Training and fitness alone do not make a sportsperson. Geeta Padmanabhan emphasises the role of a nutritious diet in achieving those medal winning feats of endurance and energy

They walked, ran, bicycled, jumped, swam, danced, boxed, wrestled, fenced and rode to enter the Olympics history book. If you thought blood, sweat and a burning desire made these athletes games-ready, you wouldn't be wrong but not wholly right. Like any army, they too were marching — and competing — on their stomach. They needed measured meals to perform well — dressage or diving pool. (Swimmer Phelps gobbles 10,000 calories, but burns them into gold.) So what does it take — or an athlete take — to go stronger, faster, higher? Is there an Olympian diet?

The first one is a nutritionists’ chant: Don’t skip breakfast. Have something carb-laden — toast or a couple of nutritious biscuits with tea as soon as you are out of bed, making sure of a gap of 30-45 minutes before you crash out the door. Your blood sugar is low when you wake up, point out nutritionists; it's a mistake to head for a work-out without eating. If you're slapping on butter, cheese or jam, wait till it settles because it slows down your “gastric emptying rate.” Put more time between eating and hitting the gym, park or beach.

A daily affair

For top athletes, nutrition is an everyday affair, part of the preparation. A carbo-load on the day before gets stored as excess fat, not good at all. The U.S. Olympic Training Centre in Colorado tells trainees: “For events that last more than an hour, have a high-carb, low-protein breakfast (cereal/milk) a couple of hours before the start. Continue to drink fluids (water, electrolytes) until about 15 minutes before go-time.” At London, swimming marathoners (10 km) were handed bottles of sports drinks on long poles from the shore. Land marathoners snatched water from stands on the way. So keep yourself hydrated through work — start to finish, outdoors or indoors, to restore glycogen. If it's a beverage, stick to the same brand.

Athletes restore food balance after work-outs. “I eat after every high-intensity activity,” says swimmer Adrian. “I snack after doing laps, after weights, running, whatever.” His “snack” is a medium-sized meat/cheese/egg burger, a cup of fresh fruit and a sports drink — a mix of protein, carbs and vitamins. (Usain bolts for chicken nuggets.) Within five minutes of finishing, athletes will have had water or an electrolyte drink.

Performers need to stay healthy and immune to cold/fever-causing germs. This demands large doses of anti-oxidants — from whole-grain bread, lean proteins (fish) and colourful fruits and vegetables. Walnuts and flax seeds provide anti-oxidant bonuses. Athletes go for daily multi-vitamin supplements, and firstendurance.com has one specifically designed for Olympians. Another stay-healthy tool is yoghurt, a powerhouse of probiotics. “I had a stomach infection,” said wrestler Sushil Kumar after he missed the gold. Queasiness and a runny stomach left him dehydrated and drained, his team manager said.

Women Olympic athletes fall short of iron, probably trying to stay slim. Iron deficiency slows us down, and increases risk of injury. Get your iron from foods such as oatmeal, red meat and spinach.

What about those in high-calorie-burning sports such as distance running/swimming, cycling and triathlon? They work out 4-5 hours a day; they can afford to dine on chole-bhature submerged in oil. Those in the super-weight category events chomp on eggs, pizzas and ice-cream cakes. Boxers and weight-lifters have to work hard to keep weight on. Lesson: burn more than you eat.

Soothing food

“Shooters need soothing, calming food, with less spice to balance nerves,” says Dr. Kannan Pughazendi, who accompanied the Indian hockey team to Atlanta Olympics. “Their hands should not shake.” There should be no energy deficiency, since they have to recover quickly for the next round. He recommends idli/dosa for their complex carbs and veggie sandwiches for replenishment. Poor eating — too little or too much — could translate into lack of nutrition and motivation.

One of the biggest issues Indian athletes face is the difference in cuisine, he said. “We depend on the tongue, not nutrition. Even those who wish to eat healthfully are defeated by nutritional realities. The standard Olympic fare (oatmeal, tofu?) is good for one meal, that's all.” Sometimes they eat in the open buffet area without knowing the diet component. In their quest for instant fuel, they could snack on processed food like nutri-bars. Team managers should find out the menus and prepare athletes six months ahead, or they suffer an adaptation shock. “In Atlanta we requested the local Indian restaurants to prepare food for the hockey team.”

Bruce Lee diet

* Bruce Lee ate high-protein foods, drank high-protein drinks, avoided junk food.

* Wouldn't touch baked goods and refined flour, describing them as empty calories.

* Had lots of fruit and green veggies every day.

* Preferred traditional Chinese/Asian food (beef in oyster sauce, tofu) because of their variety.

* Recommended dietary supplements, including Vitamin C, Lecithin granules, bee pollen, Vitamin E, rose hips (liquid form), wheat germ oil, Acerola – C, B-Folia.

Performers need to stay healthy and immune to cold/fever-causing germs. This demands large doses of anti-oxidants from whole-grain bread, lean proteins (fish) and colourful fruits and vegetables