Athletes struggle to maintain proper diet, level of fitness

Meredith Foster – [email protected] – Staff Writer
Every morning in Philippida, Greece at 7:45 a.m. Mrs. Vasiliki Zikou woke up her son before school to eat breakfast: three pieces of bread with jam or honey, a glass of milk, eggs, a glass of orange juice and one piece of fruit.
“I wanted as much sleep as possible, I did not want to wake up, I didn’t care for breakfast,” said Thomas-Orestis Panoulas, a UNC Asheville tennis player from Greece.
Meanwhile, in Sheffield, England, sprinter Natalie Pearson woke up with just enough time to eat a pack of ramen noodles before heading to school.
“I ate the English version of ramen noodles for breakfast for about three years straight,” Pearson said.
And in Novi Sad, Serbia, Olympic decathlete Mihail Dudas ate eggs with bacon, a cup of coffee and croissants with jam.
“I enjoyed eating protein for breakfast, but the best is probably a pastry with Eurocrem,” Dudas said.
Each of these breakfast habits impacted the day and training of each of these athletes, but in different ways.
“Your baseline diet is very important, especially the texture and appearance,” said Laura Sexton, UNCA’s registered dietician. “It can influence the types of choices you make for the rest of your life.”
As a four-time Greek national tennis champion, Panoulas said his diet plays a huge role in his success.
“When I was young I ate a lot of pasta and red meat, my mom’s spaghetti was my favorite because it had both,” Panoulas said. “I needed the carbohydrates because I was training four to five hours a day almost every day of the week.”
According to Panoulas, the quality of food in America just isn’t the same as it is at home. Nothing his family ate at home was processed.
“I’m sure it is more mental, but I felt more prepared, more comfortable, like I had more energy when I was eating the food from home,” he said.
Athletes in different sports with varying training schedules require different types of diets, Sexton said.
If foods consumed as children influence the diets of adults, what can be said for Pearson, a world class sprinter who just missed the Olympics in the 200 meter dash, with a diet of ramen noodles for breakfast for three years?
“Well, other than my weird breakfast choices, I actually ate quite well at home,” Pearson said. “My parents were really into home cooking, we ate dinner at home every night.”
Pearson’s family dinners were always a meat and two vegetables kind of meal.
“Potatoes, the English staple, were usually involved, but we definitely had a well rounded plate,” Pearson said.
While the foundation of Pearson’s diet was healthy, she struggled to keep up her good habits when she transitioned from England to America.
“My freshman year, I definitely indulged a little too much,” Pearson said. “I started eating mac ‘n’ cheese for breakfast, and had a lot of pizza and Chinese food in the cafeteria.”
After she got involved with a new coach, she started to make some changes to her diet.
“My junior year, I cut out dessert and alcohol entirely,” Pearson laughed. “I lost 10 pounds and got a lot faster.”
Athletes of Olympic caliber are frequently monitored in their eating, Sexton said.
“Frequency and timing also play a key role in maintaining an optimal weight,” Sexton said.
Mihail Dudas is an Olympic decathlete who has traveled to different countries around the world, eaten all types of cuisine and maintained the highest level of physical fitness. All achieved by not being picky.
“Traveling to other countries doesn’t affect my training much because I really enjoy eating all kinds of food,” Dudaš said.
There were so many different kinds of food at home that he always looked forward to eating new things, he said.
“Some of my favorite foods were chicken, beans and tuna fish,” Dudas said. “But my favorite thing is something my mother made, fried chicken with broccoli and mashed potatoes.”
Starting the decathlon at the young age of 16, the variety in Dudas’ diet allowed him to play to his different strengths in each event. The decatalon is made up of 10 different track and field events that require well rounded fitness including strength, endurance and power.
“Starting good nutritional habits young can influence the success of an athlete, but it depends on the body type and the goal they are trying to achieve,” Sexton said.