“What diet helps you perform at your best?”
This is the question that today’s guest author, Todd Kuslikis from AShotOfAdrenaline.net, asked 25 Olympians, professional athletes and other top performers.
Their answers may surprise you…
Let’s jump right in.
Americans are obsessed with diets.
What diet will make me skinny? What diet will help me build muscle? Should I eat low carb and high protein? Or do I need high carb and low fat? Paleo, Atkins, The Zone, South Beach, Mediterranean…ahh!!! It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.
That’s why we rely on research, right? Shouldn’t unbiased clinical trials lead us to the right answer?
Let’s take a look at a few facts…
– In 2002, the “Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution” book hit the shelves and created a diet movement that millions of people followed. Research studies presented in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Annals of Internal Medicine showed the effectiveness and safety of the diet. Sounds like we have a winner. Not so fast… two years later (2004) The Journal of American College of Cardiology released a statement that they could not endorse the diet because of the “nutrient deficiencies inherent” in them. Both WebMD and The American Heart Association agreed stating “high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets put people at risk of heart disease” Confused yet? Read on…
–Throughout the late 90’s and early twenty first century The Zone Diet gained tremendous popularity. Dr. Barry Sears claimed in his book that eating a ratio of 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 30% fat is the ideal macro-nutrient guideline to put the human body in “the zone”. On the inside flap of the book it reads… “In this scientific and revolutionary book, based on Nobel Prize-winning research, medical visionary and former MIT researcher Dr. Barry Sears makes peak physical and mental performance… simple for you to understand and achieve…” Nobel Prize winning research, huh?
Eight years after “The Zone Diet” book was released, here’s what the Journal of American College of Nutrition said about it…
“There is presently little scientific support for the connections made between diet, endocrinology and eicosanoid metabolism. In fact, a review of the literature suggests that there are scientific contradictions in the Zone Diet hypothesis that cast unquestionable doubt on its potential efficacy.“
These are just two examples. Contradictory diet information leaves the average consumer throwing his hands up in frustration and reaching for the nearest bowl of Haagen-Dazs.
So Why Did I Ask These Athletes “The Diet” Question?
The below athletes have accomplished feats that few others have ever done. They have run 100 mile ultra marathons, won Olympic gold medals & national championships, and have risen to the upper echelon in their prospective sport.
I thought to myself, “If there is one type of person that knows how to fuel their body like a champion, its got to be a champion.” Seek wisdom from the source, right?
What I found after receiving the answers is that each athlete had their own perspective on the optimal diet. Some followed a low carb “caveman” diet and relied on fat as their primary fuel source. Others prescribed to a high carbohydrate diet with low fat. Others didn’t really think about diet at all and ate whatever they wanted. Hmmm…
This lead me to one of three conclusions:
Option 1: These professional athletes are as confused as the rest of us.
Option 2: Different strokes for different folks… In other words, each person is different and needs to find the optimal diet for himself through experimentation.
Option 3: (a) There is an ideal diet to fuel the human body and (b) it is found somewhere in the answers below… BUT even when an individual doesn’t follow their ideal diet, they can still perform at the highest level. In short, a good diet will help your performance but a poor diet will not necessarily stop you from achievement, if you have the other components in place such as proper training, etc.
After reflecting on these 3 possible scenarios, option 3 (with a little option 2 sprinkled into it) is probably the right option.
I have to believe that there is an ideal diet that optimally fuels your body. Though I can also understand how there may be slight variations in how one person’s body handles certain food compared to someone else.
This article was not meant to be an attempt to prove my position. It was meant to share with you what diet top athletes follow so you can make your own conclusion.
Here is the question that I asked the 25 top pro athletes:
Question: “What diet helps you perform at your best and do you follow that same diet when you are not training for an event?”
Here are their responses…
“The diet that I work best under is a simple diet of fresh fruits and veggies with extra protein from chicken, turkey, fish and meat. In competition mode, I eat every 2 or so hours and consume food the size of my palm… Never hungry, never full, always ready for battle.
I did not change my diet for 15 years. I still eat the same even though I am retired”
Accomplishments: Frank is credited widely as the #1 ranked pound for pound fighter in the world while reigning as the UFC Middleweight Champion. He has been named “Fighter of the Decade”, “Best Full Contact Fighter”, and three time “Fighter of the Year.”
“Nutrition is really important. What you put into your body says something about you. You have one life to live and so many people abuse their bodies by eating too many unhealthy foods. I try to eat a well balanced diet… fresh vegetables, fruit, healthy meats. Though I don’t overcomplicate it. I’m not on a diet and I certainly don’t count calories. I base much of my diet on how I feel. Your body will tell you what it needs.
It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to be perfect. I LOVE my licorice and have it almost every day. Pay attention to what you eat and allow yourself some splurges every once and awhile and you’ll be ok.”
Nancy is a former professional basketball player in the WNBA. She is regarded by many as one of the greatest figures in women’s basketball. She is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
“I believe that the word “diet” invokes negative connotations and therefore I don’t subscribe to it. Rather, I think that balanced eating habits every day, month and year are what help(ed) me be consistent. I would use more calories and carbohydrates during the heaviest of my training and playing days, but even then, I would eat consistently, even allowing myself my favorite ice cream whenever I felt like it because it also kept me mentally happy, and that is apart of having good outcomes.”
Brandi is one of the top professional soccer players in the sport. She was a member of the United States women’s national soccer team. She has also played for the San Jose CyberRays of the WUSA and FC Gold Pride of Women’s Professional Soccer.
Mike Wardian – Top American Marathoner and 100 Mile Ultra-marathoner
“The diet that helps me perform my best is the same diet that I consume when I am not racing. It is something that just works for me and would humbly advise everyone to find a group of foods that work for them. I eat a lot of carbs, breads, pasta, fruits, veggies, nut butters and dairy. I don’t eat meat and tend to not drink a lot of calories and I feel this type of vegetarian diet has worked for me and allows my body to push itself to the highest level while recovering quickly between events.
I am always experimenting and I think that is one of the greatest adventures in ultra endurance events trying different things and seeing what works and what does not work for you.”
Accomplishments: 1st place winner of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 US 50 km championships and 2008 winner of the U.S. National 100 km championship.
“While I was competing, I would regularly over eat, just to have enough energy to complete a workout.
Recent figure indicate that Michael Phelps consumed 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day. My number was closer to 8,000, but it concluded all the wrong kind of food.
At breakfast, I used to put honey on my scrambled eggs. For an in between meal snack, I’d open a box of Frosted Flakes and a carton of milk, and keep eating until they both were empty. Double desserts were a must.
Now I am 56 years old and 35 years out of my sport, but I still enjoy a hearty meal. I travel a great deal, so often have to eat what is placed in front of me. I have a sweet tooth.
I am mostly a steak and potatoes kind of guy, but with a gluten intolerant daughter, I am trying to back off the bread and starch a little. My one big indulgence is a large tub of popcorn at the movies (and sometimes at home as well).
I still eat three meals a day, but three years ago I also added a workout in the pool (3x weekly).
I am six feet six inches tall, and I competed at 198 pounds. I now weigh 240.
When preparing to compete, I liked to “Swim hungry.” By that I mean I would put off a big meal until after a big race.
It may have been psychological, but I liked to “cinch” the drawstring of my swim suit very tightly. I also felt I’d benefit by carrying less weight during the race.
I would not “fast” before a race, but I would not eat a big meal within 2 hours of the warm up… and the big race was usually 1-2 hours after that.
After the meet, I’d eat a huge meal.
When meets were a long way off, I’d eat as I described earlier.“
John is an American former competitive swimmer that has one 4 Olympic gold medals and 1 silver medal in his career. Each of his gold medal victories broke a world record.
Learn more about John at JohnNaber.com.
“It has been quite a while (70’s and 80’s) since I was a pro basketball player and athlete. We had not yet developed what and how to eat. Though I did know back then that I needed protein and starch to help give me strength and durability. I did NOT learn how to eat until after I was done competing. I was working out sometimes 6-7 hours a day, I would burn off what I ate. Sad to say, that I still am not eating as I should. When I played basketball, I would not eat 4 hours before a game. So by the time a game was over, (2 1/2 hour game.) there was time socializing, showering, and treatment… at least another hour before you get out of the arena. Almost 8 hours of not eating, I was famished—-I could eat 2 orders of French dips, 2 orders of fries, and either 2 chocolate shakes, or 2-3 glasses of milk. I do NOT eat like that anymore! Though I still like a couple of non-fat or 2% glasses of milk.
