Coach Mike Mead

September 2008

Food for thought

Now that the Beijing Olympics are history, the performances of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt were amazing. But more amazing perhaps were the reports of Phelps’ diet in preparing for the Games in which he consumed between 8-12,000 calories a day. After the Games, I went on-line to seek out some facts on his eating regiment.

Most of the stories about eating things like fried eggs, pizza and pasta were fairly consistent. The reports of his caloric intake did vary and appear to be exaggerated. An article I found on WebMD stated that Phelps likely consumed closer to 6,000 calories a day, rather than the 12,000 that some news sources quoted.

Still, 6,000 calories is a lot of eatin’! Those of us who claim to be distance runners can appreciate Phelps’ appetite but may question the types of food he consumes. Before Phelps, distance runners were known for their junk food eating habits. I remember reading about guys like Bill Rodgers who supposedly lived on junk food during his peak years of running and was winning road races and marathons left and right.

During my peak years, the only attention I paid to food was my salt intake and staying hydrated. Other than that it was eat what I liked. At my peak I was usually training twice a day and averaging 10 miles a day. That meant I was burning over a 1,000 calories more each day than the “Average Joe” who is supposed to consume 2,000 calories per day

I don’t think I ever ate as much food in one day than what Phelps supposedly eats everyday during his training and competitive phases. I usually spent about two hours of daily training, but Phelps spends an average of five hours in the pool! Gee, how does that equate to running? Sort of like comparing dog years to human years.

Swimming and running are two different types of activities. According to one reference guide, an hour of slow freestyle swimming burns 408 calories in an hour while running six minute pace for an hour burns 612 calories. Obviously Phelps wasn’t doing swim’s version of mall walking (by the way, walking three miles an hour burns 156 calories) otherwise he would be more like an orca than the speediest fish of the sea, or in his case the fastest swimmer in the pool.

Since I began running over 30 years ago, distance runners have become more conscience about what we eat to get the most out of our training and performances. I used to eat the burgers and fries with sodas, as well as the fried foods and junk foods. As I have gotten older I have eliminated a lot of the taboo foods that can create health problems down the road. Many runners, particularly female distance runners, are much more disciplined in what they eat these days, but I’m afraid some are eliminating some beneficial foods they need to be healthy and competitive.

A BBC News article that I read about Phelps made a great point. Barbara Lewin, a nutritionist who has advised international athletes on their dietary health, made a valid point in the article. She said that athletes in endurance competitions need to consume ample amounts of refined carbohydrates (found in the bread and pasta Phelps eats) to keep adequate glycogen stored in the muscles in order to avoid “hitting the wall.” Otherwise once all the carbohydrates are used up the body begins the less efficient process of burning fat for energy.

Perhaps Phelps’ success with his “non-traditional athletic diet” just might need to be re-examined by distance runners. The low-carb craze a few years ago helped some folks lose weight, but runners need their carbs. The winner of eight Olympic gold medals (and several world records, too) can’t be wrong!

So if you’ve been bonking on runs and in races, maybe you are not eating enough carbohydrates? Perhaps a little extra bread or pasta might hold the secret to your success. Happy trails!