Cool Fuel; Pro Skaters Eat and Drink for Health and Energy at the Rink
||February 28, 2002|
Copyright 2002 P.G. Publishing Co.
The "Queen of Spin" always packs her rice cooker for the road. The
skating pair that fell in love on the ice sometimes grab a banana off
the catering cart to save for the next day. These professional skaters
need fuel because they sure don't want to run out of gas in front of
thousands of fans who have paid as much as $58 to see a spectacular
If this is Thursday, tomorrow must be Cleveland for the "Stars on
Ice." On Sunday, March 10, it will be Pittsburgh.
The skaters' regimen of fly, sleep in, eat, practice and perform,
then start all over again, makes competing in the Winter Olympics look
like a vacation. The grueling schedule of plane-hopping one-nighters
covers 61 American cities, then a Canadian tour. The night before they
fly into Pittsburgh, they perform in Philadelphia, and after the 6
p.m. Mellon Arena show they will be off to Florida.
A couch potato may miss a meal, then load up on nachos and cheese,
but poor food habits have no place on ice. Lucinda Ruh, whose spin has
been clocked at a spectacular 270 revolutions a minute, and Jenni Meno
and Todd Sand -- he proposed to Meno two hours before their short
program at the 1994 Olympics -- know this. But it isn't easy.
"We try to eat healthy, but we also eat badly," says Meno,
31. "Over the years of training and performing, the ebbs and flows, we
know what our bodies need."
Adds Sand, 38: "I eat meat, I wouldn't say every day, but I make
sure we're getting protein."
Their morning cereal and milk is followed with a lot of small
meals all day, the pair explains in a three-way phone interview. They
strive to make every calorie count for something, although California
native Sand jokes, "Every week should include at least one Mexican
Occasionally they make a slip -- at the buffet table.
"I love sweets," says Meno, a native of Westlake, Ohio, near
Cleveland. " Sometimes you see a piece of pie on the catering table,
and that's what you grab before the show."
Any athlete --skater, soccer or basketball player, for instance
--who is practicing two or three hours a day may require 4,000
calories, while a nonathlete may not need half that many. "I might
have a scoop of ice cream," says Sand. "I burn the calories up real
Those sparkly, skintight costumes might be aerodynamically
correct, but there's sure not much room for a bulge. Any extra pound
is troublesome and not just for aesthetics' sake, especially for a
pair. She floats, but he must lift.
"I try to stay under 100 pounds," says Meno. "I'm 5 foot 1."
"You're not 5 foot 1," her husband teases. "And she weighs between
97 and 98 pounds."
"He's good -- he doesn't say, 'Honey, you're feeling a little fat
And so it goes.
Burning it up
Staying svelte isn't as tough for a skater as it is for a gymnast
or ballet dancer. Skating is a sustained aerobic exercise, where
plenty of calories are burned, while gymnastics and ballet require
short, powerful bursts of energy that don't use as many calories.
For example, in 10 minutes an 130-pound adult will burn an
estimated 42 calories doing gymnastics but 73 calories skating. (A
90-pound child gymnast burns 29 calories, compared to 50 calories for
So while gymnasts and ballerinas struggle not to gain weight yet
maintain muscle tone, professional skaters often don't get enough
calories -- and no wonder with their succession of one-night
stands. They are often at the mercy of the catering cart.
In a 1998 study of nationally ranked competitive skaters, 59
percent of the women were getting adequate calories and 75 percent of
the men were meeting their caloric needs.
"Their problem is getting enough to eat," says Roxanne Moore, a
Baltimore sports nutrition consultant who works for the Maryland State
Department of Education. "They are eating on the run so much, and if
you don't get enough calcium, there is chance of stress fractures and
slower healing of bones. With low calorie intakes, iron and zinc are
particularly low. The skaters feel sluggish and have lower aerobic
capacity. They are more prone to injury."
A more recent study reported in the March 2002 American Dietetic
Association Journal reported on the nutritional status of 18 female
figure skaters, ranging in age from 14 to 16.
