Fit for an Olympian

Olympic bound walkers, Claire and Jared Tallent. Pic taken at Lake Burley Griffin, next to the Carillon.
Olympic bound walkers, Claire and Jared Tallent. Pic taken at Lake Burley Griffin, next to the Carillon.

It probably shouldn't surprise at all to discover that athletes are not foodies, which isn't to say they're not food-obsessed, but judging by the Olympians we spoke with, the diet is simple and pretty standard. All that Weet-Bix for breakfast! Some appear to have a pretty relaxed attitude to what they eat; others, like Jared Tallent, watch it carefully.

Tallent, 27, is a race-walker. Ranked third in the world, he's a medal hopeful in London, having won silver at the last Olympics. As we speak last week, he's staying at Lake St Moritz in Switzerland for his biggest week of training, at altitude (1800 metres), before tapering his training at the Australian Institute of Sport European Training Centre in Varese, Italy. His 20km race is on August 4 and his best event, the 50km, on August 11.

He's walking 200 kilometres a week in training, including sessions of more than 40km each. Which means he can afford to eat a fair bit, but Tallent is still careful about what goes in. He eats low fat, minimises meat, eats lots of vegetables, and ensures this close to an event that his diet includes nothing new. He needs to keep the weight off to maximise performance - ''obviously you've got muscle mass but anything after that is going to make it harder'', he says. He's 58kg, which is about where he wants to be (his BMI is just 18) - but says during intense training, it's harder to keep the weight on than off. He has been as low as 56kg, a weight that leaves him without enough energy to train.

Wife Claire Tallent is also a race-walker, ranked eighth in the world. She struggles with her weight more, but Tallent says she's gone from 50kg to 44kg recently, resulting in a big improvement in her performance - she's knocked three minutes off her 20km time this year. As for Jared Tallent, his best 50km time is 3hr 38min; the world record is 3hr 34min. ''So I've got a couple of minutes to go,'' he says. ''But I'm probably the fittest I've ever been.''

Tallent says it took him a while to get his diet right. ''I used to carbo load and eat probably too much,'' he says. Now, he concentrates on vegetables, rice, and only small amounts of meat - although limiting meat is more about general health than performance. ''I am not overly scientific about food and nutrition. I just try to eat well and keep healthy. The food I put in needs to have some nutritional value to keep my body performing at its best.''

At St Moritz, he's eating from the restaurant buffet every night - and says there's a big salad bar, as well as pasta, fish, roast vegetables. He gets through two mains during hard training.

He works closely with AIS nutrition head Louise Burke who even joins him during training (she bikes) and will be on his drinks table at the Olympics, ensuring he gets the right amount of liquid and energy. She has spreadsheets to track his diet during training, she uses scales to measure how much he's drinking and eating, and ensures he gets the 60 grams of carbohydrates every hour.

Races are held on a 2km circuit, which makes it easy ''for feeding'', Tallent says. During the race, he takes in sports drinks and gels, drinking 140ml every 2km, a ''Gel Blast'' every 4km and a gel every 10km - something it took a while to learn to stomach. It makes a huge difference. ''I've had a few races where I've just totally hit the wall and that's because I haven't had enough energy intake,'' Tallent says. This happened last year at Daegu, Korea, where Tallent says he didn't force himself to drink. He hit the wall at 45km and basically ''crawled home'' the last 5km, falling from second to third place.

Food also plays an enormous role in recovery - so he's careful to eat protein straight after a session to help damaged muscle repair.

Breakfast: Six Weet-Bix and milk, banana, low-fat yoghurt and a cup of tea.

Morning: Apple, low-fat yoghurt.

Lunch: Two salad and meat sandwiches.

Afternoon: Low-fat muffin.

Dinner: In Canberra, my wife cooks dinner - usually a rice dish with lots of vegetables and a small amount of meat, and vegetarian dishes often twice a week. Favourites are ramen, laksa, risotto, tandoori chicken with rice and homemade pizza.

Favourite meal: Chilli basil chicken with rice.

Avoid anything? Mainly all types of junk food and fizzy drinks if I can.

Do you eat out? Claire and I eat out usually every second Thursday night. We like to have Asian food like Thai, Vietnamese or Balinese food. I love rice dishes with chicken. We are both quite adventurous with food. Nothing like sitting down in a nice restaurant with good food and good company.

Is this different in the lead-up to an event? Yes, in the lead up to an event I will always try to have a very normal plain diet. Basically I go back to having steamed rice with vegetables and a nice sauce to go with it. This is during the week of the race. I just want to keep everything simple and not upset my stomach.

What do you eat in the hours before a race? Normally we race in the morning, so three hours before the race I have breakfast. This will be four slices of toast with jam or honey and a 600ml bottle of sports drink to make sure I am hydrated.

This story Fit for an Olympian first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.