Social Science blog

13 May 2010

To purge or not to purge

At the time of the Beijing Olympics a lot of publicity was given to Michael Phelps’s astonishing intake of food, which came to over 10,000 calories per day, most of them in the form of carbohydrates. The BBC listed everything in awe-inspiring detail at and it struck me on reading it that the list flew in the face of the usual advice about the correct proportions of fats, sugars and proteins in the diet, and the importance of vitamin-packed superfoods like leafy vegetables and brightly coloured fruits. Clearly, Phelps’s first need was to cram down daily as many calories as was humanly possible, given his huge expenditure of energy in training and competition, but the report did get me thinking about how advice on nutrition changes over time. One of the pleasures of working here is that in the course of your work you run across all sorts of publications that lurk in the archive largely undisturbed, and while researching an article on early coaching books I became fascinated by the types of foods that athletes were recommended to eat.


Walter Thom’s Pedestrianism (1813) was one of the first books to be published on running (and walking). His ideas on coaching were adapted from those of the celebrated race walker Captain Barclay who was a folk hero in England as a result of his feats of physical endurance. Captain Barclay recommended that a competitor train on beefsteaks, mutton chops, bread and beer, and laid stress on “a regular course of physic…(Glauber salts are generally preferred)” to purge the system. Exactly one hundred years later Sam Mussabini, the trainer of the Olympic gold medallist Harold Abrahams, was also putting his faith in the power of the purgative by providing a recipe for one of his own, namely “Epsom salts brewed up with liquorice, gentian root, camomile and ginger”. In these days of the advanced science of sports nutrition you don’t hear so much about ‘purging’. Will it ever come back into fashion?


Mussabini, Scipio Africanus.

The Complete Athletic Trainer. By S. A. Mussabini, in collaboration with

Charles Ranson. With thirty illustrations.

Methuen & Co.: London, 1913

London reference collections shelfmark 2271.c.19.


Thom, Walter.

Pedestrianism; or, an account of the performances of celebrated Pedestrians during the last and present century; with a full narrative of Captain Barclay's public and private matches; and an Essay on Training.

Aberdeen, 1813

London reference collections shelfmark1040.d.23.






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