"The nutrient intake of the figure skaters is similar to that of
ballet dancers, gymnasts and nonelite figure skaters, who have similar
training and performance requirements," according to the ADA
report. Although their protein was in the normal range, "the
percentage of energy from carbohydrate is less than the recommended 65
percent of carbohydrates reported for other athletes."
Although nutritionists typically recommend that young athletes get
about 30 percent of calories from fat, skaters may need to increase
their fat to 35 percent of calories just to get enough energy, says
Moore. "I'm not suggesting they fuel up on fats, but maybe they put a
little olive oil on their salad. And they need carbohydrates with
nutrient density, whole grains with fiber, rather than chips and
In the 2002 study reported by ADA, proper hydration was lacking,
too. "In general, athletes should consume at least 10 to 12 cups of
fluids per day. ... The figure skaters were consuming approximately 4
to 5 cups per day, suggesting the risk of dehydration and electrolyte
imbalances." In addition, five of the teen skaters reported never
Moore says a comment six years ago from an Olympic Gold Medal
gymnast hit her hard. "She said she did not recognize the importance
of nutrition until after she got the gold."
The sports nutritionist believes a lack of knowledge is still "an
issue, but it's getting better. In the past two years, I have been
requested to speak with many athletes, coaches and parents. They're
recognizing the value that nutrition has to the team on getting that
So Moore says she isn't as worried about today's young skaters,
some of whom may be inspired by 16-year-old Sarah Hughes, who won the
gold in women's figure skating last week.
And when a competitor like previous gold medalist Tara Lipinski,
now of "Stars on Ice," turns pro, perhaps the "pressure is off," says
Still, going pro can be daunting. In her two-week "Olympics
break," Ruh, a two-time Swiss national champion, practiced two hours a
day. "In a competitive schedule, you peak for one time. Here you have
to peak every night."
Ruh, who was born in Zurich but has lived in Japan, England,
Canada and California, gravitates to an Asian diet based on rice,
which she cooks for herself each day in her hotel room. She alternates
between white and brown rice and eats fruit -- grapes, watermelon,
apples. "I eat a lot of shrimp. I eat egg whites. I guess all of us
try to eat a little more on tour because we burn so much."
At 5 foot 9, she is the tallest female skater on tour. She is
physical. Fans say the Biellmann spin in which she holds her leg up
above her head with her arms -- it's named for Swiss skater Denise
Biellmann -- is breathtaking.
Compared to competing, performing is "a lot more fun," says the
22-year-old, barely audible by cell phone from a New York rink.
The bobsledder, the basketball center, the soccer forward all need
healthy hearts, but they are judged only by the score or the
clock. Appearance is pivotal for a skater. Ruh has recently put her
dark, highlighted hair behind her.
"I'm much happier as a blonde," she says.
She may tinker with her hair color, but she remains "picky" about
what she eats. "I eat a lot of sushi," she says in faultless English,
one of her four languages. "Before I skate I might have
Gatorade. During the show I eat grapes."
She's not keen on sweets, although she dips into dairy
desserts. "Sometimes I have a little chocolate before I perform. I
like the little kisses." (Hershey's show will be April 10.)
Ruh, Sand and Meno do what registered dietitians recommend: load
up on complex carbohydrates -- Ruh mixes red and green peppers and egg
whites into her rice -- while including a little meat or seafood for
protein. They eat fat, too.
When nothing seems right, "I do a peanut butter and jelly
sandwich," says Meno. "It gives energy, it's easy to digest and not
"You don't need to deprive yourself, but if you eat a big piece of
carrot cake, you better cut down tomorrow."
The "Stars on Ice" skaters travel in chartered planes, so their
"airplane food" is their own --usually a sandwich and fruits.
In the high-energy show, Meno has five different costumes, Sand
has six -- but only a single pair of skates for each. They avoid salty
foods -- swollen feet are uncomfortable in skates.
Dehydration can stalk skaters, especially if they load up on
"We're both coffee lovers," says Sand.
Meno admits: "We know it's bad -- it's our one weakness."
