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The Way to An Olympic Gold Diet

We all know that food choices and nutrition – before, during and after exercise – can have a significant impact on an athlete’s performance – especially if those athletes are training for the Olympics! So, when it comes to aspiring gold-medal Olympic swimmers, what does their diet look like?

While recommendations vary based on a swimmer’s personal fitness and intensity of exercise, the following are some basic guidelines that professional athletes should follow.

Calories In

Olympic swimmers burn more calories than the average person. So while a suggested diet of 2,000-2,500 calories may be ok for the average person, that number can almost double for a professional athlete who may need around 5,000 calories per day depending on hours of physical activity.  However, not all calories are equal.

To fuel the body of a professional athlete, I recommend a healthy diet of energy-yielding foods, such as:


Why: Carbs are your body’s primary source of energy and should comprise 60 to 70% of your total calories.

Recommendation: To determine how many carbs you need, multiply your weight in pounds x 3 for general training and 4.5 for endurance training. Start a carbohydrate rich diet three days before a major event to include whole grains, oats and legumes. 3-4 hours prior to exercise, 150-350 gm carbohydrate (weight in ponds X 1.5) is advised.

Eat This: Salty snacks are recommended during hot weather and whole grains should always be a top choice.


Why: Protein is essential to the growth and repair of tissue and muscle building.

Recommendation: 1.2 to 2.0 grams per protein per kilogram of body weight for athletes, depending on training. Suggested foods include chicken breast, salmon, egg whites, beans, lentils, cottage cheese or yogurt.


Why: Healthy fats provide energy and are good for moderate intensity exercise. Athletes need 30 percent of calories from fat.

Recommendation: Limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats altogether.

Eat This: Foods such as nuts and nut butters, avocados and healthy oils are good choices.

Fruits and vegetables. Vegetables are full of fiber and nutrients, so load up.  Fruits are also a good choice, but because they contain sugar, they can cause a spike in blood sugar that could impact performance, so I don’t recommend fruit just before a major event. (Like a major Olympic race!)


Why: Vitamins are crucial for turning food into energy. There is no evidence that vitamins will enhance your performance, but a shortage could cause problems.

Recommendation: Some vitamins important for athletic performance include: Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Folate, Vitamin C, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin and Vitamin D. Athletes should be sure to get the daily recommended intake of these vitamins for best performance.

Avoid: Dietary and nutritional supplements should be avoided as they may have an ingredient which may be banned from competitive sports.

Female swimmer underwater flowing on blue background


While professional swimmers may not feel like they sweat as much as runners, hydration is just as critical. Most experts recommend:

  • Hydrating every 20 minutes during activity
  • Stick to water if activity level is less than an hour
  • For longer performances, electrolyte-supplemented fluids are recommended
  • Avoid energy drinks

Finally, athletes should weigh themselves before and after exercise. For every pound lost, three cups of fluids are advised.


Recovery nutrition is critical for Olympic swimmers. Why? It helps the body maintain strength and energy as well as recover.

Replacing lost fluids, electrolytes, and carbohydrates should be done quickly (within 15 to 60 minutes) following practice or competition. Additionally, protein can help repair damaged tissue and stimulate new growth.  Don’t have an appetite after exercise? Liquid foods and drinks are a great choice.

About Ragini Madan, MD

Dr. Ragini Madan is a physician with WakeMed Physician Practices – Apex Medical Group.  Fun fact: Her niece actually swam in the 2004 Greece Summer Olympic Games!

**Special Thanks**

A special thanks to Parul Kharod for her contributions to this article. Parul is a Clinical Dietitian in Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Cary Hospital. For information related to diet and nutrition, or to speak to one of our licensed, registered dietitians, contact Outpatient Nutrition Services today. Insurance coverage and costs may vary.