Athlete food for thought

Teens on the road without parents are not normally fixated on healthy food choices, but as members of the Mammoth Mountain Ski and Snowboard Teams learned recently, they ought to be.

The reason might be critical to a race, such as the 2010 Olympic Men’s Downhill, in which a mere two seconds separated the gold medal winner and the 28th-place finisher.

With that sobering fact in mind, team members gathered at the Mammoth Mountain Inn on Feb. 24 to get food religion from Tim Tollefson of the Mammoth S.P.O.R.T. Center, along with some related coaching advice from Team Performance Director Pete Korfiatis.

“Do your research,” Tollefson told the athletes.

“Find out what foods are available at the destination. Plan ahead. Pack snacks in your carry-on for the flight and useful foods like nutrition bars and peanut butter in your bags that you know safely fuel your body.”

Tollefson’s lecture on nutrition was emblematic of an ongoing effort to further link the ski teams to the S.P.O.R.T. Center, which is situated adjacent to Mammoth Hospital.

Korfiatis, obviously, has a big stake in the partnership, given his role in building the ski and snowboard teams.

With five years of U.S. Ski Team coaching under his belt, Korfiatis knows a thing or two about the care and feeding of top athletes. He said he is counting on S.P.O.R.T to provide rehabilitation and injury prevention programs, physical testing, and education to the teams.

Tollefson is no slouch, either. Currently a physical therapist and exercise physiologist, the Minnesota native was a star runner in college at Chico State.

He was a three-time CCAA steeplechase champion and five-time NCAA Cross Country qualifier who finished just one place short of All-American three times. 

His finish in the 2011 California International Marathon earned him a spot at the Olympic Trials.

Tollefson’s success story offered the racers food for thought.

“I had a horrendous diet in college,” he said, adding that he broke through in athletics in his late twenties because of nutritional awareness. 

“High quality fuel is an integral component to athletic success and can reduce the risk of injury and fatigue,” he said.

After asking the athletes carrying water bottles to stand and be applauded, Tollefson said fluids are the most important aspect of the athlete’s diet, especially at altitude. 

Staying hydrated is vital before, during, and after competition, he told the athletes, advising them to sip 16 ounces an hour of an electrolyte-based sports drink the night before a race, and continue to sip throughout race and recovery. 

Asked about swallowing the snow for hydration, Tollefson advised against potential “possible contamination” and said that tap water was a better choice, especially when traveling at away races.

“The best athletes fuel instead of feed,” Tollefson said.

It’s planning healthy meals instead of grabbing convenience food. Tollefson suggested that the athletes shop the perimeters of the supermarket for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, and not the center aisles. 

“Stay away from food with a shelf life of 30 years,” he said, half-joking, half-serious.

To illustrate the need for hydration and moderation, Tollefson showed the kids a clip from “The Office” in which actor Steve Carell gorged on pasta the night before a 5k and refused to drink water during the race, resulting in pain and sickness.

“Everything in moderation,” Tollefson iterated although he acknowledged that it is perfectly fine to be human on occasion.

“When you are an athlete, though, these ‘occasions’ should only be once a month or so.”

When asked about certain pro athletes who seem to excel even though the camera just caught them eating candy right before the big game, Tollefson said that there are always those exceptional athletes who seem to defy logic. 

“But just think how much better that athlete would be with a healthy diet,” he said.