By the way, I was always playing sports and was very active as a child. I was very thin and was a very picky eater. Raised Catholic, I couldn’t eat meat on Friday’s, plus I did not eat vegetables or fruit as a child growing up. Literally! Did eat applesauce, but wouldn’t eat apples, oranges, banana’s, grapes, strawberries, anything! Or veggies–none! I was a meat, bread and potatoes kid. And honestly, as a college student at UCLA, I rarely ate at the dorm cafeteria—they didn’t have the food availability that they do today on campus—-and since McDonald’s was very inexpensive in the 70’s, I would have my burger and fries, and “always” had chocolate! Don’t know if that’s good or bad, because still need my chocolate or candy.”
Accomplishments: Ann was the first player to be part of the U.S. National Team while still in High School and the only woman to sign a contract with the National Basketball Association team, the Indiana Pacers.
“I follow a low carbohydrate, high fat diet, in which I restrict myself on 5 days of the week to no more than 100g of carbohydrates, then on my 2 most active days, eat anywhere from 100-200g of carbohydrates. When you’re forcing your body to rely on fatty acids as a fuel, you 1) provide steady and sustained fuel for you brain (which protects you from “hitting the wall” during a long exercise session or event); 2) increase your insulin sensitivity and blood sugar stabilization, which lets you avoid energy crashes and blood vessel or nerve damage from high sugar levels; 3) spare protein from being used as energy, which preserves lean muscle mass; and 3) decrease lactic acid production and increase pH, both of which reduce net acidity in the body.”
I’m always training for some event or another, so this is my strategy year-round. If I were not training, I would actually have a very similar diet but WITHOUT the higher carbohydrate days.”
Accomplishments: Ben is a multiple Ironman Hawaii finisher and author of several books on fitness, metabolism, and diet.
Kristine Lilly – Professional American Soccer Player and Most Capped Men’s or Women’s Soccer Player In The History Of The Sport
“My diet didn’t change at all from in season or out of season. I always keep a balanced diet. The only thing that changed was the amount of calories I took in. In season, I needed to take more calories in because of the amount of training I did. “
Kristine was a member of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team for 24 years as well as played for the Boston Breakers of Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). She is the most capped player in the history of the sport. She gained her 352nd and final cap against Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.
“Stay away from the bad carbs (limit the bread), no fried foods, skip the desserts (only on special occasions), drink a ton of water, try to follow all this all the time. The biggest change is breakfast – fruit, cottage cheese, juice, and a hard boiled egg.”
Jim is one of the most accomplished swimmers in the sport of swimming. He was the first man to every break the 50 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. This feat was the equivalent to Roger Bannister’s four minute mile in the sport of track. He won two golds and a bronze in the 1976 Olympics and a record five golds in the first World Championships at Belgrade in 1973.
Learn more about Jim at JimMontgomerySwim.com.
“I maintain a year round Alkaline Diet consisting of high complex carbs, low simple carbs, low fat, and medium levels of protein. I can not live without my banana and salads. I train and compete year round. So far from Jan – Sept 2012, I have set 160 Recordsetter World Records in strength and endurance – becoming the world’s 8th most prolific record holder. In addition, I have competed in 8 elite competitions where I have won 4 cross country running races, took the silver medal in the Indoor Rowing Southeast Championships for Lightweight Women 500m, and captured two Top 10 finishes in stand up paddle boarding in the WPA Series.
Keeping my body with a high pH through alkaline foods helps me perform at my best and recover very quickly to jump on the next record or race. It also keeps my energy up to train people as I am a fitness trainer/nutritionist and I teach wellness at www.AliciaWeber.com “
Accomplishments: Alicia may be the World’s Fittest Woman. She has set over 50 world records and is the only woman to ever by inducted into the Pushup Hall of Fame. You can check out her records by clicking here RecordSetter.com. She is also a top competitor in 15 different sports. Here is a list of her competitions and results.
