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Athletes And The Foods They Eat: Don't Try This At Home

Olympic athletes are different from you and me. For instance, they're among the most highly trained and well-muscled people on earth. For another, they have to eat an insane amount of food to keep their high-powered engines running.

That's why swimmer Michael Phelps made headlines in 2008, when details of his diet were revealed. One journalist even tried to eat the 4,000-calorie breakfast that started Phelps' day. And it also inspired a group of fifth-graders to make a video about it.

But not all athletes are the same, and their events impose different needs on their diets, as well. That's the crux of a post by NPR's Eliza Barclay in The Salt today. Speaking to a U.S. Olympic Committee dietician, Eliza found that athletes whose events are restricted by weight class, like wrestling and tae kwon do, have the lightest calorie load, at 1,200-1,500 calories a day.

The highest caloric intake was found among endurance athletes — in swimming, cycling, marathon and rowing. They needed anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 calories to replenish their energy reserves.

Cyclists require a huge number of calories — as much as 9,000 in a day — in cycling's biggest event, the Tour de France. That number was the target for Team Columbia, in the race's 2008 edition. The now-defunct team's menu inspired writer Joel Stein to try to tackle it in a day. He wrote about the results for ESPN:

"At 11 p.m., with just an hour to go, I stared at the uncooked chicken breast, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, chocolate and (unbelievably) more pasta I had left to tackle — and I dropped out. I fell short by more than 2,000 calories."

This year's champion, Bradley Wiggins, is now headed for the Olympics, to compete in the road race. Here's what he has to say about eating while training or competing:

"You need to get over the notion of 'meal times' — it's just a matter of eating as much as possible whenever you can — pasta, omelettes and croissants, oat and honey energy bars — just make sure it's to hand and ready to eat. And always have a bowl of porridge before going to bed."

Writing for The Salt, Alastair Bland recently looked at how much athletes rely on sports drinks, "energy gels" and similar products.

"But the electrolytes in Powerade and Gatorade occur naturally in many other foods, like fruits, vegetables, grains, milk and coconut water," Bland writes.

The verdict on energy gels was less clear. One expert said they're bad for a workout.

"The fact is, every time you take a gel, you're doing the exact opposite of what you want to do," says Sims, who has worked with cycling stars Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong. She says densely sugared foods dehydrate the body and cause overheating.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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