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The Olympic diet: How athletes use nutrition to boost performance

Nutrition expert shares how to fine-tune your diet

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It's the fuel that's driving our Olympic athletes -- helping them train harder and race faster.

Nutrition is a key component of athletic success. But for most athletes, learning how to eat right is definitely a team sport. For student athletes at the University of Michigan, Caroline Mandel is the coach.

"We have about 936 student athletes on 31 different teams competing in 18 different sports representing 18 different countries," said Mandel.

Mandel's title is the director of performance nutrition, and she is constantly helping athletes fine-tune their fuel.

"In this day and age, most athletes understand that nutrition is a part of their training, and they realize it's unique because you really can't do the other aspects of training without it," said Mandel.

Mandel uses a five-point approach to analyze athletes' nutrition -- looking at their calories, macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fat.

"We work to balance those, and the balance of those can really vary throughout the year when you think about how an athlete changes their training from the preseason, the season, and the postseason," explained Mandel.

She says the biggest mistake her athletes make is the same one that most of us make.

"I see a lot of athletes, as well as men and women in the general population, not eat enough during the day, and then kind of backload their fuel and get the majority of their nutrition at the end of the day, after their body and their brain really needed it," said Mandel.

Meal frequency is also important.

"Most of us run out of fuel every three to four hours," said Mandel.

She encourages athletes to set a timer on their phone after breakfast to remind themselves to eat every three to four hours.

Calorie demands vary greatly from sport to sport.

"If a swimmer burns 8 (thousand) to 10,000 calories a day, just a like a finely-tuned sports car, that's the type of fuel that athlete needs.  If a gymnast is burning 2,500 calories a day, that's what he or she needs," said Mandel.

But planning is key for everyone.

"I love the tip of 'Cook once and eat twice,'" said Mandel.  "So if I can cook chicken breasts on my George Foreman grill or in my oven at night, why not cook enough for a couple of nights? Because ultimately, that's going to save me time the next day.  Have that chicken breast one night maybe with some pasta and cooked broccoli and maybe the next night on top of a salad with a sweet potato."

Mandel uses eating guides developed by the U.S. Olympic Committee to teach athletes about proper portions and how to vary their diet to match their training.

She also helps athletes who fall into a "food rut."

"Food ruts are very common, so when an athlete comes in and says, 'Caroline, I'm eating chicken and pasta, chicken and pasta, chicken and pasta' -- that's such a great opportunity to sit down and do a little bit of menu planning."

She says you don't need to be a top athlete to benefit from better nutrition.

"We deserve to take good care of ourselves. We deserve to feel good, we deserve to have a lot of energy, so in the same way, we need to fuel and hydrate. We also need to recover," said Mandel. "Eat breakfast every day to fuel your brain and put energy in your body. Eat regularly throughout the day, so that at the end of the work day, you don't say, 'Oh gosh, I'm so tired.  I'm gonna skip my workout again.' Carry a water bottle to stay hydrated. Dehydration causes fatigue, both mentally and physically. So it takes a little bit of planning, but I want people to plan ahead to set themselves up for success."

When it comes to her teams, it's a formula that's working.

"We see drastic improvements when athletes change what they eat and what they drink," said Mandel. "I'm biased. I think it makes all the difference in the world."

If you want to eat like an Olympian, you really can.  The nutritionists at the U.S. Olympic Committee have put about a hundred of their favorite recipes, including Pumpkin Porridge and Two-Ingredient Cookies, on their website. There is also information for athletes, coaches and parents about sport-specific diets, travel nutrition and eating guidelines.