Going for the gold means more than just grueling hours of training; it requires eating like an Olympian. We spoke with two U.S. gold medalists from the 2008 games and current hopefuls for this summer's London Olympics—swimmer Peter Vanderkaay and soccer goalie Nicole Barnhart—about their dietary regimens when training and competing. As it turns out, what's good for a regular joe is good for an Olympic joe, too: They eat fare that's fresh, unprocessed, and cooked by the athletes themselves.
Peter's Food Diary
Pre-workout: PowerBar and banana
Workout: 32-ounce PowerBar Restore drink
Post-workout: 8-ounce chocolate milk
Breakfast: 5-egg omelet with 2 ounces salsa; 2 cups yogurt with 1/2 cup blueberries and 1/2 cup granola; 16 ounces water
Lunch: 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 1 apple, 16 ounces water
Workout: 32 ounces PowerBar Restore drink
Post-workout: 8 ounces chocolate milk
Dinner: 2 grilled marinated chicken breasts, 1 cup brown rice, 10 spears of grilled asparagus, 16 ounces water
Nicole's Food Diary
Breakfast: 16-ounce smoothie made with banana, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, mango, pomegranate juice, coconut, milk, almond milk, flax seed, whey protein, Trader Joe's peanut butter, and Vega Sport energy powder; 2 slices Trader Joe's low-fat zucchini date loaf; Emergen-C
Lunch: 8.5 ounces Vanilla Light Muscle Milk; 2 corn, cheese, and black bean tacos on corn tortillas; 1/2 grapefruit
Dinner: 2 sushi rolls made with brown rice, honey, rice vinegar, cream cheese, eel sauce, avocado, cucumber, carrot, mango, sesame seeds, panko bread crumbs, tuna, salmon, soy sauce (gluten-free), ginger, wasabi; 6 Trader Joe's chicken gyoza; 1/2 grilled artichoke with herbed goat cheese and lemon mayonnaise; seaweed salad; Emergen-C; hot green tea
Who Needs a Personal Chef?
"I love cooking and knowing what's going into the meal and exactly what I'm eating," says Barnhart, the 30-year-old goalie for the U.S. Women's Soccer Team.
Learning to cook, Vanderkaay agrees, was a by-product of getting ready for competition. "When I first started cooking for myself, I really wasn't very experienced or very good at it, but because of all the training we do, I like to eat, and I like to eat things that I like, so I've learned to cook, and I've become a lot better at it," Vanderkaay says. "Now I feel much more proficient in my cooking skills. I'm by no means a chef, but I can make a lot of things now." His recipe repertoire includes pastas drizzled in lemon juice, and Thai-inspired shrimp and rice with coconut milk.
The Real Breakfast of Champions
Barnhart's day begins with homemade smoothies. "I'll make a smoothie with pomegranate juice, coconut milk, frozen berries, bananas, peanut butter, flax seed, and sometimes spinach," she says. "I usually just have that with a piece of toast with some cinnamon on it."
Snacks for Super-Athletes
Training days for Vanderkaay feature pre-, mid-, and post-workout smoothies and snacks. Barnhart always keeps cashews and other nuts as well as Lärabars or Kind bars on hand for extra energy between practices.
So, How Much Do They Really Eat?
Vanderkaay, who won golds in the 2004 and 2008 men's 4x200 freestyle relay, relies on a carb-heavy diet to get him through hours of pool laps, running, and weight training. He estimates he ingests between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day to keep up.
"What we do in the pool is very intense, so I'm burning a lot of calories [there]," he says. "But we also do weights, we're running stadium steps, we're doing boxing, core work—a lot of different things that are also at a very high intensity."
Neither athlete is a stickler about counting calories. Both say they eat to feel full.
"I just go by feel, really," Vanderkaay says. "Some days we're training harder than other days, and I can kind of tell how many calories I need."
What's Off-Limits (Within Limits)
Barnhart, who won her gold in Beijing in 2008, says she really started paying attention to what she was putting in her body about five years ago. "The way I eat, in general, doesn't really change too much whether I'm in training or not," she says. "I don't like sweets or chocolate, so I don't have to worry about eating any of that stuff ever, and I'm really not a big greasy-food eater."
Vanderkaay also avoids sugary and junk foods, but misses the occasional slice of pizza.
"There's nothing better than a good pizza," he says. "It's not the worst thing in the world you can eat, but it's certainly not the best."
Eating Healthy Far From Home
Maintaining a food regimen gets tricky on the road. When the team is traveling to qualifying tournaments, Barnhart goes green. "There's always the salad option, which I tend to eat a lot more on the road than when I'm at home just because it's there, and it's something you can doctor up and make how you want it."
And at the Games? Well, at least every athlete is eating at the same cafeteria, Vanderkaay says.
"You're bound to what they have there, none of which I would call extremely tasty," he says. "But it's the same for everyone, so it's definitely edible. For those who think we're eating five-course meals and being catered to, that's certainly not the case."