London 2012 reflections

July 29, 2013

Since leaving the Olympic village, I’ve received many questions about how all athletes were catered for during the games. Why don’t athletes have kitchens in their apartments to prepare their own food? How does a large catering operation deal with all the individual requirements of such a broad range of athletes? How do athletes know how to select their meals?

There appears to be a huge misconception that athletes know exactly what they need to eat to fuel their performance and recover optimally! Sports nutrition is a growing industry, which is only now starting to become regulated. Great Britain athletes are very lucky to have the support of world-class practitioners, many of which are from the English Institute of Sport, to educate them about the importance of nutrition. America and Australia have a similar regard for sports nutrition but there are many countries that provide no expertise to their athletes in this area.

It was always fascinating to look at what other athletes, from different countries, were eating. For example, a lot of the Asian and Eastern European athletes would tuck into McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner! I would also see piles of Brie and blue cheeses alongside pastries and cakes – a treat it appears for some athletes. It would be easy to think these athletes have just got carried away with the vast array of foods freely available but I’m pretty sure a lot of them just don’t know any better.

Before the Great Britain women’s hockey team entered the village, we were provided by menu plans and the nutrient breakdown of every single dish served in the athletes dining hall. Our nutritionist had the task of wading through the extensive menus in order to provide a bespoke menu of options that met our nutritional goals. Also highlighted were meals to stay well clear of! Simple information in terms of images of the dinning hall arrangement, location of key foods, menu rotation days and the challenges to expect from eating in a social environment were all invaluable. This information allowed us to prepare for a truly challenging environment. It is very easy for all your dietary goals to fly out of the window when you have 24-hour access to such a vast array of delicious and free food.

For all the time and effort invested in the physical preparation of athletes, nutrition support has a long way to go to catch up. The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of elite sport where spectators expect athletes to be in the best possible shape. The level of practitioner support is probably just as important as the requirement for a talented athlete, particular during times when science and knowledge are pushing the boundaries of physical capabilities. For athletes to truly reach their peak, they must take a complete approach to their preparation, which includes understanding the impact of nutrition on health and performance.