8/14/08

Not buying it





12,000 calories a day???? Ok, I will believe 8,000-10,000 calories a day but even with all those golds you have to watch what you eat Michael Phelps.
Before I go off on my rampaged of sports nutrition I want to talk about swimming as a sport.

Having spent a mere 10 years of my life swimming competitively, I know the life of a swimmer. Sleep, eat and swim. You add in a little school, homework, extracurriculars (piano lessons for me) and an occasional night out with friends, swimming was my life from my 8th grade year until I graduated from college.

I know what it is like to swim a 5 x 2 hour afternoon swim practices a week and 1, 3 hour swim practice on sat morning, after having swam an hour at 4:30am, 3 days a week, and then an hour of dry land 3 days a week. And that was just in High School. Life got a bit more challenging when I was spending 4 years in college trying to balance 4 x 1 hour morning swim practices at 5am and then 5 x 2 1/2 hour afternoon practices and 4-5 dry land sessions a week, all while working for a bachelor degree. Oh, and then there are swim meets when I could swim anywhere from 9 races in a 3-day USS meet or 3-4 races in a one-day collegiate meet. Since I choose the mid-distance and anything but freestyle, I can almost remember many painful swim practices where I only thought about how many hours I had until the next swim practice. Did my shoulders have enough time to recover and why does my back hurt so bad?? I do remember several horrible swim sets which had me really wishing that I was a 50 freestyler. However, I absolutely loved swimming and I really can't remember a time when I asked my parents not to take me to swim practice and if something interfered with swim practice, it was an awful feeling to miss even 1 swim practice.
Here are a few of my favorite swim sets:
- 20 x 100's free repeaters on 1:15. If you missed a cycle, you start back at #1. I remember having to start over at #12. This set was on a sat morning in HS and all I wanted to do was finish the set so I could go home to eat and sleep.
- 8 x 400 IM's. I don't remember the cycle but I remember my USS swim team (in HS) going to meet Janet Evans at a swim shop so we did a set that she would do. Lucky us.
-8 x 50's no breath. Yes, you heard me right. This was a set we did in college every several weeks. It was more mental than anything since lung capacity is a given when you are a college swimmer. You had all the time in the world to do each 50 and you had to dive off the block and do a flip turn.
-8 x 200's butterfly. This was a big set for me every year of college and HS. MY best time was at the KY state swim meet when I placed 7th in the final heat of 200 fly and swam 2:19. I'd probably die if I tried to swim more than a 50 butterfly all out right now. Thank goodness I am an IM athlete :)
-8 x 100's fly on 7 min. Each 100 had to be below 1:10. Ouch, that's all I remember from this one.

But in addition to swimming, there is also dryland. This is where triathletes, cyclists and most other athletes differ from swimmers. Dryland is another component of the sport of swimming. Whereas triathletes spend time swimming, biking and running and leave very little time for weight lifting and other exercises, an hour a day on most days of the week is left to dryland exercises. This is where swimmers probably burn a lot of calories because the training is all about working the muscles. Triathletes train to be efficient and unfortunately, we train are bodies to NOT burn a lot of calories. That is just part of the training so that we can race efficiently for 1,2, 5 or 12+ hours. We aren't training our bodies to race for 20 seconds, 2 minutes or even 3 minutes. However, with swimmers, most of the training is anaerobic and the supply of energy is limited. The 2000 calories worth of stored carbs in the muscles, that triathletes use during high intensity workouts is what swimmers use for almost the entire workout. Training for 2-hours a day for months and months and months is like the feeling of having to do an IM every week for a month straight. It is hard to properly fuel and the need to eat everything in site becomes normally. Therefore, most of the calories burned during a swim practice (which can easily be over 2000 calories in a 2-hour swim practice) need to be replaced whenever possible after practice. Also, swimming is a sport that really increases the appetite and with 2 a day practices, burning calories is a day long affire.
So, do I think Michael Phelps needs 12,000 calories a day? Well, if you break down 5 hours of swimming and an hour of dryland a day, I would guess he could easily burn over 10,000 calories a day with most of that being stored carbs...and very little stored fat (even though a lean person can use stored fat for fuel). Adding to his resting metabolic rate of over 2000 calories (I am guessing because of his muscle mass) he does need a lot of calories to swim like a fish. However, it is important that a high calorie diet is also a healthy diet for the body and the heart.
I do not believe that Phelps eats, or needs to eat, fried onion rings, eggs, mayo sandwiches and french toast (totalling 4000 calories a meal) everyday. This is the media playing up his diet because he is super lean and they probably compiled several of phelps favorite meals and put it together as a daily diet. Just like the Tour riders, I do think that Phelps eats a lot and just like any athlete, I'm sure he indulges and eats whatever he wants at times. But, he is just eating like a young male who has learned he can eat whatever he wants when he wants.
Now is this the right diet for him? Well, I can't debate about this because I am not swimming 17 races in the Olympics and shooting for 8 gold medals. However, I can look at the diets of other athletes, such as Dara Torres, Amanda Beard and Natalie Coughlin and I can see a lot more moderation with a combination of healthy meals that you and I would eat, in addition to some sweet treats that we all deserve due to our training.
If I were the nutrition coach of Phelps I would take out greasy, fatty and fried food. Too add in calories, he should simply do the opposite of what people do to lose weight. You add in juices, higher calorie whole grains, more calorie dense foods and of course a few sweet treats because, well, he can.
I believe if Phelps ate his typical 12,000 calories on a daily basis he would feel like crap and he would swim like crap. I think Phelps eats when he is hungry and stops when he is full. We know he needs to sleep at night, take naps and spend 5+ hours a day swimming (in addition to media stuff) and the body can only take in so much food before the stomach gets full. However, we don't know what his insides look like and an uncontrollable diet to feed the demands of swimming may work now but it would be interesting to see what changes he would need to make with his diet after he stops swimming. I will be happy to help you, Mr. Phelps, when you decide to make the transition from eating like a swimmer to eating like a "normal" person :)
I do think that performance is the ultimate goal when eating to fuel an Olympic swimmer but just like any individual, it is important to eat for health and longevity.
Well, that's all I have to say about that.
GO USA!