Most nutritionists recommend a person drink 32 ounces of liquid a
day; the skater needs twice that. "In their cold environment, they may
perceive that they're not sweating, but they are still losing fluids,"
says Baltimore's Moore. "They don't realize dehydration is the key
reason they feel fatigue."
Athletes should replenish calories after performing or practicing,
although they may not feel like eating. Unlike the amateur athlete,
who may not have to compete for days or even weeks, the professional
skaters have to be "on" in fewer than 24 hours.
Spacing meals is important, too. Dr. Kristine Clark, director of
sports nutrition at Penn State at University Park, recalls an athlete
who practiced and lifted weights all day on little but granola
bars. "She was getting 180 calories, which is not enough, and there
was no protein. She ate a lot at night, but the most important
recovery time is right after exercise. She needed to spread her eating
"If an athlete starts to peter out midway through a game or
competition, it's probably a nutrition issue."
Women in skating, gymnastics and ballet often "undereat so that
they can maintain low body weight," says Clark. Men's bodies burn more
calories because they are heavier and have more muscle mass. "I'm 5
foot 7 and my boyfriend is 6 foot 3. Just sitting in a chair reading
he burns more calories than I do."
The skating pair is twirling, skating fast, jumping, all muscular
activities, but the man is also lifting his partner. "The guy is
burning more," she says.
Clark, nutritionist for the U.S. Soccer Federation, wrote a
nutrition manual for the U.S. Skating Team for Dole and her own book,
"Permission to Eat," will be out this year. She teaches and counsels
athletes at Penn State's Center for Sports Medicine.
Because of women athletes' nutrition problems, they even have
their own syndrome -- the Female Athlete Triad. Clark outlines its
1. Disordered eating. "They may be chronically skipping meals,
they may use tobacco and caffeine to depress their appetite, they may
alter their appetite with over-the-counter diet pills, laxatives and
certain herbs like ma huang, which acts like the drug ephredine. It's
very unsafe and has been banned by the NCAA and the Olympics.
"When young girls, who are still growing, go overboard and
restrict calories, they're not getting carbohydrates to do the work,
not the right amount of protein to support muscle mass, and are
breaking down muscle to use as an energy source. When you restrict
your major nutrients, you're not getting B vitamins, iron or enough
calcium. And the body needs some fat."
2. Osteoporosis. "When female athletes don't eat right, usually
calcium goes out the window, and they get premature osteoporosis. I've
seen college female athletes at the age of 19 who have the skeletons
of a person 60 years old."
3. Amenorrhea, or absence of menstrual cycle. "Because they're not
getting enough calories, they cannot produce estrogen. They can take a
pill that gives them calcium, but you can't absorb calcium if you're
not eating enough to produce estrogen."
Yet women often worry about the wrong thing -- big muscles. "They
think if they eat protein, they'll have all these massive muscles,"
Clark says. "But women just don't have enough testosterone to make the
same kind of muscle that men do."
Some athletes simply won't eat after exercise. The earlier an
athlete eats -- maybe 30 minutes -- the better it is for recovery. But
appetite is suppressed for about an hour after strenuous exercise, so
Clark suggests a commercially prepared sports drink with carbohydrates
and electrolytes. "It's definitely not a waste of money."
A lot of crackpot nutrition advice circulates as athletes go for
the gold or sign on to lucrative skating contracts. Anybody can hang
up a sign calling herself or himself a "sports nutritionist" with no
medical training at all. "When a coach says, you need to lose 15
pounds in a week, an athlete is desperate," says Clark.
They lay much of the pressure on themselves, though. For the
professional skaters, it's giving the fans the best show they can
every single night.
An amateur can have a nasty fall or a less-than-stellar show. For
the pro on the road, there's no running out of gas. Eating well
If you go
"Stars on Ice"
WHAT: Ice show starring Tara Lipinski, Kristi Yamaguchi, Katarina
Witt, Kurt Browning, Lucinda Ruh, Ilia Kulik, and Jenni Meno & Todd
WHEN: 6 p.m. March 10
WHERE: Mellon Arena, Uptown
TICKETS: Call 412-323-1919; from $37 to $58.