The three-time gold-medal winner reveals how she’s tackling nutrition while training for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Kerri Walsh Jennings knows what it’s like to go for the gold.
She’s the most-decorated beach volleyball player in Olympics history, winning four medals — boasting an impressive three gold medals to her name.
Now, Walsh Jennings has the 2020 Tokyo games in her sights, hoping to nab another gold after winning a bronze at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.
While next summer’s Olympics might be more than a year away, this volleyball star has already been preparing to be the healthiest she can be in order to serve another career-topping win.
So, what does it take to get ready for the Olympics? She says it’s all about preparation.
“Preparation in life is just key. It’s about consistently showing up to make the right choices. I pride myself on preparation on the court, in life as a mommy, as a working woman,” Walsh Jennings told Healthline.
Walsh Jennings said she has to be prepared to rise to meet many challenges at once.
A wearer of many hats, she’s currently partnering with healthy dried fruit and juice brand Sunsweet to promote its “#ToFeelGood” campaign. She is also the founder of p1440 (a beach volleyball event series showcase and lifestyle platform rolled into one), and at age 40, is training for that next Olympics.
On top of all that, she and fellow beach volleyball player-turned-pro-wrestler husband Casey Jennings are parents to three young children.
With all of those demands, Walsh Jennings stressed that to stay on top of her game — from the beach court to business meetings — she is vigilant about fueling her body with healthy food options.
“Nutritionally, I really look to ‘real food’ as medicine. I personally feel if we could all eat a great diet, then great nutrition negates our need for pharmaceutical medicine. So, my family and I pride ourselves on eating clean,” she said. “Yes, we love Mexican food, we love pizza, we enjoy those things, but on average, we eat very clean.”
She explains this means, “We eat a lot of lean proteins to fuel ourselves properly. When you’re a professional athlete you need to nourish your muscles, nourish your bones.”
She says that “everything is an input” that can affect your performance, from the social media you read to snacks you munch on during the day.
Given that, Walsh Jennings said it is important for her that she is mindful that “everything is going to have an effect on your performance.”
While she currently serves as the face of a prune-juice maker’s latest campaign, Walsh Jennings said Sunsweet products have actually been part of her daily routine as an athlete for a while.
In fact, she says she starts each morning with a glass of juice.
“It’s one of those ‘mommy habits’ that I’ve helped instill in my children. They’ve been going to prunes to get that fiber they need to support bone growth and bone health,” Walsh Jennings said. “It kind of became a no-brainer for me to get involved with this kind of campaign because of that.”
Prunes, or dried plums, have been found to have a range of health benefits from helping with digestion to being good sources of potassium and iron to building bones and muscles.
Beyond this, she said her sports psychologist counseled her back during the London games to chow down on some quick, healthy sugary snacks like honey sticks as well as prunes while on the sidelines in between sets to give her body a boost.
Dr. Cordelia W. Carter, a pediatric orthopedic sports surgeon and director of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at NYU Langone Health, told Healthline that nutrition is obviously key to staying healthy. She said this is something that is necessary especially if you’re preparing for a sporting event, whether it be a college game or your weekend soccer club.
“I want to highlight a couple of things, especially for women, Kerri Walsh Jennings is in a performance sport that is also an aesthetic sport, she wears a bikini to work, women in these kinds of sports are less clad — think runners and divers — and are more at risk for under-fueling, which means not enough calories or not enough kinds of healthy, helpful calories,” Carter said.
She added, “Not getting enough essential calories puts you at risk for losing your period, hormonal disruption, weakening your bones which leads to orthopedic problems, stress fractures, you name it.”
Carter, who is not affiliated with Walsh Jennings’s Sunsweet campaign or p1440, said that the “science goes back and forth” when it comes to what is the best way to either fuel up before or after a workout.
“For every piece of data on this there is a counter argument. So, I would say do the thing that makes the most sense to you,” she said. “Focus on whole foods, fruits and vegetables, those would be at the top of your personal food pyramid. Then whole grains and lean proteins, but of course, everything in moderation. That doesn’t mean you have to be restrictive. I suggest carefully selecting what you eat.”
In two decades, Walsh Jennings has established herself as one of the preeminent faces of her sport.
As a high schooler, she became a dominant force in national competitions. She attend Stanford University on a volleyball scholarship, where she was the second person in college-level volleyball to make first-team All-American status all four years of her time in college.
After that, she turned pro and her career skyrocketed, leading to her eventual Olympics dominance.
How has her approach to fitness and nutrition changed since she started competing in the sport 25 years ago?
“When I was younger, I took a lot of it for granted. I would feel good…but I would notice these lapses as an athlete. If you’re not fueling properly, you’re going to have points where your performance decreases. I now don’t want to give myself any excuse not to perform well or feel well,” she said
As she’s gotten older, Walsh Jennings admits she’s evolved and is more diligent about nutrition.
She said that she’s experimented with different diets, including the keto diet, but cautioned people to not “fall into the trap” of going with a fad.
Essentially, she suggests to do what works for you and your body — advice you don’t have to be a Olympian to follow.
“My focus right now is on clean real food, food that will help me digest properly and that will make sure I have a healthy microbiome gut, which is so important,” she added. “I’m really focused on food that feeds the good.”
Carter said she’s always surprised when she hears people giving advice on eating fruits and vegetables and getting a good night’s sleep. She believes these things should all be “intuitive” and says it’s a product of our on-the-go culture.
“As a society we have to re-learn that somehow. We have to focus on getting back to basics. I think our society is structured in a way where there is almost no way to win,” she said. “If you’re trying to be high performing at everything that you do, then what you run out of is time. You need time to sleep. You need time to exercise, you need time to make healthy food choices.”
She adds, “Ironically, the people we expect to be the most high performing are the ones who are vulnerable to not checking off the boxes of what are the basics of health.”
Carter said that she sees a lot of college athletes who struggle with their mental health while trying to excel in all aspects of their life.
She stressed that there are high rates of anxiety and depression among some of these people who are almost “set up to fail,” trying to meet impossible demands that sometimes leave healthy habits by the wayside.
Carter’s key advice? She said don’t be afraid to say “no” and “make a different choice that might be a healthier one.”
“In order to be an elite athlete you don’t have to do your own sport and do it year-round with no break,” she said. “It’s so hard to convince a runner, for instance, to do anything other than running. You can run yourself into a stress fracture or some other over-use injury. It’s so hard to convince somebody that if they don’t work harder or work longer, then they won’t be better. The best advice is to work smarter.”
In fact, Carter adds that she was a runner who suffered a number of over-use injuries, thinking that if she did “5 miles today, I can do 10 tomorrow” with no breaks in between.
“Work smarter, don’t skip a workout, but think about what is your goal of that workout? If it’s to increase oxygen uptake, then do a high-intensity interval experience that is shorter that allows you to reach that goal, but also allows you to get some sleep and go make a salad,” Carter said.
For Walsh Jennings, these efforts to be smart about her health will hopefully lead to that elusive fourth Olympic gold. She’s said the qualifying period for her sport started last September and are continuing now.
“I’m laser-focused to qualify and win a gold medal,” she said. “I’m servicing my body, my mind, my spirit. Most days I do three workouts and then prioritize recovery. I make sure to get a great sleep, to stay on top of great nutrition. I spend a little time each day to assess how I feel, to visualize how I’m moving with my partner. This allows me to be a badass — excuse my language — master of the art of being mindful. I want to be present in the moment, which allows for more chances for that world domination, that success.”