Performance Drinks Pour Liquid Fuel Into Olympic Athletes

Olympic athletes burn huge numbers of calories. NPR's Scott Simon talks to nutritionist Dr. Nanna Meyer about what elite athletes drink to recover from their high-intensity workouts.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You know, athletes burn a tremendous number of calories in competition and training and with the Olympics underway we got to wondering just what they consume to recover from a workout and fortify themselves for upcoming events. So we're reached nutritionist Nanna Meyer in Sochi. She teaches at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and she is the U.S. Olympic speedskating team sport dietician there are the games.

Thanks very much for being with us.

NANNA MEYER: Thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: So do speed skaters have to have a different diet than say a distance skater or, for that matter, a ballet dancer?

MEYER: Yeah, absolutely. And it depends on the energy requirement for short track and figure skaters too. They want to be light on the day of competition. They still need to be fueled, but they're certainly not fueling like a marathon runner or a cross-country skier for that matter.

SIMON: Is the difference in what they eat or the amount?

MEYER: Mostly the amount and carbohydrate is the key player here because we store carbohydrate in the muscle as glycogen and that's really the limiting factor for prolonged exercise, such as cross-country skiing, you know, prolonged distances; whereas carbohydrate in a short-track can become limiting, especially if they advance. So the longer they skate, they have many, many heats going into semi-finals and finals, and so they're utilizing that carbohydrate, that glycogen, as quick energy and they need to replenish that fast. And so we do a lot of things during the competition to make sure that they don't run out and they don't hit the wall. It's really important.

SIMON: There's so many gels and power drinks. What do you think of them as a generalization?

MEYER: They are fast energy, so they have been made for exactly this purpose and so we do use them. But every athlete is different.

SIMON: To put you on the spot again, is Gatorade good for anything other than dumping on the coach who wins the Super Bowl?

(LAUGHTER)

MEYER: Yeah, whether it's Gatorade or Powerade or whatever sport drink it is, it's carbohydrate, electrolytes and water and it has, you know, it's performance effects. So, they're important.

SIMON: I've heard there's a miracle beverage called chocolate milk.

MEYER: Yeah. They like it. Anything chocolate. I can see that. You know, there's this craving for chocolate, post-exercise particularly. I'm from Switzerland, so I always say, to some degree, yes to chocolate.

SIMON: You've written in a blog that you're posting that you're not a fan of juicing.

MEYER: Yeah, it is quite wasteful and you start out with a lot of produce, pounds and pounds, and then you end up with two little cups of juice and the rest goes to waste. So I'm trying some things here and not letting some things go to waste and mixing them up with some interesting combinations, with olive oil and salt, and so that we can utilize some of those scraps as well.

SIMON: What do you feel about caffeine?

MEYER: Do they use it as a performance enhancing substance? For sure, whether it's in the form of coffee or caffeine in a gel. It has a central brain effect especially, but we always caution the athletes because they have to be aware that supplements in a pill form, that these things can be contaminated and lead to a positive doping test, so we educate a lot and we try to push food.

We're nutritionists and if you can get a performance-enhancing effect from food, we go that route - or a drink.

SIMON: Associate professor, Nanna Meyer speaking with us from Sochi. She's dietician for the U.S. speedskating team. Well, good eating to you, professor.

MEYER: Thank you very much. Good eating to you too.

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