“I follow the Gracie Diet, the one created by my uncle Carlos Gracie.
I my opinion the diet helps me in many aspects but one I can see all the time is that we don’t get sick. Probably because of the combination. This is very important for competitors.”
Accomplishments: Royler is one of the most popular fighters in the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Family. He and Marcelo are the only people to win the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship 3 consecutive years. He is a 4 time World Jiu-Jitsu Champion and is considered one of the best technical Jiu-Jitsu fighters in the world.
“I don’t see it as a diet. It is my normal eating habits. Eat healthy, regular size meals, eat what tastes good. Let’s put it this way, rate food on how it tastes and is good for you from 1 to 10, 10 being the absolute best tasting and healthiest food for you. For get about the fat content and the sugars, eat only foods that rate 8, 9 and 10’s. Otherwise, skip it. It is not worth it. And the most important thing of all, size. Don’t over eat. Eat only the best, and then only in small amounts. No diet, no torture, no suffering. Every meal a banquet.”
LeBell won the AAU National Judo Championships (both heavyweight and overall) in 1954 and 1955. He is a 10th Degeree Black Belt Kodokan Judo, International Kyokushin Budokai, 9th Degree Black Belt, US Ju-Jitsu Federation National AAUU Heavyweight Judo Champion (1954-1955), National Wrestling Association (NWA) Pro Wrestling Champion, Actor & Stuntman with over 1,000 movie and television credits, MMA Judge, Coach, Instructor and Boxing Referee
“To answer your question, it’s been years since I have been competitive, so I really don’t recall specifics of my diet. I can tell you that I was conscious of what I ate year around because we always trained, with only a few weeks off at the end of the summer. Just some highlights; it was important to eat something light (fruit, power bar, etc.) right before practice, and also right after practice. I always tried to maintain proper balance of proteins, carbs and healthy fats. Interesting observation that I recall, because I trained so much it was possible to eat just about anything as I would burn everything off, but it was pretty obvious how my training was affected when I lacked diet discipline at times. I was not able to recover from practice to practice as well, and performances in practices suffered.”
Lenny is one of the greatest swimmers of all time. He is a former world record holder and Olympic swimmer where he won a total of 4 Olympic gold medals. He was also voted USA Swimmer of the Year between 1997 – 2000.
“I have not competed for over 28 years, but I still have a regular fitness regimen and I continue to eat healthy foods. I start my day with one pack of Qivana’s Metabolique. I also take Qivana‘s Probiotic Core and Essentials. Otherwise, I eat a lot of salad, chicken, fish, hummus, eggs.”
Bart is one of the greatest gymnasts to ever compete in the Olympics. He was a member of the gold medal-winning men’s gymnastics team at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games where he won an individual gold medal on the parallel bars.
“I do not follow any Diet. I eat when I feel hungry. But I am in connection with body and mind. So when I am in connection, I can eat whatever I want… but I will always eat what I feel to eat.
Normally I eat once a day, in the afternoon when I feel a bit hungry… vegetarian food. But when I do a world record, I eat a lot of food in the morning before the attempt. This is because I need energy to be able to raise my metabolism. I have shown a 300% increase in my metabolism while emerged in ice.”
Accomplishments: Wim holds 20 world records including longest ice immersion (1 hour and 52 minutes and 42 seconds). He has also completed a full marathon above the polar circle in temperature close to negative 20 degrees C. (that’s freakin’ cold!) Gotta check this video out by him.
“When I trained I would use the most updated diet from a creditable source. I helped peak myself by a little more carbo’s and mostly water for liquid.”
Dan could be considered one of the greatest wrestlers of his time. While wrestling at Iowa State University, he only lost one match in his entire collegiate career. In 1972, he won an Olympic gold medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany.
“I try to eat as much “real food” as possible. That is to say, I try to cut out as much processed junk as possible. Usually that falls within the paleo diet framework. That said, because of the wide variety of things I do, I tend to eat very different things depending on the task as hand. For example, my diet when I’m working on getting six pack abs is drastically different from when I’m training for an ultra marathon. In the end it really depends on what your goals are, but I find that eating as much real food as possible definitely helps.”
