Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was known for his rigorous training regimen that allowed him to consume up to 12,000 calories per day at the peak of his career. As a professional swimmer who competed in events ranging from 100 meters to 1,500 meters, Phelps spent several hours in the pool each day and lifted weights out of the water. This intense workout schedule required fueling his body with far more food than the average person.
During heavy training periods, here are some questions around Phelps’ sky-high calorie intake and how he met this nutritional demand:
How was Phelps able to eat so much without gaining too much weight?
Although Phelps ate a tremendous amount of food, he did not gain a lot of excess weight because he was burning just as many calories through his grueling daily workouts that totaled around 5-6 hours on heavy training days. His exercise regimen included long swim sessions covering miles in the pool and weight training to build strength and muscle mass.
What kind of foods and meals comprised his 12,000 calorie diet?
Phelps followed a balanced, nutrient-dense diet to properly fuel his body. His meals consisted of lean proteins like egg whites, Greek yogurt, lean red meat and poultry, and fish for muscles recovery. He also consumed whole grains like oatmeal, pasta, and rice for energy, and lots of fruits and vegetables to get vitamins and antioxidants. His favorites were avocados and chocolate milk.
How did he structure his meals and snacks around his training schedule?
Phelps ate small meals and snacks throughout the day every 2-3 hours. He would eat a light breakfast in the morning before an early workout. Post-practice he would have a protein shake and high-carb meal to replenish his body. He’d snack on foods like energy bars, fruits, and yogurt throughout the day. An hour or two before afternoon training he would have another meal high in carbs for fuel. After his second workout he would have another substantial meal and snacks at night.
How many calories did Phelps consume above a typical person’s diet?
The average male adult requires about 2,500 calories per day to maintain weight. Phelps was consuming between 8,000-10,000 more calories than the average person daily at the peak of training.
The Origins of Phelps’ High Calorie Diet
Michael Phelps’ high calorie diet and intensive eating routine has its origins in his early days as a teenage swimmer in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney when he finished 5th place in his first Olympic final at age 15. His coach Bob Bowman realized that Phelps was not consuming enough calories to support his intense training regimen, so he gradually increased his daily food intake over the next 4 years to keep up with growth and improvement.
By the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 19-year-old Phelps was eating upwards of 8,000 calories per day while training 6 hours per day in the pool. He saw great success winning his first 6 Olympic medals (including 4 gold). Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics where Phelps would ultimately win a record-breaking 8 gold medals, his calories peaked at a massive 12,000 per day while training.
Typical Meals and Snacks in Phelps’ Diet
To consume 12,000 calories per day, Phelps didn’t just eat enormous quantities of food at meals. He ate small portions of energy-dense foods every 2-3 hours to help his body effectively utilize all the calories. Here is an overview of the typical components of his rigorous diet and hydration routine:
Since Phelps started morning practices very early, breakfast needed to be quick and easy to prepare. He would often have egg sandwiches on bagels or breakfast burritos with eggs, cheese, and bacon. He’d also eat oatmeal, cereal with milk, fruit and yogurt. To stay hydrated he drank two tall glasses of water sometimes with electrolytes.
Post-Practice Recovery Meals
After his 2-3 hour morning workout, Phelps would have a large recovery meal within 30 minutes. This would consist of protein like Greek yogurt, eggs or protein shakes to help muscles rebuild. He’d also consume complex carbs like oatmeal, bagels, rice or pasta to replenish glycogen stores. He would also drink water and chocolate milk which contains electrolytes.
Phelps’ lunch would be the biggest meal of the day, high in fresh nutrient-dense foods like grilled chicken or fish, pasta, veggies, sandwiches and salad. Soups and smoothies were also common. This provided sustained energy to get him through afternoon training.
Between lunch and afternoon training, Phelps would snack on energy-boosting foods about an hour before his workout. This included yogurt, fruit, nutrition bars, sandwiches, and crackers. The small snacks provided fuel without upsetting his stomach before training.
Dinner was another large high-carb and protein-packed meal to promote recovery after a hard afternoon workout. Go-to dinners included pasta Bolognese, rice stir fries, grilled meats, potatoes and vegetables. He sometimes had pizza and cheeseburgers in moderation as well.
Before bed, Phelps would snack on whole grain cereals, more fruit, granola bars, and occasionally treats like ice cream. This helped stabilize his metabolism and fuel his body overnight while sleeping and fasting for 8-10 hours until morning.
TheTraining Regimen Behind Phelps’ 12,000 Calorie Diet
Although Michael Phelps was genetically gifted with a 6’4″ wingspan and flexible ankles and knees ideal for swimming, it was his unrelenting work ethic that propelled him to Olympic glory. Here is an overview of his intense training schedule over 2 sessions per day, 6 days per week, that allowed him to eat so much:
- 60-90 minutes swimming laps or in some cases up to 2 hours
- Focus on building cardiovascular endurance with varied high-intensity intervals
- Swam about 4-6 miles total (6-10 km)
- Weight training 2-3 times per week
- Core strength exercises and plyometrics
- 60-90 minute focused technical skill practice
- Honed stroke techniques and starts/turns
- Race pace 50 meter and 100 meter intervals
- Low weight, high rep strength training
- Core and mobility exercises
- Alternate aerobic activities like biking
Additionally, Phelps took 1 day off per week from the pool to rest and recover with light stretching and massage therapy treatments.
Phelps’ Calorie Intake Throughout His Career
Over the course of Michael Phelps’ Olympic swimming career which spanned 5 Olympics from 2000-2016, his calorie intake ebbed and flowed with his training intensity. Here is an overview of his estimated daily calories over the years:
|Calories per Day
|2000 Sydney Olympics (age 15)
|6,000 – 8,000
|2004 Athens Olympics (age 19)
|10,000 – 12,000
|2008 Beijing Olympics (age 23)
|8,000 – 10,000
|2012 London Olympics (age 27)
|8,000 – 10,000
|6,000 – 8,000
|2016 Rio Olympics (age 31)
As evidenced by the table, his peak calorie intake lined up with his peak training intensity leading up to and during the 2008 and 2012 Olympics where he medaled heavily.
In summary, Michael Phelps was able to consume a staggering 12,000 calories per day at the height of his career through a combination of an intense 2-a-day training program of swimming and weightlifting for 5-6 hours daily, and a meticulously planned diet of small nutrient-dense meals and snacks spaced regularly throughout the day. His coach increased his calories gradually over years of training to build his endurance and fuel his muscles for optimal performance.
While Phelps’ level of calorie intake and training volume are only practical for elite athletes, it is possible for recreational swimmers and fitness enthusiasts to take away some lessons around properly fueling for exercise and listening to your body’s needs. Nutrition and hydration are critical to performing at your peak in any sport or fitness activity. Phelps maximized his Olympic success through hard work, discipline with his eating routine, and striving to reach his remarkable potential.