Few swimmers have had careers as stellar as Natalie Coughlin's. She's won 11 Olympic medals, including six in 2008, and she has her sights set on winning more in London this summer. Thanks to the California Dried Plum Board, STACK recently had a chance to catch up with Coughlin, and she offered up some tips for athletes trying to eat healthier.
STACK: You've had such a successful career, and much of your success is due to long training sessions. How do you stay focused during workouts?
Coughlin: It's very easy to start to daydream or start to lose focus as a swimmer, because you're under water and you're in your own head. You don't get to chat with other people, you don't really get to listen to music or do anything like that, so it forces you to be focused. As I got older, I realized I could use my time wisely and constantly work on my technique and make myself a better athlete and a better swimmer, or I could daydream.
So I just forced myself to be focused when I'm in workouts. And when I'm in a big phase of training and my body is hurting and I don't want to get in the pool because it's cold outside, I just remind myself of my goals. I remind myself that I'm going to have to just suck it up and do it. If I want to achieve these lofty goals, I'm going to have to be a little uncomfortable.
STACK: Can you tell us a bit about how you eat healthy?
Coughlin: I have so many sponsor obligations and I travel so much, so I always have healthy snacks on hand. I call it my emergency kit. I carry dried plums, dark chocolate, and some nuts, either raw almonds or cashews, and herbal tea. So when I'm stuck in the middle of nowhere at an airport and my only options are fast food, at least I have some good snacks on hand.
STACK: What about post-activity? What do you like to eat when you're done working out?
Coughlin: After a hard training session—and I mean 90 minutes to two or three hours, not a half hour run; it has to be a long session—I make sure that I get a really good snack in within that 30-minute window. About 250 calories is the ideal amount. I have a great gluten-free snack bar recipe that uses soy flour, dried plum puree, coconut, raw nuts and some citrus. It's something you can make in your own kitchen, something fresh you make yourself.
STACK: As an athlete, how does being aware of your nutrition help you?
Coughlin: People spend so much time on their cars, making sure to put it in the right fuel, and then they forget that their body, especially if you're an athlete, is the engine. You want to fuel it with the proper things. I don't believe in supplements. Not only are they not regulated by the government and there really could be anything in them, I think that you get your best nutrition from real food.
STACK: What advice do you have for young athletes who don't feel the need to eat healthy?
Coughlin: Just experiment with food and learn what you like. I was picky when I was a kid, and I kind of got over it, tried different things and figured out what I like and what I didn't like. And pretty much now, if it's healthy for me, I pretty much like it. I've convinced myself that I like it. The one thing I can't eat is seaweed salad. I've never found that appetizing, even though I know it's really good for me. But everything else I've kind of tricked myself into enjoying.
The other key is to pay attention to how you feel after you have fast food or a really good salad and fresh vegetables. It really is amazing that once you start to be that present with what you eat, you realize how much it affects your overall health.
STACK: So how do you make eating healthy taste good?
Coughlin: Eating healthy doesn't have to mean a dry chicken breast and broccoli and brown rice. That is so boring. There are so many great dishes and ways to experiment in the kitchen to eat healthy. I like the mix up the flavor components. Using dried plums is a great way to do that, because you can add a lot of sweetness to a savory dish. So when you have that sweet salty, or sweet bitter component, it makes that dish so much more exciting to the palate, and it also looks better on the plate. You can eat healthy and still have something that tastes amazing.
By The Numbers
250 calories – Ideal number of calories in Coughlin's post-workout meal
4:15 a.m. – Coughlin's typical morning wake-up call
16 - World Championship medals, more than any female swimmer in history
Photo and Source: California Dried Plum Board
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock