A Week in the Life of an Elite Athlete – Team GB Olympic Swimmers
Elite Athletes on Social Media
Discreet and Delicious are very active on social media. We use it for a variety of reasons: to connect and interact with industry professionals; to participate in national conversations about Sports Nutrition and Performance Chefs; to use our expertise to encourage healthy, home cooking amongst the general public and to advertise what we do as chefs for elite athletes.
It was our presence on social media which enabled Bernie Dietzig, British Swimming’s Marathon Lead, to find us and contact us when he needed help for his team. A few weeks prior to the Rio Olympic Games, in July 2016, Bernie was taking the Open Water Swimming Team (Keri-anne Payne, Jack Burnell, their coaches and other support staff) to Swansea for a week of intense training and event preparation, and they needed a Performance Chef to stay nearby and cook dinner for them, every evening, at their rented townhouse at Swansea Marina.
Meeting the Team
I really had no idea what I would find in the kitchen at the townhouse. All I knew was that it was equipped for ‘holiday lets’. Well, when I’m on holiday I mostly eat out, so I wasn’t expecting there to be much in the kitchen. I had to take with me everything I thought I might need and then a bit more, just so that I could deal with anything. It proved to be exactly the right thing to do as the kitchen was not well enough equipped to cook delicious, nutritious meals for eight people, including two elite athletes, and serve them up looking presentable and appealing.
The team was gathering at the house on the Sunday afternoon and we’d arranged a menu for that evening by email. I went shopping for that evening’s ingredients and met them all at the house during the afternoon. As they were settling in, I got to work in the kitchen.
What the Elite Athletes ate
On the first night they ate Moroccan-spiced chicken with quinoa tabbouleh and garlic-roasted Mediterranean vegetables, followed by dark chocolate mousse. Afterwards we all sat down and thrashed out menus for the rest of the week. One member of the team had a gluten-intolerance so the menus all had to be planned around that. They had lots of ideas and we settled on a big variety of meals for the week… everything from Lasagne to Filet Steak to Thai Green Chicken Curry, Summer Pudding to Blueberry American Pancakes to Mango Sorbet. All to be cooked on the day using top quality, fresh, local ingredients and the healthiest cooking methods.
A second member of the team had multiple food sensitivities and was on FODMAP, so she did most of her own food. It was incredibly interesting and educational talking to her and learning from her about such a specialist diet. Every day is a school day!
A Day in the Life of an Elite Athlete
During my week in Swansea, I was only on duty to shop for and cook the evening meal each day, I had my mornings and early afternoons free to relax and do as I pleased. The same could not be said for Jack and Keri-anne, their days were filled with gruelling training sessions, a mixture of pool, gym, open water and even judo and yoga!
They started at around 6am with an early breakfast, usually porridge with fruit or eggs on toast, with smoothie or fruit juice. Then they had their first 2-hour training session, then they’d refuel with a snack like flapjack, nut balls or maybe a banana, with plenty more fluids. 2 more hours of training before lunch which might be something like a tuna or salmon quinoa salad and more fruit or yoh. Then 2 hours of training, another snack and 2 final hours of training before heading back to the house exhausted and hungry, ready to eat dinner at 7pm before an early night to prepare for more of the same the next day.
The Team behind the Elite Athletes
Spending time at the house with the Team GB Open Water Swimming Team gave me a real insight into the work which goes on behind the scenes to enable the elite athletes to give their very best performance at major events like the Olympic Games. Each swimmer has their own personal coach, there is a Physiotherapist permanently travelling with them and a Sports Psychologist who visits regularly, plus a team manager who co-ordinates all of their travel, accommodation, kit and training. They do not have a dedicated Sports Nutritionist with the team but do have access to the experts at British Swimming.
Nutrition for Open Water Swimmers
An Olympic Marathon Open Water swimming race is 10km and takes about 2 hours (depending on sea conditions). It is very definitely an endurance event and the swimmers need the right nutrition for that. However, some of their training sessions are high intensity, maybe gym-based for muscle development and strength, or pool-based sprinting for the end of the race which tends to be fast and furious. So, their nutrition is not simple, and it needs to be tailored carefully to their individual training programmes.
These swimmers are elite athletes and their bodies are the tools of their trade. As such they need to be kept in tip top condition to ensure they do the job properly when needed. A combination of training and proper sports nutrition ensures that this happens.
In the days leading up to a race they will need a high proportion of complex carbohydrates to ensure their glycogen stores do not get depleted during the event, which would leave them tired and performing below their optimum level. When they are training, which is most days, most of the year, they need a good mix of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. After any intensive strength session, a top up of protein is required, to repair the damage done to the muscles by the workout. This applies to any elite athlete and marathon swimmers are no exception.
Hydration for Elite Athletes
It is possible, but not easy, for the swimmers to take on fluids and energy gels during the race without losing too much time. When they are training, the time is less of an issue, so they are able to hydrate themselves properly throughout, although practising the technique for taking on fluids quickly is important.
Hydration is at least as important as food for any elite athlete, but it is more difficult to maintain whilst swimming than in most other endurance sports… athletes like cyclists and marathon runners can take on fluids even during competitions. Marathon swimmers do take on fluids, but it is more difficult. Therefore, it is more important for them to be fully hydrated before and after their event.
Discreet and Delicious Performance Chefs for Elite Athletes
Our Performance Chefs already have a good understanding of performance nutrition, but we also like to work with the athlete’s personal or team’s nutritionists to ensure that we are providing exactly the food that they need and none of the food they shouldn’t have.
A lot of the food recommended by nutritionists, whilst undoubtedly good for the athlete, can be rather dull and uninspiring. What we do is add the cheffy know-how to make those foods interesting and tasty without diluting the nutritional value.
They don’t need to worry about understanding the nutrition advice they are given and what food they are eating, they can trust us to feed them the right food and make it taste delicious. We work with them to make tweaks to flavour and texture until it is just as they like it… spicier, sweeter, thinner, crunchier.
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