A healthy diet is important to power your swimming. What you eat has a direct impact on your athletic performance today and weeks down the road. All the food groups are important and should be included for optimal results.
*Whole grains provide carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins. Choose brown rice, whole grain breads and cereals most of the time. White or refined grains are not “bad” but lack the fiber of the less processed grains. (White or refined grains are useful when refueling on competition day as they are easily digested.)
*Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants, vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. Fresh fruits and vegetables may look great and taste great, but contrary to popular belief, these are not always better! Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables retain lots of nutritional value and fiber. Fresh vegetables and fruits can lose their vitamin potency sitting in a produce truck or grocery store waiting to be purchased. Fresh, frozen, dried, and canned sources are all acceptable when trying to meet your 5 or more servings a day. Juices are calorically dense and not very satisfying. They should be consumed occasionally.
*Low fat dairy foods provide protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus. This is low fat yogurt, low fat cheese or even low fat chocolate milk. Low fat flavored dairy products, despite the sugar, are a better choice than no dairy products for growing bodies.
*Lean meats/poultry/eggs/beans/nuts provide protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Protein is very important for growing muscles and brains. Choose lean sources when possible. If you are vegetarian, plan your diet carefully to ensure you have plenty of vegetable protein.
*Other foods/celebration foods: soft drinks, cakes, cookies, chips, French fries, candies. These are foods that are a part of everybody’s diet from time to time. They should be enjoyed as an occasional part of your healthy diet. Lots of sugary foods can make you feel tired.
*Vitamins. It’s a good idea to add a “one a day” type multivitamin to your diet that provides a broad spectrum of nutrients. They can be chewable, gummies, or pill form. This will provide a good “safety net” so that all your needs are covered.
Dehydration causes muscle cramping, fatigue, headaches, and decreased physical performance. Even though you are in the pool, you are still sweating and also losing water through your increased respiration. You should consume 2 cups of water two hours before training and continue drinking about 6-10 ounces every 20 minutes during your workout.
Current fluid recommendations may surprise you. Most of this should be water.
9-13 year olds = at least 2-2.5 liters a day (8-10 cups)
14-18 year= at least 2.5-3 liters a day (10-12 cups)
On a daily basis, water is all you need for hydration. Sports drinks are really only necessary for intense workouts lasting more than an hour. However, if sports drinks encourage you to drink more, so be it. A low calorie sport drink containing 50-80 calories per 8 ounces could be used.
Cramping can be a problem for swimmers.
The most common causes of stomach cramping are eating too much, eating too heavily or drinking too much before a workout. You should not be eating a big meal right before you jump in the pool for practice.
The most common causes of muscle cramps are dehydration, fatigue, and electrolyte deficiency.
Dehydration: Make sure you are drinking enough throughout the day, not just right before practice. Also, avoid low carbohydrate diet plans as they lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss.
Fatigue: As you get more in shape, fatigue will play less of a role in muscle cramping. Stretching will also help. If you are having a muscle cramp, the coaches can help you stretch.
Electrolyte deficiency: This is usually not the case unless you are eating an unbalanced diet or are dehydrated. Make sure your diet is full of a variety of foods and a multivitamin supplement. Make sure you drink enough. If you are exercising heavily (over 1 hour strenuously) you may benefit from a sports drink to quickly replace your potassium and sodium losses. For most swimmers a piece of fruit or other potassium rich foods will do just fine. Sodium is usually plentiful enough in our diet; therefore there is rarely a need to supplement. Foods high in potassium include: milk, yogurt, bananas, cantaloupe, raisins, prunes, apricots, orange juice, honeydew, potatoes, lima beans, Brussels sprouts, spinach, beets, tomato products, and winter squash. Other sources include: dates, figs, nectarines, oranges, and pears.
One big pasta dinner the night before a swim meet will not make up for a week’s worth of bad eating! It’s the foods eaten 3-4 days before a meet that count.
You should be eating a carbohydrate rich diet every day to prevent glycogen depletion and ensure adequate replacement. Glycogen is the body’s way of storing carbohydrates for fuel. It is stored in your muscle and your liver. When needed, during exercise or long periods without food, it is broken down into sugar to keep your blood glucose in the desirable range. Without adequate glycogen stores your body is forced to breakdown protein or fat for fuel. This process is not an efficient way to get energy and could hamper your performance.
The recommended meal for you to have the night before a meet is still a high carbohydrate, moderate protein, low fat meal. Pasta dishes, rice dishes, potatoes, and breads are popular and well digested the night before an event. Yes, we still “carbo load”.
Most importantly, in the week leading up to a swim meet ….sleep well, eat well, and follow your coach’s advice
Athletic performance will be improved if your digestion is mostly complete by the time you step on the block. Why? When you eat, blood is moved away from your muscles to the stomach where it is needed for digestion and absorption. When you exercise, blood is moved to your muscles, so that it can be used for fuel. Thus, digestion and exercise compete for your blood supply. Therefore, when the whistle blows, it’s best to have little in your stomach. Your muscles need all the blood flow they can get for fast swimming. As you can see, what and when you eat become important for maximum performance in the pool. There’s a lot to consider. As a general rule, carbohydrates are digested quickly, in about 3-4 hours. Fat and protein take longer at about 5-7 hours. Larger meals take longer to digest than smaller meals and nervousness can also slow down digestion. Eating too much can cause nausea and stomach cramps; while eating too little can cause low energy. It can be confusing! Here are some general guidelines that may help you decide what to eat 4 hours, 2 hours, 1 hour, and 30 minutes prior to practice or competition.
*Eat breakfast which should include carbohydrate and protein. Starting your day with a stabilized blood sugar will make you feel better all day. Breakfast examples include:
Whole grain waffles, yogurt and fruit
Whole grain bagel with peanut butter, fruit and milk
Whole grain sandwich with lean turkey/egg/meat/cheese, fruit and milk
Whole grain cereal with sliced banana and milk
*Eat a healthy lunch which is high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, low in fat which includes fruits and vegetables when possible. If you eat a huge, heavy, fatty lunch, you will probably have tummy problems later at practice. Lunch examples include:
Lean sandwich with veggies and fruit
Macaroni and Cheese with veggies and fruit
Pasta dish with lean meat, salad, and fruit
*Also, avoid too many sweets such as ice cream, desserts, cookies and candies during the day as they can make you tired later.
*Eat an afternoon snack such as crackers, bread, goldfish, pretzels, low fat yogurt, low fat pudding, canned fruit, applesauce, raisins, bananas, granola bar, sports bar, ect. These foods need to be low fat and low fiber so they digest easily.
*If you are swimming in 2 – 4 hours: Eat a medium sized meal, rich in carbohydrate, moderate/low in protein and low in fat. You should not be eating a giant breakfast the day of a swim meet unless your first event is in the afternoon. If you are not swimming until the afternoon, eat a larger breakfast and then a “pre-event” meal for lunch.
*Spicy, high fiber, or gas producing foods should be avoided 2-4 hours prior to swimming to avoid gastric upset or delayed emptying. This includes soft drinks.
* Caffeine should also be avoided because it can be dehydrating.
Pre-Event Breakfast Examples for 2-4 hours before swimming:
Cold or Hot Cereal + skim milk+ fruit
Fruit smoothie made with milk or yogurt +granola
Yogurt + crackers/bagel + fruit
2 granola bars + skim milk/yogurt +fruit
Pancakes/French toast/muffin + milk + fruit
2 pieces of toast/bagel + cream cheese + juice
Banana + peanut butter +crackers + milk
Liquid meal replacement if all else fails!
Pre-Event Lunch Examples for 2-4 hours before swimming:
Pizza (no meat) + fruit + sport drink/water,
Lean Hamburger+ Fruit +Sport Drink/ Water,
Sandwich with lean protein + fruit + sport drink/water,
Pasta + lean protein + fruit + sport drink/water,
Rice + lean protein + fruit + sport drink/water
(This would be an afternoon snack on typical practice day or between events snack.)
*Eat a small high carbohydrate snack: The main focus is to keep you from feeling hungry. This is just to take the hunger edge off. Do not fill up! The snack should be 300 calories or less, low fat and low fiber. High fat and high fiber foods take longer to digest and can linger in your stomach. Easily digestible snacks include:
bread fig/apple/strawberry newtons
crackers pop tarts
goldfish low fat yogurt or pudding
pretzels applesauce or canned fruit
granola bar sport bars
*Hydrate: You should drink before you compete or practice. It is recommended that you have 2 cups of fluid in the 2 hours prior to event/practice. Drink sports drinks, diluted juice or water.
*Hydrate More: Sports drink, diluted juice, or water—not too much because a full stomach will slow you down.
*Snack??? Some people can tolerate small amounts of crackers at this time, it’s a personal preference.
*Sport gels can be used if you want. This is usually reserved for competition days by advanced swimmers.
Within 30-60 minutes of practice or competition you should restore fluids, replace carbohydrates, and provide protein for muscle healing. Recovery snack ideas include:
Smoothie made with yogurt and frozen berries
Sports drink and a sports bar
Graham crackers, banana, peanut butter, and milk
Fruit/dried fruit, crackers, cheese, and water
If you are not hungry immediately following practice because of stomach discomfort, lack of appetite or time constraints, a nutrition shake or sports drink can be used until your appetite returns.
A well balanced meal should follow in about an hour or so. Your meal should contain plenty of carbohydrate, lean protein, fruit/vegetables and some fat. Recovery meal ideas include:
Whole wheat spaghetti with meatballs, salad, fruit, bread
Stir Fry with lean meat/chicken and vegetables, and fruit
Whole wheat turkey sandwich, veggies and dip, and fruit
Lean pork or beef roast, potatoes, steamed veggies, bread, fruit
Macaroni and cheese, lean meat, veggies, fruit,
PS. This guide was written to be used as a reference for healthy eating for swimmers. If you have any medical conditions that require a special diet, please consult with your physician before making changes in your dietary habits.
Katie Sparks, RD, LD/N
Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist
Sources: American Dietetic Association; Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition Practice Group (SCAN); The Pre-Competition Meal by Nancy Clark, MS, RD; Sports Nutrition for Young Adults by Robert E. Keith; USA Swimming.org
To contact Mrs. Sparks, please email the coaches so we can forward you her info, or talk to her when you see her at practice.