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Cool Fuel; Pro Skaters Eat and Drink for Health and Energy at the Rink

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Date: February 28, 2002
Author: Suzanne Martinson

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 show.

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 dinner."

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 quick."

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 today.' "

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 a skater.)

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 pretzels."

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 menstruating.

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 competitive edge."

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 Moore.

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.

Complex needs

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 too heavy.

"You don't need to deprive yourself, but if you eat a big piece of carrot cake, you better cut down tomorrow."

Between meals

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 caffeine.

"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 out.

"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 three components:

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."

Muscle

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 matters.

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 Sand.

WHEN: 6 p.m. March 10

WHERE: Mellon Arena, Uptown

TICKETS: Call 412-323-1919; from $37 to $58.