Endzone Eats: What Ancient Olympians Ate to Win

Endzone Eats: What Ancient Olympians Ate to Win

Believe it or not, training relentlessly in gymnasiums wasn’t the only winning strategy of ancient Greek athletes. Very similar to modern-day athletes, their recipe for victory included thoughtfully created diets. Specific types of food, herbs, and spices were believed to increase energy and enhance performance and they were an essential part of their success. Let’s dive into the world of ancient sports and nutrition and explore the spices and herbs that empowered its champions!

Early Olympians: What Did They Eat?

Imagine the world of ancient Greek athletes, where trainers and doctors spared no effort to find the best ways to improve their performance through various training and eating strategies. Not very much different from today’s world of sports, isn’t it? Except garlic was considered a magical ingredient and wine mixed with spices and honey - an energy drink. But let’s start from the beginning.

Ancient Greeks highly valued physical fitness and athletic abilities. They believed there is no healthy mind without a healthy body and considered achieving your full physical potential as an exceptional virtue. Most athletic competitions, like the Olympic Games, were held for religious purposes and the winner would be seen as the one favored by gods. It is no wonder that athletes did all they could to maximize their performance and get the glory and honor of being crowned champion. And having the right diet was considered to be a crucial element of success.

In the beginning, the diet of Greek athletes was not much different from the average Greek diet. They ate barley porridge, fresh cheese, fresh vegetables and fruits, occasionally, fish and meat. The earliest records of an athlete’s special diet are those of Charmis of Sparta who trained and competed eating dried figs. As a sprinter, he found the sugar in dried figs extremely useful and won the sprint race at the Olympic Games in 668 BC.

Becoming Carnivorous: The Meat Craze Among Athletes

According to Pausanias, Dromeus of Stymphalus started the meat craze. He won the Olympics as a long-distance runner and his diet was almost entirely based on meat. Another account attributes this innovation to Eurymenes of Samos, a heavyweight champion who allegedly based his diet solely on meat upon the advice of the famous mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras. Since it is well-known that Pythagoras was a vegetarian, it is more likely that Eurymenes was given that advice by a sports trainer of the same name.

Milo of Croton was the most successful Olympian in history. He won the wrestling championship in six Olympic Games and seven Pythian Games. He was known as a meat lover and his dietary habits were often exaggerated. The Deipnosophists brings an incredible tale of Milo of Croton. It describes how Milo put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders, carried it around the stadium, killed it with a single punch, and then cut it and ate it all alone in a single day!

And as with every other trend, eating meat became very popular among ancient Greek athletes. They chose the meat based on the characteristics of the animals that were relevant to their sport. Sprinters and jumpers were encouraged to eat goat meat, boxers ate bull meat, and pork was thought to be the best choice for the wrestlers.

Spicing Up the Performance: The Hidden Nutritional Arsenal

There is not much information on spices and herbs used specifically by athletes, but ancient Greeks highly valued them for their health benefits, recovery qualities, and strength-enhancing properties. The collection of texts attributed to Hippocrates contain many references to the medicinal properties of different foods, herbs, and spices. Galen of Pergamon wrote about humoral theory and the benefits of balancing bodily fluids through diet. Certain herbs and spices were considered very important for health and vitality.

Ancient Greek trainers and athletes were very well aware of the importance of nutrition for performance and endurance. While primary sources do not explicitly mention the use of spices, we can say without a shadow of a doubt that they had knowledge about the health and performance benefits of spices and herbs. Here are some specific spices that ancient Greeks used which are known for their health benefits.


Ancient Greeks associated thyme with strength and courage. The name “thyme” is most likely derived from the Greek word “thymon”, which means “courage,” or “thymiama”, which means “incense.” Athletes used thyme oil because they believed it would give them strength and it is known that soldiers bathed in thyme-infused water to evoke courage.

Thyme is a good source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and iron. It is rich in antioxidants which protect the body from oxidative stress. It can boost the immune system and has anti-inflammatory effects which can help in reducing pain.


Ancient Greek athletes consumed garlic to boost energy and improve performance. It was known for its performance-boosting powers before it was used as a medicine. Athletes believed that it was an excellent stimulant that purifies blood, enhances physical performance, and reduces fatigue. It was widely consumed before competitions and considered to have magical powers.

Today, science has discovered that garlic is truly beneficial for sports performance. It improves endurance and stamina and reduces oxidative stress which helps in preventing muscle damage. Its immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory properties contributes to faster recovery times and reduce inflammation.


Oregano, apart from its very aromatic flavor, was well-known among ancient Greeks for its healing effects. It was often used to heal injuries and prevent infections because of its antiseptic properties. It was also used for pain relief and overall well-being. Oregano was also used among athletes to relieve pain in sore muscles or for the stiff muscles to relax.

Today medicine confirms numerous health benefits of oregano. We now know that oregano reduces inflammation and contains vitamins C, K, E, and A, calcium, iron, and many important antioxidants.


Parsley expanded from the Mediterranean region to almost every part of the world. For ancient Greeks, parsley was a sacred plant an often associated with victory. It was one of the plants that was used for making wreaths to decorate athletes at sports competitions. It

was also valued for its medicinal properties – wound healing, blood purification, reduction of inflammation, or as a digestive aid.

Because of the high level of vitamin C, parsley has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It can improve bone health because of vitamin K, which has a significant role in the process of absorption of calcium. It is also rich in minerals, like calcium and magnesium.


We don’t have records that specifically say ancient Greek athletes used rosemary, but the use of rosemary was common among the Greeks in general and they recognized and valued its health benefits. Among other things, they used rosemary to relieve muscle pain, enhance circulation, and improve memory and focus.

Today we know that rosemary has antioxidant properties that can protect from oxidative stress, which may be caused by intense exercise. It can also improve cognition and mental clarity during training or competitions.

In Conclusion

The interest of ancient Greeks in the impact of food on overall health was profound and inspiring. They understood and appreciated the qualities of different types of food, as well as herbs and spices. It is evident that they valued spices not only for their taste and aroma but also for their health benefits and performance-enhancing properties.

As modern science delves deeper into the research of nutritional and therapeutic qualities of herbs and spices, we realize how the insights of ancient Greeks were mostly accurate and relevant. This realization highlights the ancient wisdom captured in a quote attributed to Hippocrates that says: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

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