Swimming requires massive amounts of energy, whether it’s at a swim meet or training. Because of this high energy expenditure, swimmers need to take the right steps to replenish the nutrients lost.
Competitive swimmers can burn up to 5,000 calories in four hours, depending on the intensity of the workout. Thus, swimmers can burn approximately 40 percent of their daily energy during this time. Because of this high energy expenditure, correct nutrition is essential to rebuilding and recovering.
Two common detrimental mindsets that swimmers have regarding meals fall on opposite ends of the spectrum.
The first is, “I swim hard every day so I can eat whatever I want. I’m working it off when I swim.” While it may be true that you are burning a lot of calories, you aren’t refueling with the necessary nutrients that will keep you healthy and swimming fast. Not to mention that eating loads of sugar and other processed foods will hinder your swimming and make you feel sluggish and slow.
The other mindset is: “I worked super hard in training, so I don’t want to ruin it by eating too much. I won’t eat or will eat much less than what I probably should.” You can’t expect your body to be able to put maximum effort into a training session or a race if it doesn’t have enough fuel to do so.
It doesn’t matter how much or how hard the swimmer trains, he or she will not reach their potential without proper nutrition.
What Should Swimmers Eat?
Swimmers who are training intensely for two or more hours daily should eat four to seven light meals a day. Eating large meals or too much in one sitting will leave the swimmer feeling lethargic and will inhibit their performance and it should also consist of foods that are easy to digest.
Carbohydrates should make up one half of a swimmer’s diet as it is the fuel swimmers need to get through that tough training session or swim meet. Carbs are stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver and is the fuel that our body uses throughout our day – especially during training. After training, that energy source will be running low and will need to be replaced. Some good sources of carbs are rice, cereal, pasta, potatoes, beans, peas, and lentils.
The other half of a swimmer’s meal should consist of protein, healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, avocados, and seeds), vegetables, fruit, whole grains, vitamins, and minerals.
Protein repairs and rebuilds the muscles after the stresses of training in addition to warding off soreness. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, which are the main components of muscular growth and repair. Some sources of protein are lean meats, fish, eggs, and low-fat dairy.
Swimmers should also drink water often to stay hydrated, sipping on their water bottles throughout the day to replenish sweat loss (yes, it is possible to sweat in the water). Many athletes don’t think about replacing electrolytes and other minerals lost in sweat, most notably sodium and potassium. Most athletes consume enough sodium in a normal diet.
What to Eat the Day Before a Swim Meet
The day before the meet, the swimmer should eat foods that are high in complex carbs and drink fluids often.
Swim England advises to “eat little and often—every two to four hours to keep blood sugar levels steady and fuel muscles.” Stick to foods that you are familiar with and avoid big meals. Do not overeat – you’ll feel lethargic on race day!
Foods with Complex Carbs:
• Brown rice
• Sweet potatoes or white potatoes with skin
• 100% whole wheat bread and pasta
What to Eat for Breakfast Before Training or a Swim Meet
Even if the swimmer feels too tired or nervous to eat, you need to eat – even if it’s just a little bit.
Eating breakfast kick-starts their metabolism and helps their body prepare for what is to come while helping maximize performance and training.
Eat something light and easily digestible such as cereal, oatmeal, banana, toast, fresh fruit or yogurt.
What to Eat During the Day Before Training or a Swim Meet
The swimmer should eat a high-carb meal two to four hours prior to a training session or swim meet. The meal should be low in fiber and fat. Examples are whole grain cereal with milk, fresh fruit or oatmeal with banana or cinnamon.
One to two hours before, the swimmer should follow up with a light snack such as fresh fruit or a sports bar.
What to Eat During a Swim Meet
The swimmer should make sure to eat and drink between events to aid in recovery and to ward off dehydration.
If a swimmer has less than one hour between events, the snack should be light and easy to digest. Fruit juice, yogurt pouches and small pieces of fresh fruit are ideal.
If the swimmer has more than one to two hours between races, they can fuel with the following: pasta, sandwiches (whole grain or whole wheat bread and organic meat) or sushi.
Bring a cooler of food so you are ready to re-fuel!
Snacks to Eat Between Races
After a race or training, the swimmer needs to eat as soon as possible for recovery. Snacks should consist of complex carbs and proteins, not simple sugars, or foods high in fat. Foods such as pasta salad, plain sandwich, bananas, grapes, apples, dried fruit (raisins, craisins, apricots, mango), cereal bars, yogurt and unsalted nuts are perfect for this.
If you can’t do solids between your races, try diluted juice with a pinch of salt, chocolate milk or a smoothie.
What to Eat After Swim Meets and Training
Foods eaten after training, or a swim meet, should contain carbs for fuel and protein for muscular repair and growth. The swimmer should also drink water to stay hydrated.
Carbs: fruit smoothies, yogurt fruit cup, fresh fruit or toast and jam (or peanut butter with bananas).
Proteins: whole wheat pita and hummus, white meat sandwich, chocolate milk (protein and calcium to strengthen bones and feeds amino acids in the muscles), tuna salad, eggs, nuts, edamame, smoothie with dairy and omelets or fried eggs on toast.