Gold Medal-Winning Nutrition: Figure Skating
Olympic-level figure skating combines power and athleticism with grace and presence. As spectators, we marvel at the acrobatics of ice dancers, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir in Pyeongchang 2018. And, we watch in awe as great skaters separate themselves from the pack by making jumps like a triple axel look effortless. As skaters, you know to do this requires hours of practice and strength, power, and cardiovascular fitness. Fueling for figure skating is founded in this dance between aesthetics and athletics. This nutrition balancing act can be tricky to master, but with knowledge can be achieved.
Here, we use the acronym FLIP to touch on four areas of nutrition focus for the figure skater.
Fuel and Figure
At the heart of fueling all athletes is the need to meet the energy requirements of their activity. Athletes require enough calories to fuel quality training and competition. Figure skating, and the diets of great skaters like Alina Zagitova and Kaetlyn Osmond, is no different. Without sufficient calories, you cannot build muscle, and you cannot optimise the intensity and duration of your workouts. Seems simple right? Not so fast.
Like gymnastics and dance, figure skating is an aesthetic sport and promotes leanness in its athletes. Figure skaters complete routines in body-conscious clothing and are scored both on the technical and artistic elements of their program. Not surprisingly, body image issues can arise in figure skaters. A 2004 study in the US, found that 30% of female figure skaters considered themselves to be overweight. Also, in females, total energy intake, total fat and dietary fibre were below dietary recommendations.1 This research supported the results of a 2001 study of elite figure skaters that found that energy intakes were below those recommended for age (an average of 2329 calories/day for men and 1545 calories/day for women).2 Under-eating lowers your metabolic rate, makes you more susceptible to injury and illness and impairs training and performance.
So how can you ensure that you strike a balance between adequate calories and a lean physique? Most importantly, you should eat when you are hungry and focus on fueling before, sometimes during, and after exercise. Choose nutrient dense foods- those that have lots of vitamins and minerals. Eat often throughout the day. Choosing 5-6 small meals usually works better for a figure skater’s schedule than three large meals. Enlist the help of a sports dietitian, physician, or sports psychologist if you feel pressured to change your weight or body composition. As a parent or a coach, be sure to model good food behaviour and avoid negative food and weight comments.
Link the Training Phase to the Nutrition Goals
During the preparation phase, an emphasis is placed on foundation fitness and strength goals as well as on skill development. The quality and intensity of workouts are often less than those during the training and competition phase. As a result, if weight loss is wanted (and deemed to be safe for the athlete) it should be done during preparation phase so that it won’t affect performance. Notably, in most, if not all cases, weight loss goals should be avoided in adolescents due to the need to provide sufficient energy for growth and development and also to support a healthy body image.
The preparation phase is also the perfect time to build muscle. Those wanting to build muscle will need to eat more calories and include adequate protein. See my previous blog about muscle building for more hints and tips.
During competition, nerves can get the best of you and result in poor food choices or stomach upset. Go into competition season with a plan. Keep your meals habitual and bland before you go on the ice. Fuel with what you are used to eating.
Before the competition, fuel up with at least 1 g/kg (or 60 g for a 60 kg, 132 lb person) of carbs 1-4 hours before competition. Eat a relatively small, high carbohydrate, low-fat meal. Many skaters like to drink only water for this meal and then switch to sipping on sports drinks for the period between the meal and going on the ice.
During the phase between seasons, the focus is on maintaining healthy food habits. The transition phase is a great time to have a look at your diet to be sure you are not missing any essential elements.
Injury and Immunity
You will find that much of your success from season to season is dictated by your ability to stay well and injury-free. Nutrition plays a vital role in this quest. Unfortunately, many figure skaters fall short on meeting some of their vitamin and mineral needs. Calcium, vitamin D, and iron are all micronutrients of concern in this group.
