Competitive eating: the weirdest sporting diets (including sushi for breakfast and 100 chicken nuggets a day)

Tomé Morrissy-Swan
Andy Murray at the US Open 2018 - UPI / Barcroft Media

Food is one of the most important aspects of a sportsperson's life. Alongside training and sleep, eating a balanced diet is crucial to optimising performance. With the right balance of nutrients, athletes are able to stay stronger, healthier, more energised and hydrated – all vital in the quest to outperform their rivals. 

Of course, the sport determines the goal. An NFL player may require thousands of calories to bulk up, whereas a tennis player needs endurance, agility and leanness alongside strength and power.

Sometimes, a radical dietary change can be a prelude for success. When Arsene Wenger became Arsenal manager in 1996, he promptly set about changing the players' excesses, which included a lot of sugar, fat and – notoriously – alcohol, though it took some players a while to give that up. It can also be a slight change in search of marginal gains – Wenger's successor, Unai Emery, has enforced his own dietary discipline by banning fruit juice from the training ground. 

For Andy Murray, the past year has arguably been the hardest of his career. Since January, he has undergone hip surgery, lost his place as British number one for the first time since 2006, and dropped outside the top 800 in the world rankings.

Now on the mend, he managed to play at the year's final grand slam, the US Open, after missing the previous four majors. He only reached the second round, but he revealed a particularly odd aspect of his recovery: sushi for breakfast. While some dishes are often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure the morning after - pizza, curry or Chinese spring to mind - raw fish isn't the most appetising way to start the day. 

"I actually had sushi at 8.30am on Monday - that was odd," Murray said. "I eat whatever is recommended to me." The recommendations include more normal things, like breakfasts of porridge, eggs, bacon and gluten-free toast. The three-time grand slam winner, encouraged by his team of dedicated specialists, also drinks two litres of water per hour when it's hot and humid; has an energy gel every 20 minutes; and, back to the raw fish, eats three boxes before or after his post-match media obligations. 

Murray's raw fish breakfast, however, is far from the strangest diet an athlete has resorted to in order to improve performance. Babe Ruth, the baseball legend whose career spanned from 1914 to 1935, reportedly enjoyed breakfasts of six eggs, a porterhouse steak and potatoes, all washed down with bourbon and ginger ale. And just in case that wasn't enough to power Ruth through a match, he made sure by noshing on three hot dogs before the first pitch. 

Usain Bolt

Diet: A lot of nuggets

Usain Bolt making his footballing debut for the Central Coast Mariners in Australia Credit: Ashley Feder/Getty Images

Usain Bolt has dialled down his fast food urges of late, saying he has to "look the other way" when greasy treats are presented to him. That wasn't the case in 2008. At the Beijing Olympics, where Bolt announced himself as athletics' greatest superstar by winning gold in the 100m and 200m, the Jamaican wasn't too fond of the local cuisine. So he turned to the trusted McDonald's, apparently eating 1,000 chicken nuggets throughout the tournament. 

That translates to five 20-strong boxes of nuggets per day, often washed down with sides of french fries and apple pies. Not exactly the number one recommended diet for a top athlete, but it didn't hold Bolt back, as he broke his own world record in the 100m before beating Michael Johnson's 200m record. 

Nutritionists haven't exactly endorsed the diet. Caroline Farrell, founder of Essential Nutrition, said: "As an athlete, you need a lot of protein, and chicken is a great source, granted. That said, anything deep fried is - unsurprisingly - not the ideal way to meet your body's protein requirements. 100 nuggets a day come with much more unhealthy fats, and less protein, than lean chicken."

Not that it mattered for Bolt. 

Michael Phelps

Diet: 12,000 calories per day; a lot of carbs 

Phelps: a man fuelled by copious amounts of pasta Credit: Michael Dalder/Reuters

Bolt's status as the greatest modern Olympian can only be matched by Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who has won an astounding 23 gold medals (the next highest has nine). Phelps' diet isn't so much weird as astounding in the amount of calories he consumes. 

In the same 2008 Olympics, Phelps described how all he does is "swim, eat and sleep". The eating part involves around 12,000 calories per day, about five times more than the average grown man. 

A typical day might include: three fried egg sandwiches for breakfast, but only as a prelude to a five-egg omelette; and French toast; and three chocolate chip pancakes. 

Next comes a lunch of a pound of pasta, two large ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread, and 1,000 calories worth of energy drinks. Dinner includes another pound of pasta, an entire pizza and yet more energy drinks. The diet of champions, evidently. 

Ryan Lochte

Diet: McDonald's 

Phelps (left) with Ryan Lochte, a fan of McDonald's Credit: Michael Sohn/AP

Phelps' compatriot and fellow swimmer Ryan Lochte picked up his own impressive Olympic medal haul, including six golds. Two came in Beijing, where Lochte's diet was a little more Boltian than Phelpsian. 

His four medals (he added two bronzes), were also fuelled by the Golden Arches. Lochte has confessed to dining at the American fast food chain for breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Chinese capital. His routine included a breakfast of eggs, sausage, biscuits, McMuffins, three hashbrowns and fruit salad.

Lunch was "two things of Chicken McNuggets, a double cheeseburger, and a Big Mac." While dinner was the "same as lunch," though with fries and "two or three double cheeseburgers," instead of one. 

Other proponents of the Supersize Me diet include NFL star Chad Ochocinco, who confessed to having "what some would call the worst diet in the world." McDonald's for breakfast, lunch and dinner was also his specialty. 

Lyoto Machida

Diet: urine 

Lyoto Machida isn't too well known in this country, except among fans of MMA, perhaps. However, the Brazilian did make the news over here in 2015, after a particularly odd dietary habit was revealed - drinking his own urine. Apparently, it was a family tradition. "My father does that for a long time and bring it to us," he said. "People think it's a joke. I never said it in the United States because I don't know how the fans will react. I drink my urine every morning like a natural medicine." 

Apparently, his urophagia is designed to strengthen the immune system and help rid the body of toxins. 

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers

Diet: Butter, bacon and bone broth 

Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers Credit: Getty Images/Stephen Dunn

Like Arsene Wenger changing the diet at Arsenal, culinary habits are often introduced among a whole squad in order to seek athletic gains. At the Los Angeles Lakers, a strict nutritional programme was implemented around 2012-13, consisting of a lot of fat. It was dubbed the "butter, bacon and bone broth" diet. 

"Not only are the Lakers unafraid of healthy fats, they practically freebase them," wrote journalist Ken Berger. Bryant, one of basketball's greatest ever players, and his Lakers teammates had to adhere to the three central tenets of the regime. All the beef had to be grass-fed; the bacon was sugar- and nitrate-free. The theory posited that good fats were one of the most efficient forms of energy. Bone broth was paramount, with marrow and cartilage-rich joints simmered in boiling water for 12 hours or more - it was designed to help fortify tendons and ligaments. 

Robert Oberst

Diet: 20,000 calories per day 

Thought Michael Phelps was gluttonous? Think again, as his 12,000-calorie days pale in comparison to the diet of Robert Oberst. The American professional strongman (those guys who pull cars and chuck tyres around), eats a shuddering 20,000 calories per day to fuel his weightlifting. 

As a 6'8, 400-pound man, he spends up to $450 on food on a single trip to the shops. His diet, which he says involves "clean" foods and strict portions of carbs, nutrients and proteins, involves a lot of turkey and rice. Spinach, eggs and meat also feature heavily. Eight to ten eggs will be eaten for breakfast, with many more boiled for snacking throughout the day. 

It's not necessarily a weird diet, just enough to feed most of us for a week. 

Michael Arnstein

Diet: fruitarian

Michael Arnstein is one of the world's leading ultra marathon runners. He runs a lot. A typical race might be the 264km Sparthalon in Greece; in under 13 hours, he'll get through 100 miles. 

You might think his diet would be similar to Phelps – a lot of carbs like pasta or rice. In fact, Arnstein only eats fruit and veg, with the odd gel thrown in. Initially just a vegetarian, for ethical rather than dietary reasons, he has now cut out all junk food, bread, grains and legumes. 

The diet is 80pc carb, 10pc fat, and 10pc protein, all from the plants, of which he eats around 25-30 pounds per day. That might include 20 bananas, but never milk or cheese, which he sees as poison. 

Novak Djokovic 

Diet: gluten and dairy free

Gluten- and dairy-free Djokovic  Credit: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

While not the strangest, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic's diet is a prime example of how crucial a tailored food plan is for an athlete's success. Back in 2010, the Serb was midway through a match when he had an all-too familiar mid-game collapse - Djokovic was struggling to breathe, and vomited violently during a toilet break. This was fairly normal for Djokovic, and though he had won the Australian Open in 2008, the precocious talent was failing to live up to his full potential. 

Luckily, a Serbian nutritionist, Dr Igor Cetojevic, was watching on TV, had a sneaky suspicion and told the sportsman he might be sensitive to gluten. A blood test confirmed the news that Djokovic was intolerant to wheat, dairy and tomatoes (bad luck for someone whose parents owned a pizza restaurant). Twelve months later, Djokovic was world number one. He's now won 13 grand slams in total, with his 2013 book Serve to Win revealing all. 

Djokovic strictly avoids gluten and dairy and rarely eats sugar. His diet consists of vegetables, beans, white meat, fish, fruit, nuts and pulses and healthy oils. It's mostly organic and cooked by himself - even at hotels. A typical day might include:

  • A breakfast of two tablespoons of honey; organic and gluten-free muesli. 
  • A snack of gluten-free bread or crackers with avocado or tuna.
  • A lunch of mixed-greens salad, gluten-free pasta with vegetables. 
  • A snack of apple with cashew butter.
  • A dinner of kale Caesar salad with dressing, minestrone soup, and salmon fillets with roasted tomatoes (he's only mildly intolerant to those).