Olympic athletes: they’re absolutely not just like the rest of us. Most train rigorously throughout the year and compete in high-profile events in the interim between the Games. Their schedules have a serious focus on performance and recovery, which means that they live—and eat—a little differently.
Demanding training schedules call for ample energy and the right nutrients at the right time. The nutritional needs of every sport, and every individual, are different, meaning that each athlete has to figure out a way of eating that supports their own output. We asked five athletes competing in Tokyo in five different sports to share what they eat on a typical day of training. Then we asked sports dietitians to weigh in on what works about their diets—and what they could do to dial it in even further.
Cummings is a first-time Olympian and four-time Junior World Champion weight lifter. Born and raised in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina, he still trains at local gyms. At age 11, he became the youngest lifter to ever complete a double-bodyweight clean and jerk (200 pounds). He was also the first weight lifter to win four Junior World Champion titles in a row (2016 to 2019), and he currently holds 23 American records. While Cummings didn’t take home a medal this year, he’s just beginning his Olympic career. He trains five days a week for roughly two hours per day, and each training session focuses on one of the two Olympic lifts: the snatch or the clean and jerk.
Breakfast: A sausage, bacon, ham, and cheese omelet or a sausage, egg, and cheese burrito
Midmorning snack: Granola bar
Lunch: Either salmon and rice with tomatoes, or steak and potatoes with some vegetables
Afternoon/Post-workout: Ascent Protein shake or Ascent recovery water (Cummings is sponsored by Ascent Protein)
Dinner: Steak and potatoes or chicken and vegetables, with fruit for dessert
Treats: French fries or cookie-dough ice cream every once in a while
As a weight lifter, Cummings is primarily focused on building strength. There’s plenty of protein in his diet, which is important for muscle repair and growth, but experts say that getting adequate carbs is equally critical. “For optimal recovery, you want carbs to refuel, protein to repair, and electrolytes and water to rehydrate,” says Tony Castillo, a sports dietitian and the owner of Nutrition for Performance in Stuart, Florida. Even strength-based athletes should include carbs in every meal and snack.
Jessica DeGore, a Pittsburgh-based dietitian who works with female athletes, applauds the fact that Cummings doesn’t avoid foods he loves. “Everyone, whether they are Olympic athletes or not, should enjoy all foods. By occasionally eating less nutritious foods like ice cream and French fries, CJ is creating a healthy relationship with food.”
Morgan Stickney, 24, Paralympic Swimming
At age 15, Stickney, raised in Bedford, New Hampshire, was one of the top 20 swimmers in the U.S. and hoped to someday qualify for the Olympics. But after an injury in her left foot, multiple surgeries, and an infection, she underwent a below-the-knee amputation on her left leg in 2018. She began training for the upcoming Paralympics, which begin in late August, as a unilateral amputee after recovery, but she soon felt a pain in her right foot and ultimately had to undergo a second amputation in 2019. Against the odds, she was able to return to the pool months later, and will now compete in the Paralympics as a bilateral amputee. She trains six days a week, and each day includes two pool sessions, clocking in as much as four total hours, and one weight-training session.
Breakfast: Two packets of oatmeal with a banana
During swim practice: Grape-flavored AminoVital drink
After swim practice, before weight training: An RxBar or a Kind bar
Lunch: Protein shake, fruit, two hard-boiled eggs, Chobani Greek yogurt, Kodiak Cake Graham cracker bites
Dinner, after second swim practice: A big plate of vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates
Because Stickney’s training schedule is so intense, San Diego–based sports dietitian Ashley Harpst recommends that she increase both her carb and protein intake. “Morgan is depleting her muscle glycogen—the carbohydrates in her muscles—during her workouts, and she needs more protein to build and maintain her muscles.” Stickney’s amputations decrease her caloric needs slightly, but she’s still an elite athlete with an incredibly demanding training regimen.
Castillo recommends adding an additional protein shake after her swim workout, for quick-absorbing protein leading into her strength workout. He also suggests that she eat an additional snack before bed.
MyKayla Skinner, 24, Gymnastics
Skinner, who has been training at the elite level in her home state of Arizona since taking a leave of absence from the University of Utah in 2019, was an alternate at the 2016 Olympic Games. She qualified for one of two American individual spots in Tokyo, completely against the odds—at 24, she’s the oldest U.S. gymnast to compete at the Olympics since 2004, and in the past year, she has contracted COVID, been hospitalized with pneumonia as a result, and dealt with a bone spur in her foot. Despite her impressive showing before the Games, she placed 11th in qualifying rounds and didn’t get the opportunity to compete in the finals. She trains in the gym for over five hours a day, five days a week.
Breakfast: Yogurt topped with strawberries, bananas, and granola
Lunch: An acai bowl with protein powder and topped with fruit and granola
Dinner: A baked dish of rice, beans, chicken, and vegetables, topped with guacamole and cheese
Snacks (throughout the day): A Verb energy bar, fruit leather, Cocoa Pebbles, chocolate milk
Skinner’s diet is high in fast-absorbing carbs, like the cereal and the acai bowl. DeGore says this is a good thing. “Carbohydrates are the most important fuel for athletes, especially for high-intensity sports like gymnastics,” she says. “MyKayla’s performance would suffer without adequate fuel for workouts and competitions.”
Castillo agrees, pointing out that several high-carb snacks throughout the day ensure that her muscle glycogen stores are always topped off.
Hannah Roberts, 19, BMX Freestyle
Roberts, who was raised in Michigan but now trains in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been competing in BMX freestyle since 2012. She is the reigning world champion and took home silver in her Olympic debut over the weekend in Tokyo, the first time BMX freestyle has been included in the Games. Roberts says she didn’t think much about nutrition until she was recovering from shoulder surgery in 2018 and realized how much it affected her energy and recovery. Now she eats five times a day to support her training schedule: three to four hours on her bike six days a week, and one to two hours in the gym four days a week.
Breakfast: A protein pancake, half a cup of berries, three eggs and one cup of scrambled egg whites, and a glass of milk (Roberts is a member of Team Milk)
Before training: A glass of milk and a handful of berries
Lunch: A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, half a glass of milk
After training: Half a glass of milk with a scoop of recovery powder (a mix of protein and vitamins)
Dinner: A three-ounce steak, three ounces of grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, and a serving of mixed vegetables
Roberts is sponsored by America’s Milk Companies, which obviously gives her incentive to drink milk. But Harpst, Castillo, and DeGore all agree that it is an excellent choice for a pre- or post-workout drink and for performance nutrition in general. “Milk is an effective rehydration aid, providing calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins, potassium, and vitamin D, as well as protein and carbohydrates,” DeGore says, adding that it’s also accessible and affordable. “It outperforms most recovery drinks.”
Castillo says that PB&J is a favorite among athletes, because it’s portable, easy to eat, and rich in carbohydrates. He says that Roberts is smart to drink milk (a high-quality protein source) alongside it, because peanut butter doesn’t deliver enough protein on its own.
Cat Osterman, 38, Softball
Osterman is a pitcher from Houston who took home silver this year during her third stint on Team USA. She also won gold at the 2004 Olympic Games and silver in the 2008 Games. She turned to coaching full-time in 2015, but came out of retirement when it was announced that softball would return to the Olympics in 2020 (it was excluded in 2012 and 2016). She trains five to six days a week for between two and six hours a day. Each session includes some form of conditioning, lifting, throwing, and recovery work.
Breakfast: Sweet potato hash with turkey sausage, peppers, onions, and an egg
Lunch: A salad of arugula, chopped raw vegetables, a few candied pecans, and a creamy dressing, paired with a glass of milk (Osterman is also a member of Team Milk)
After training: A smoothie made with frozen fruit and milk
Dinner: Zucchini noodles with a tomato and meat sauce, plus some quinoa thrown in
Osterman’s diet seems to be lower in calories than those of other athletes. But Castillo, who used to be a dietitian with Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays, thinks that overall it’s likely appropriate for her sport. (Although DeGore points out that, as a pitcher, Osterman can be more active than other players on the field.) Castillo applauds her for including milk in her smoothies and as part of her lunch, since it’s higher in protein than nondairy milks and sports drinks, but recommends adding more protein to dinner as well.