs of racial superiority born out of sociological and scientific theories of the time. With the success of athletes becoming ever more important from a political point of view, the food that they ate became an increasing area of scientific study and experimentation in order for nations to gain and advantage for their athletes. The development of nutritional supplements also started to develop. An analysis of athletes completed by Schenk in 1937 revealed that glucose, a malt and a lecithin supplements were used by various countries.

Large scale analysis of the nutritional intake of athletes at the Olympics has been rather limited, until perhaps more recently. However, the ones that have been done show a large amount of variation that is broadly in line with other records of dietary development and what would be expected. Studies have focused mainly on energy intake sources and a broad look at types of food. Unsurprisingly, the type of food intake has been heavily influenced by the national and regional cultural food traditions of each nation.

Choice of energy sources has been rather polarised between higher protein/fat energy sources and higher carbohydrate energy sources. The studies done in the 1930s, 1950s and the 1990s all show large and similar variations in energy intake from the three main dietary energy sources. This has been due to variations in demands of different sports, the personal preference of athletes, the theories and strategies of the organisations of each nation and new research as it has evolved that can often be conflicting.

However, the average percentage energy intake that comes from each of these three food groups has remained fairly similar. The chart bellow shows the average energy intakes per energy groups of the three studies mentioned above:

Chart Showing the Average Energy Intake Distribution of Elite Olympic Athletes Through History

As can be seen from this chart, the rough distribution split between carbohydrates, fats and proteins is 40%, 40% and 20% respectively, the distribution shown bellow:

Chart Showing the Rough, General Distribution of Energy Intake from Historical Studies

This distribution is intriguing, as it potentially provides a good initial guide as to the percentage distribution of each food group for Olympic sports that use a general energy source distribution.

Today's Athletes

Energy intake is still the area of greatest debate and variation between athletes, coaches and scientists and between sports. Our understanding of the basic nutritional requirements of the body to maintain good health has greatly increased, and the majority of which has been broadly accepted. From an athletic point of view, again there is not much variation relatively between experts as to what nutrients athletes need to maintain optimal health. High intensity and elite exercise does, however, result in additional nutritional requirements and these can vary between sports as well as being an area of varied recommendations, though broadly the requirements are agreed.

The energy required by athletes from fat, protein and carbohydrates is highly varied due to several reasons; our understanding of the energy sources the body uses during exercises is far from completes, with some studies conflicting. Further to this, though our understanding of the body’s energy systems has significantly advanced (if still not complete) the effect of types of energy intake is even less precise, let alone the relationship between food intake, energy storage and energy used.

It is also the case that the energy requirements of an athlete are the main differences between their nutritional needs and that of a sedentary or even a mildly active individual. While this is not surprising, it never the less poses a significant problem to both athletes and their nutritionists. This problem basically consists of two parts; how much energy an individual athlete needs in their sport, and from which of the three main food energy sources, fat protein and carbohydrates, should this energy come from.

There are a number of problems facing an athlete in choosing their energy intake. Firstly, it is impossible to accurately assess the energy requirements of each event and each training session, so the energy intake required to meet these needs must therefore be a best estimate. Further, the calorie measurement system for the amount of energy in each of these three main food energy sources is itself an estimate and not 100% accurate. This is coupled with our less than complete understanding of the bodies energy systems outlined above.

It is therefore the case that sports scientists try as best as is possible to estimate the energy demands of an Olympic athlete’s training and during competition. Total energy intake required for an athlete is usually set out as day-to-day totals, with the variations on training, competition and recovery days specified. Within each day, the amount of energy intake is strictest in the 3-4 hours prior to exercise and the first two hours post exercise during the recover phase. These are the energy intakes that are most affected by the exercise load each day.

The actual amount of energy from the diet required for both training and competition varies massively between sports. The energy of a 100m sprint is far less than that required to complete a marathon, for example. However, the differences in training energy needs between the two will be less as a sprinter will train more than the requirements of their sport, while the majority of a marathon runner’s training will be sub-marathon intensity and duration. This highlights the complex differences between the workloads of training and competition and between athletes in different sports. This is further complicated when considering team sports and their specific requirements. Due to these differences, studies into energy requirements of an Olympic athlete are only relevant and useful when they are specific to individual sports events. Sports nutritionist will therefore often only work within one sport at any one time. Having said this, cross referencing between studies of different sports and applying to different situations has proved a key way in advancing the understanding of energy requirements in a particular event.

While the required energy intake of an Olympic athlete may be difficult to determine, the appropriate source of this energy is perhaps even more so. Knowing how much of an athlete’s energy intake should come from fat, protein or carbohydrates depends on the energy systems the body uses during an athletes event, and how energy intake sources affects the body’s ability to use these systems most effectively. Unfortunately, our understanding into either of these is far from complete, even in general terms let alone for individual sports. Never the less, differences between sports in both of these areas have been identified and recommended energy sources have been identified.

Current thinking seems to generally be coming towards a relative consensus, at least in terms of range for carbohydrate, protein and fat intake. This is as a percentage of total energy intake, rather than absolute quantities, as these variations are highly substantial and difficult to analyse. Naturally all athletes will need to take a certain amount of each of these to maintain optimal health, while it is also the case that the energy intake from each of these groups will be above normal due to the significant increase in total energy intake.

Generally, minimum protein intake does not significantly vary between athletes, as it is not used as an energy source during performance, or at least in only mall amounts. Variations in protein intake requirements are mainly due to what is required for recovery post exercise, although again the amount required is in most cases going to be little, if any, above that of what is in a normal diet. The vast majority of energy for exercise comes from carbohydrates and fats, with carbohydrates being the largest contributor in most cases, and it is variations between dietary intake of these two groups that is greatest amongst athletes from different sports.

Calculating the optimal total energy intake and from which energy sources can be highly complicated if it is to be very accurate. This causes somewhat of a dilemma for sports nutritionalists. The more accurate the nutrition strategies they give their athletes, the more difficult it will be for them to follow and sustain. Conversely, if they make their nutritional recommendations less complicated and easier to follow, they run the risk of compromising on its accuracy and resultant effectiveness. Today, nutritionalists tend to adopt the follow strategy:

  1. Ensure that their athletes obtain the nutrition from their diet for optimal health.

  2. Gain as great an understanding as possible about the energy demands and requirements of an athlete during their competitions, their training sessions and their recovery periods.

  3. Provide the athlete with the nutritional intake requirements to meet the demands of each of these three areas, concentrating on intake before and after exercise.

  4. Work with the athlete to adjust their existing eating habits, likes and dislikes to meet these needs with as little disruption to their preferred routines as possible

  5. Monitor the athlete’s progression in terms of weight, body fat and muscle content, performance and other factors so that required adjustments in nutritional intake can be made when needed.

This strategy tends to strike the right balance between sufficiently providing the athlete with recommendations that meet the nutritional demands of their sport, while reducing complexity and allowing freedom for the athlete enough to make the nutritional strategy sustainable.


R. Harris

Bsc Physical Education, Sports Science and Physics, Loughborough University Founder

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