A 2004 study of elite skaters found that in females, folate, pantothenic acid, calcium and phosphorous were less than 2/3 of dietary recommendations. Similarly, for both males and females, vitamin E, D, magnesium, and potassium were less than 2/3 of recommendations.1
Calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus are all essential for the growth and maintenance of healthy bones. Interestingly, a 2014 UK study supplemented professional ballet dancers with 2000 IU vitamin D daily for four months and reduced injury occurrence.3 Regarding illness, in a 2011 study, college athletes with lower levels of vitamin D experienced more respiratory illness in the winter and spring.4
We have already touched on the interplay between performance and body composition when it comes to calories. What about during competition like the Olympics? Let’s look at the other facets of skating performance nutrition.
There are three big nutrients or macronutrients. Fat, carbohydrates, and protein each contribute to our daily energy needs. Fat is often overlooked but is an essential element and helps keep your immune system healthy and regulate cellular and metabolic processes. Fat is high in calories. So, as a figure skater, with a tight energy budget, it is essential to choose your fats wisely. Choose fat that comes from plant sources, like nuts and oils, and from fish rather than fat from fried food, animal foods or baked goods. Most athletes choose healthy fats in the range of 1-1.2 g/kg. This works out to 60 to 72 g daily for a 60 kg (132 lb) skater.
Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel for our bodies and our brain. We store carbohydrates in our muscles as glycogen and can easily and quickly access these stores for energy, particularly during intense exercise. To improve exercise and training quality, eat adequate amounts of carbohydrate before skating. Carbs will also improve attention and your ability to stay on task with skilled manoeuvres.
Depending on whether it is a light competition day or a heavy training day with multiple workouts, figure skaters may need anywhere between 3-5 and 5-7 g/kg/day. This translates into 180-300 g or 300-420 g daily for a 60 kg (132 lb) skater. Try and choose wholesome carbohydrates more often to meet these goals. Stay away from sugary cereals, bread, and sweets. Choose fruit, dairy products, legumes and whole grain bread cereals, rice and pasta more often.
It’s no secret that protein is an important element in muscle building. It also helps with growth, repair and immune function. For protein choose at least 1.2 (and up to 2.0) g/kg/day or 72 g for a 60 kg (132 lb) skater.
How much you need to hydrate depends on your environment (i.e. temperature, humidity, and altitude), your level of exertion (i.e. intensity and duration), and your genetics (i.e. individual sweat rates). To ensure you are hydrating well monitor your urine volume and colour. Your goal? Regular, but not excessive, bathroom trips and straw-coloured urine.
To achieve this goal, drink fluids throughout the day and be mindful of including additional fluids before, during and after practice. When traveling, plan for adequate hydration. For example, during airline travel, many people require at least 8-16 oz. of fluid per hour of travel. For more details about how to hydrate to meet your needs see my previous blog on hydration.
Ensure proper recovery nutrition within 30-60 minutes after workouts, especially if you have more than one workout in a day. Eat carbs and protein to restore glycogen and improve the synthesis of muscle protein. If you have two workouts less than 8 hours apart, ensure that you are eating 1-1.2 g/kg/hour of carbohydrate in the first 4 hours after exercise to refuel glycogen stores. Most importantly, plan your post-exercise recovery snack of time. This way you can pack the food you need in your training bag so that it is readily available as soon as you step off the ice.
Nutrition for figure skating can seem as complicated as a quadruple jump or a triple axel. But it doesn’t have to be. Remember it is a balance of four elements (FLIP): Fuel and figure, Linking nutrition to the season’s phases, Injury and immunity, and finally Performance.
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Jonnalagadda S et al. Food preferences, dietitian behaviours, and body image perceptions of elite figure skaters. Int J Sport Nutr Exer Metab 2004;14:594-606.
- Ziegler P, Nelson JA, Barratt-Fornell A, Fiveash L, Drewnowski A. Energy and macronutrient intakes of elite figure skaters. J Am Diet Assoc 2001;101(3):319-325.
- Wyon MA et al. The influence of winter vitamin D supplementation on muscle function and injury occurrence in elite ballet dancers: a controlled study. J. Sci. Med. Sport 2014;17:8-12.
- Halliday TN et al. Vitamin D status relative to diet, lifestyle, injury and illness in college athletes. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2011;42:335-343.