Q&A: Talking Olympic nutrition with Team USA chef Allen Tran

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No matter the sport, all Olympians rely on one primary vehicle for success: their own bodies.

It takes more than rigorous training to ensure peak performance. The world’s best athletic builds also require the right kind of fuel in order to unlock the full potential of their physiques.

As a Master of Science in sports nutrition, a registered dietician and an athlete himself, Allen Tran is no stranger to this concept, which is why six months ago, the 28-year-old foodie earned the official title of high performance chef for the U.S Ski and Snowboard Association and this year’s U.S Olympic ski and snowboard teams in Sochi.

In an interview with SI.com, Tran discussed the science behind a high-performance diet, the favorite foods of Team USA members and how his own lack of inherent athletic ability as an amateur weightlifter searching for a competitive edge led him to discover the power of strategic nutrition.

SI: How did you get in to this specific type of food preparation?

AT: Growing up, my mom worked in health care, so nutrition was always a big part of my life, and I’ve always led an active lifestyle. Interestingly enough, being an amateur athlete who was not as physically gifted as others has caused me to become even more in tune with how food and nutrition influence training and performance. Personally, I needed to “max everything out” from specific training and dial into my diet to maximize my potential in sports. This totally translates to the Olympic level because everyone at this level is physically gifted and training as hard as everyone else. However, diet can be the “x-factor” that maximizes training, enhances recovery and “maxes out” performance on game day.

SI: What are the main principals you follow in trying to create dishes that are nutritious and sustainable yet tasty?

AT: When it comes to nutritional needs, athletes definitely need to incorporate a combination of lean protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and nutrient-dense fruits/veggies. That’s the nutritional base for many of my meals -- but every sport gets a different ratio of nutrients. For example, the alpine skiers need a different dietary regimen from the cross-country skiers. Strength activities demand more protein and moderate carbohydrate amounts, while endurance activities need more carbs delivered steadily to fuel the activity all the way through. It definitely keeps it interesting in the kitchen.

SI: How does an Olympic athlete’s nutritional regiment differ from that of an average person?

AT: First and foremost, my job is to create dishes that taste good and infuse aspects of home into their meals -- in that sense Olympic athletes are similar to an average person. But nutrition plays a huge role in these athletes’ lives; it is the fuel that powers athletic performance. Training can’t be optimal if the fuel isn’t optimal. Also, subpar nutrition hinders the recovery process, so it’s important to provide these athletes a balance of nutrients for accelerated performance across the board.

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SI: What are some of your go-to ingredients?

AT: Sriracha hot sauce! USSA athletes love spicy food, especially when they travel to Europe and other countries where the food is comparatively bland.

But gearing up for the Winter Games in Sochi, has definitely brought about challenges and unknowns that needed to be addressed. What can I bring on the plane? What local ingredients can we work with? Luckily, the team is sponsored by Blue Diamond Almonds, which are easily transported. Almonds are packed with protein, don’t spoil and are an easy grab-and-go snack for athletes recovering from an intense training session. I also incorporate them into many of the dishes I prepare for the team.

I also love incorporating Greek yogurt since it’s a great substitute for mayonnaise or heavy cream and boosts protein levels.

SI: Almonds are proven to be a great source of energy, but what about athletes with nut allergies? What alternatives do they have?       

AT: Those who can’t tolerate nuts can eat a combination of various foods after training, as long as it includes carbs and protein, like Greek yogurt and fruit, chocolate milk or hard-boiled eggs with whole-wheat crackers.

Athletes with allergies like this or who follow a vegetarian/vegan diet definitely need to be more aware of what they’re eating in order to get the proper nutrition since they have restrictions. While I try to accommodate as best I can, I also recommend that athletes with specific concerns bring specific foods for their situation in their luggage or take dietary supplements, if possible.

SI: What are some favorite dishes of this year’s Olympic team members?

AT: Mexican fajitas, Thai coconut curry over quinoa and pesto chicken pasta with sun dried tomatoes and broccoli. One of my favorite dishes to make is citrus almond broccoli, which is the perfect side.

We also have a menu of “greatest hits” from a variety of meals that athletes have enjoyed over the year, so we’re hoping to re-create some of these when we travel to Sochi. Again, spicy, flavorful food is very popular, and I’ve noticed that American athletes crave ethnic food like Mexican, Thai and Cajun food when on the road.

SI: What is the typical daily caloric intake of an Olympic athlete when training and competing?

AT: The important thing to keep in mind is that the daily calorie needs will be different depending on the sport. Big burly downhill Alpine skiers are much like American football players and will need more protein and calories (~4000 Calories) than ski jumpers (~2000-2500 Calories) or half pipe athletes (~2000-2500 Calories). Endurance athletes like cross country are like marathon runners and need constant carbohydrate to get them through training and their events and will have similar calorie needs, albeit less protein than Alpine skiers (~4000 Calories).

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SI: What does a typical daily meal plan look like for the Team USA members you work with (breakfast, lunch, dinner)?

AT: The foods given will be the same for all the sports, but the amounts (calories and protein/carbohydrate) will differ depending on the sports.

Breakfast: Oatmeal, Greek yogurt with fresh berries, hard boiled eggs.

Post morning workout snack: Blue Diamond almonds, banana.

Lunch: Veggie and beef Texas chili, cornbread made with greek yogurt, spinach salad with avocado.

Post-afternoon training snack: Chocolate milk, string cheese, applesauce.

Dinner: Grilled jerk chicken, roasted plantains, vegetable kabobs (bell pepper, zucchini, eggplant).

SI: Do you know much about the local cuisine in Sochi? Is there anything you’re particularly excited to try from that part of the world?

AT: Growing up in Chicago with a lot of Polish immigrants, I’m familiar with Eastern European cuisine. I’ve never been to Russia, so it will be a priority for me to sample to the local specialties. In my spare time at home in Park City, Utah, I like to pickle my own vegetables and make sauerkraut and kimchi. Russia is known for their pickled vegetables and kraut, so I’m excited to see their variety and will hopefully bring back some ideas for my backyard garden vegetables.

Russia is also known for their dairy products, particularly their naturally cultured sour creams (called smetana). Going to stores you can find piroshky -- stuffed buns with savory fillings. I’m pretty sure with the language barrier I’ll be buying some stuffed buns with no idea what’s inside, but that’s all part of the adventure.

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