Accomplishments: Joel is the superbly inspirational founder of Impossible HQ and daily challenges thousands to get out of their comfort zone and do the impossible. He is also an accomplished marathoner and triathlete.
“I have been racing bicycles at a very competitive level for 15 years now. Diets have come and gone, as well as my fitness. I feel as though I am currently in the best shape of my life. My events are currently tailored to my schedule. Work is hectic, and devoting every weekend to racing, and weekdays to training just cannot happen anymore. Now I pick a handful of much longer endurance events to do each year, so the time I take off of work to race is really worth it. With the reduced ability to seriously train, diet has become an integral part of my overall fitness. For almost a year now I have been on a slightly modified paleo diet. The exclusion of processed sugars and carbohydrates have been a fantastic way to stay lean, feel strong, and hopefully perform just as well, if not better. It took my body a few weeks to feel normal while training during the beginning of the diet. I believe this is due to the change in what your body uses for energy. Now that it has been a significant number of months, training is going well, and race performance is right where it needs to be. I try to keep my diet the same throughout the year. It seems to be easier to maintain a constant level rather than fluctuate between eating well, and not. Caloric intake usually increases a bit during harder training and racing months, but the overall diet remains the same.”
Jason is a semi-pro mountain biker, accomplished road racer and triathlete. He has taken on some of the most challenging endurance events including the “L’Étape du Tour” in France and the “Shenandoah Mountain 100” in Virginia.
Learn more about Jason at Freshbikescycling.com.
“I tend towards moderation when it comes to diet, during both active and recovery phases of my training. I avoid strict diets because I want to give my body what it needs; and it usually tells me what that is. When I’m gearing up for a big race, I usually bump my calories up by 10-15% so that I have stores during long runs and so that I can recover appropriately during my active recovery/off days. I also increase my protein intake since I can offset the muscle damage caused by long runs and lifting weights. “
Accomplishments: Kelly holds both the 200m and 800m world records for amputees. She also won gold at the 2008 New York Triathlon and ITU World Triathlon Championships in the amputee division. She is an incredible inspiration. In 2010, she was also one of the contestants on Survivor: Nicaragua.
“My diet does not change too much although I add in a few more calories when I am getting ready for a show as I increase my training. All my calories are from real food. No take outs etc. Vegetables and Meat make up my 3 main meals with oatmeal and another protein and fat rich snacks making up my other snacks. Plus I use Body Science supplements (twitter@bodyscience).
I have used BSc (bodyscience) for many years and have found them to be far superior to anything else i have used.
Basic meal times are
17h00 pre workout snack
19h30 Bsc Nitrovol
Accomplishments: Warrick is one of the greatest strongmen out there. He is undefeated in any strength sport in Australia. He also holds many records in the area of strength.
“I usually try to eat carbs the night before… pastas and breads top that list. On competition day I try to eat light before I bowl, fruits and yogurts for breakfast and a chicken salad or a soup for lunch.
Being from Italian heritage, my grandmothers make sure I do not stick to that diet when I’m home and not competing :)”
Jason is an astounding bowler. He has one of the top professionals in the sport and has rolled a perfect 300 game 57 times.
Rob Powell – Professional Athlete and 4 Time WFC/Guinness World Record Holder
“Like I tell people in The WFC Workout, The World’s Fittest Workout Apps: App 1 Getting Started (in the diet section)…
I recommend that we “Eat like a caveman”. That is the food our bodies are designed to digest and use as fuel.
In the time of “the caveman” there was no beer, no sugar and only something barely bread like. The beer, breads and sugars we have today from sugar cane, corn syrup, wheat and other grains are made from manipulated and man made plants.
Eat more fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and lean meats. Eat less fats, sugars and carbohydrates. It’s that simple. Try to get your sugars and carbs from fruits and vegetables.
Obviously, if you are planning an all day climb, or marathon event of any kind, you will need to carbo load to keep your strength and energy levels up.
As far as myself? Having a sweet tooth and a love of pizza like most people, I do occasionally indulge in these “bad for you foods”. However, I save that for my weekly cheat meal, as the App 1 suggest. It will help to keep you honest with your diet.
Following this diet has really helped me to keep my weight in check over the years. And it will work for you too….”
