Eating for Swimmers

Proper Diets Help Out in the Water

Avoid fat; fat is ok, eat it up. Avoid carbohydrates; carbohydrates should be the major portion of your diet. Consume a lot of protein; eat balanced portions of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. There is a lot of conflicting advice about eating for swimmers.

What you do depends on whom you believe and what you're trying to achieve. The best diet -- how much fat, protein, and carbohydrate -- is up to you, your personal needs, and your physician.

Before beginning a plan of eating for swimmers, consult a doctor to reduce the chance of medical complications.

Some Popular Diet Concepts

  • My Plate (from the US Dept. of Agriculture) recommends a balanced intake from all five food groups: grains, vegetables, fruit, dairy, and protein. This is the eating guide I recommend. The My Plate website has interactive tools to help you learn more about the guidelines and figure out a swimming diet.
  • Vegetarian diets vary from avoiding some meats to shunning all animal products. These diets are more challenging to make complete for an athlete but still achievable. They may be healthier than many other eating plans.
  • 40-30-30 plans, such as The Zone Diet, stress the concept that what and how you eat has a powerful effect on your physiology and health. These plans recommend changes in the composition of dietary fats, exercise, omega-3 fish oils, and proportions in three main elements of nutrition: 40% carbohydrates, 30% proteins, and 30% fats.
  • High protein, low carbohydrate diets, such as The Atkins Diet, focus on lowering the overall intake of carbohydrates. These plans don't seem to fit into the general realm of fitness for swimming or other pursuits and limit the most easily accessed source of energy. They aren't recommended by the American Dietetic Association due to the larger portions of fat and increased demand on kidney and liver function.

    These and other plans have rules and guidelines regarding what and how much to eat. Swimmers, like other athletes, must take in enough calories to offset those used in exercise and non-workout times.

    What Is a calorie?

    A calorie is a unit that tells you how much "energy" is in a type of food. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram, while fat has 9. Some diets also consider the glycemic index of foods, or how fast a food increases the level of glucose in the blood.

    How many calories do swimmers need a day? A rough rule is to multiply your weight in pounds by 12, but athletes need more. You could burn an extra 800 or more calories an hour during a workout.

    Basic guidelines maintain that in a general diet, 60% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 25% from fats. This will vary from plan to plan and from person to person.

    Most experts advise swimmers to break up the standard three daily meals into smaller mini-meals throughout the day.

    Guidelines for Eating Before, During, and After Swimming

    • Before. Eat three to four hours before swimming, primarily focusing on easy-to-digest carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, including fructose (a sugar with an index of 23 out of 100), apples, pears, yogurt, soy beans, kidney beans, skim milk, and peanuts.
    • During. Consume "sport" drinks that replace electrolytes and carbohydrates. Other easily digested foods may be consumed during prolonged periods of swimming or on long meet days. Look for low to moderate glycemic index foods, including moderate index foods such as lactose (a sugar with an index of 46 out of 100), popcorn, sweet potatoes, oranges, oatmeal cookies, orange juice, apple juice, grapes, and bananas.
    • After. Some studies suggest that you begin replenishing within 20 minutes of a swim. Rehydrate with water or sports drinks and replenish fuel stores with carbohydrates bearing a high to moderate glycemic index.

    There's a growing movement to add protein and perhaps a bit of fat (4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein, and some incidental fat) to aid recovery. Also recommended are high index foods including glucose (glycemic index 100 out of 100), watermelon, pineapple, potatoes, waffles, bagels, bread, jelly beans, rice cakes, honey, soft drinks, and Rice Krispies.

    Source:  https://www.sportsdietitians.com.au/factsheets/food-for-your-sport/food-for-your-sport-swimming/

    What are a few of the popular ideas for regular day to day diets for athletes out there?

    • My Plate (from the US Dept. of Agriculture): They recommend a balanced intake from all food groups (five of them now) through use of the My Plate icon. This is the eating guide I recommend; The groups are:
      Grains
      Vegetables
      Fruit
      Dairy
      Protein
      The My Plate website has a lot of interactive tools to help you learn more about the guidelines and even figure out a meal plan.
    • Vegetarian Diets are varied, from avoiding some meats to absolutely no animal products. These diets are a bit more challenging to make complete for an athlete, but very achievable. In fact, they may be healthier than many other eating plans. This plan (or life choice) has a food pyramid, too.
    • 40-30-30, such as The Zone Diet: A plan based on the concept that what and how you eat has a powerful effect on your physiology and health - don't all diets have this same underlying philosophy? Yes, but not all plans stress it as much as this one. This plan recommends changes in the composition of dietary fats, exercise, omega-3 fish oils, and controlling the proportions of three main elements of nutrition (intake should be 40% carbohydrates, 30% proteins, and 30% fats).
    • High Protein, Low Carbohydrate, such as The Atkins Diet: These focus on lowering the overall intake of carbohydrates. These plans do not seem to fit in the general realm of fitness; they limit the most easily accessed source of energy. They are also not recommended by the American Dietetic Association due to the larger portions of fat and increased demand on kidney and liver function.

      Each of these plans, and many others, all have different rules and guidelines to follow in regards to what to eat - they also have recommendations on how much to eat. Swimmers, like other athletes, need to take in enough calories to offset those used in exercise (and used during the non-workout times, too).

      What is a calorie?

      What is a calorie?

      A unit of measure that tells you how much "energy" is in a type of food. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram while fat has 9 calories per gram. Some diets also consider the glycemic index of foods, or how fast a food increases the level of glucose in the blood.

      How many calories do people need in a day? A very rough rule is to multiply your weight in pounds by 12 - this is probably the minimum calories you need to get by day to day; as an athlete, you will need more - you could burn an extra 800 (or more) calories every hour during a workout.

      If you want to continue to be able to practice, you need to replace this spent energy. How? By eating!!

      Basic guidelines state that in a general diet, approximately 60 % of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 25% from fats. This will vary from plan to plan and from person to person, and the exact breakdown is up to you.

      Remember, you should consult your physician before beginning any type of specific diet to avoid or reduce the chance of medical complications. Most experts also advise athletes to break up their meals into smaller mini-meals throughout the day, as opposed to just a breakfast, lunch and dinner.

      What about specific guidelines on what to eat before, during, and after exercise?

      What about specific guidelines on what to eat before, during, and after a workout or a swim meet?

      • Before - eat a meal 3 to 4 hours before the start, comprised of primarily easy to digest carbohydrates with a low glycemic index . Some low index foods: fructose (a sugar, has an index of 23 out of 100) apples, pears, yogurt, soy beans, kidney beans, skim milk, and peanuts.
      • During - consume "sport type drinks" that will replace both electrolytes and carbohydrates. Other easily digested foods may be consumed during prolonged periods of exercise or on those long meet days; look for low to moderate glycemic index foods. Some moderate index foods: lactose (a sugar, has an index of 46 out of 100) popcorn, sweet potatoes, orange, oatmeal cookies, orange juice, apple juice, grapes, and bananas.
      • After - some studies show timing is key - begin replenishing within the first 20 minutes. Re-hydrate, using water or more sports drink and replenish fuel stores even further by consuming carbohydrates with a high to moderate glycemic index.

      There is also a growing movement to add protein - and perhaps a slight amount of fat (4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein, and some incidental fat) to aid recovery. Some high index foods: glucose (glycemic index 100 out of 100) watermelon, pineapple, potatoes, waffles, bagels, bread, jelly beans, rice cakes, honey, soft drinks, and Rice Krispies.

      Whatever diet you choose, remember the old saying "you are what you eat" - and if you don't eat like an athlete, you cannot perform like one!

      Swim On!

      Updated by Dr. John Mullen, DPT on October 30, 2015.