What does it mean to eat like an athlete?
It’s taken a long time for me to shake the notion that people who work and play hard basically get a free pass when it comes to food.
A cyclist friend’s gleeful observation about the legendary 12,000-calorie diet of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps didn’t help.
Though Phelps now says those 4,000-calorie meals were a myth — most web references can be traced to a 2008 New York Post article with the memorable headline, “Phelps’ Pig Secret: He’s Boy Gorge” — the truth is only slightly less stunning: During his prime, the 18-time gold medalist told ESPN, he ate 8,000-10,000 calories a day, including “lots of pizza and pasta.”
“Phelps’ diet was awesome,” my friend said. “And mine is very fun when I’m burning through 3extra pounds of calories a week” during cycling season. “I don’t go hog wild, but I’m not afraid of seconds if I’m still hungry.” (In Jim’s case, seconds also applies to fast food; he’s been known to follow up an intense club ride with a Burger King Whopper combo meal and a chicken sandwich combo.)
The difficulty, he noted, is cutting consumption in the winter, when his mileage drops considerably.
“Throttling back this year was tough,” he admitted. At one point shortly after the holidays, he discovered he’d put on 12 pounds.
Overestimating calorie burn can be a big problem for us ordinary athletes who don’t have nutrition coaches or personal chefs to guide us. Running may burn 100 calories per mile, but you can easily wipe out all that hard work simply by misjudging the size and fat content of a post-run chocolate milk.
Though running was a big part of my 90-pound weight loss in 2010, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t lose an ounce when I celebrated the one-year anniversary of that feat by running 90 miles in nine days.
One look at my food log from that week, though, solved the mystery.
Though I wasn’t downing entire pizzas the way Phelps once did — or scarfing double bacon cheeseburgers like U.S. bobsledder Lolo Jones, who trained for Solchi on a 9,000-calorie diet — I was definitely eating a lot more than usual.
According to an entry on Oct. 25, 2011, I consumed two bananas, two apples, two carrots, two molasses cookies, six chocolate-covered espresso beans, one serving each of cashews and trail mix, a Wendy’s baked potato, 2 cups of pasta, six slices of bread and butter, three sandwiches — egg, ham and peanut butter — along with a cup of Fiber One cereal and half a cup of oatmeal.
I was running so much that I was hungry all the time — or thought I was, anyway. On some level, I obviously did have a legitimate need for more calories. But my overly enthusiastic imagination magnified that need, and I pretty much ate like a pig all week long.
Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon for runners to gain weight while training for a marathon, writes exercise physiologist Susan Paul in a Jan. 2 post on Runnerworld.com. This can be due to increases in glycogen stored in the muscles and fluid retention tied to carb loading.
But often, she writes, it’s simply because appetite outpaces caloric burn — especially if you’re so wiped out from a long run that you’re a couch potato the rest of the day.
Based on past experience, I’m now much more suspicious of my appetite as I prep for an upcoming indoor marathon. Extra training means I need to monitor my diet more closely, not less.
Maybe Olympic athletes can outrun their diets, but I can’t.