Accomplishments: Rob is a Four Time World Record Holder, Four Time World Fitness/Condition Champion with over 150 Records. Here are just a few: 1,250 Push Ups, 1,250 Leg Lifts, 20 Mile Row and 3,250 Sit Ups, He was also a professional athlete and is widely considered as “The World’s Toughest Man”.
“When I am training for an event I try to eat enough protein from natural food sources and and I also drink one to two protein shakes as well. I eat carbs. Mainly pasta, and potatoes mixed in with uncooked and thawed vegetables. I also eat twelve grain cereal (cooked like porridge). I also use supplements such as L-Glutamine to help for recovery. The protein powder I use also contains quite a bit of BCAA’s. It is a boring diet but effective. I do not worry about my carb intake as I am not a bodybuilder. I eat the foods that will provide enough energy to get me through my workouts and recover in time for my next one.
When I am not training I eat whatever I want. I like pizza, chicken wings, french fries, hotdogs and hamburgers and steak. I am in no means a calorie counter. There are two reasons for this; one I figure that when I train, I eat a very bland and boring diet so I reward myself when I am not training. Secondly, I am very blessed that I have a very high metabolism rate. I am the type of person who looks at food and loses weight. So I am one of the fortunate ones who does not have to worry about nutrition.”
Accomplishments: Roy has certainly earned Muscle & Fitness Magazines’ title of “Mr. Push Up.” In 1998, he broke the world record for push ups in one hour by completing 3,416. And in February of 2004 set a new Guinness World Record by performing 138 push ups in 60 seconds.
Learn more about Roy at MrPushup.ca.
“Being a lightweight rower is rather complicated in terms of diet. As a crew we have to weigh in 2 hours before racing at a crew avg of 70.0kg and no one person can exceed 72.5kg.
So unlike most other athletes, you won’t find lightweight rowers eating too much leading up to and the day before racing. What is most important is what you consume immediately after. Carb loading and special diets for a single race in rowing isn’t really make or break. A 2k at most burns around 200 calories in the 6-7 mins you race. I prefer fast burning carbs and a sugary drink right after weigh ins. Leading up to racing I eat normally to cut weight down (usually try to do about 1lb a week for 6-7 weeks because it will be pretty much all muscle I’m cutting out), I just have to cut out anything that tastes good or makes something taste good (like pasta with no sauce).
On regular days I eat a lot of carbs; I’ve always been that way. I don’t have any special foods I focus on, I just listen to what I’m hungry for. Most of the time its bread or some form of it. I’m really busy so I actually don’t have much time to cook so I really just rely on whatever I can grab while on the go. It works well for me, probably those that are looking for some magic diet secret won’t find it from me; its just discipline. I’m also always training year round so that’s probably why I don’t think much about it, whatever I eat my body will burn pretty fast and find some way to use it.”
Rares is one of the top rowing champions in the sport. In 2008 he won first place in the National Rowing Championships. In 2011, he placed 2nd is the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland and in 2010, he placed 3rd in the World Rowing Championships at Lake Karapiro, New Zealand.
“I don’t drink Gatorade because of the sugar content or any energy drinks – I believe sugar absolutely causes fatigue and kills your strength. I separate my vitamins to water soluble and fat soluble. It’s important to take water soluble vitamins at a different time than those of fat soluble vitamins. I only eat fruit and grains in mornings and never meat. I think people eat far too much meat and I find that one has the most energy on an empty stomach. I never eat till I am full – doing so will wreck my performance for the whole day. Ideally, I would eat grains for mornings, fruits for lunch, and vegetables, meats, and fats for dinner (but I eat very little meat and when I do it’s usually fish). I take electrolytes with water every second day. Here is my Fitness Triangle = Train – Rest – Nutrition – Keep ALL sides strong.”
Darryl is one of the greatest record setters of all time in the area of difficult, odd or extreme world records. He currently holds the record for one arm pushups on a raw egg (without breaking the egg).
Hope you enjoyed the article. Now it’s time for you to share what diet helps you perform at your best! Post your experiences below, and also feel free to leave any questions you have about what diet helps top athletes to perform their best.
Also published on Medium.