Swimming is hard. It becomes even harder if you don't have proper nutrition. But this can be confusing. There are so many different perspectives on this. The information on the internet is always contradicting. Eat carbs, don't eat carbs. Eat lots of meat, don't eat any meat. For a swimmer, it should be simple, healthy. Coaches can't control what their athletes eat away from the pool, but the athlete and the parents should be aware of what the right choices should be to help the athlete perform their best.
I once had a swimmer tell me he ate two Big Macs before coming to the finals session of a particular swim meet. This young athlete was so proud of himself and I think he thought I would be proud of him too. As you can imagine, I wasn't. But I didn't get as mad as I could have. I wanted the swimmer to learn from this nutrition mistake. During the session, he kept getting more lethargic. His warmup was terrible and he puked almost immediately after his race, which he also added 5 seconds too. Later when I talked to him about it, I asked him why he thought he had done so poorly when he had been swimming so well during the rest of the meet? His immediate response was his poor decision to eat those Big Macs before racing. To my knowledge he hasn't done something like that since.
Adding a little bit extra
There is always talk about taking natural supplements to help performance. Guess what? Diets and supplements don't go far in our sport. Most of these supplements or diets are geared towards one of two things - Bulk you up or make you lose weight. Swimmers don't need to be bulky beasts and they definitely don't need to lose weight. In fact, having leaner muscle mass is better for you. Tense weightlifter type muscles are only going to make you sink in the water. As well, most swimmers I know could use a few more calories in their diet rather than count them or cut them back.
A swimmer's diet should simple. Not in the way of taste or sources of intake. I just mean that they should be nature foods. Don't take short cuts. If you eat a proper variety of nature foods, not processed, then you will be fueling your body properly for training and competition. Now, I'm not a dietitian so I'm not going to get into specifics of certain nutrient breakdowns. But I do know what kind of fuel swimmers need to perform their best.
The first one that I've talked about before is hydration. Remember when you swim you are still sweating. Staying hydrated before, during and after training or competition will help your muscles to recover and get stronger. You can read more about in our article 5 ways to be ready for every race. Essentially, if your body is dehydrated by as little as 2% then you are risking your ability to perform your best.
For a swimmer to perform their best and have the right fuel for their type of training, we can break every down into 4 basic categories. Swimmers should consume carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals.
Carbohydrates currently have a bad rap. Lots of diets and even nutritionist are saying that you shouldn't eat carbs because they will make you fat. This simply isn't true for swimmers or any other aerobic athlete. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for swimmers and shouldn't be taken lightly. The carbohydrates you intake convert into energy. This leaves very little to be converted into body fat.
Proteins help you repair and rebuild muscles. This is a must after training. Proteins also help produce hormones, support for your immune system, and helps replace red blood cells. It's a myth that protein is an athlete's main source of energy. Swimmers do not need extra protein. As I mentioned, supplements do not help with training your body for swimming. The protein you get in your normal diet is adequate.
Another category that gets a lot of bad press is fats. Needless to say not all fats are bad for you. In fact, some are essential to our development. Fashion magazines would like us all to think that we don't need any sort of fat. That skin and bones is the way to go, but those models definitely aren't swimmers. Good fats help us in hormone production, storage of vitamins, and help the body deliver essential fatty acids. Now, with all this said, the average American gets more than their fair share of fat in their diet. Fats should only contribute a max of 25% of your diet. They should also only consist of good fats like Extra Virgin Olive Oil, fish high in Omega-3s and Avocados. Chips and other highly processed foods are not good fats. These should be avoided by everyone, not only swimmers.
Finally, vitamins and minerals are readily available in all food that you consume in a healthy diet. The inclusion of vitamins, minerals and water help your body more efficiently access and use carbohydrates, proteins and fats during training and in recovery.
If we were to breakdown the percentages of each. It is believed that swimmers should be intaking 60% carbohydrates, 15% proteins, and 25% fats. Of course, this is sometimes difficult to get 100% right all the time. So as swimmers you should always try to keep your carbohydrates percentage higher than the rest. Nutritionists who specialize in swimmer food consumptions have states that carbohydrates should never drop below 50%, proteins should never go above 25% and fats should never go above 30%.
Getting what you need is easy with a healthy diet. Now I do want to mention that there is no magic superfood that you can eat and get all the nutrients you need. If you choose to eat colorful foods, this will cover you on all your vitamins, minerals and supplement intake amounts. A colorful plate of food will be filled with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, proteins and carbohydrates to help with your recovery and overall health.
A good rule of thumb for both training and competitions is to eat and drink early and often. The first two hours of a post-workout session is critical for building recovery and repairing muscles. After a workout, your focus should be on replenishing our energy levels and ensure rapid muscle recovery with carbohydrate and glycogen rich food consumption. The window for this is small. It's only two hours after a hard training session so if you can't have a proper meal right after, then at least consume a food high in carbohydrates. Something is better than nothing.
Swim meets are long and hard on athletes. There's a lot going on. A few things to remember is that eating carbohydrates right before you race won't do you any good. The reason for this is that your body needs time to break down the carbohydrates to convert them into energy you can use during your race. If you are within an hour of your race, you should focus your eating habits on fresh fruits like apples or grapes. Fruits are full of simple sugars that your body can use immediately as energy. Don't be confused these sugars found in fruit are very different than the sugars found in chocolate bars or most processed foods so definitely avoid those.
If you are 2 to 3 hours away from your race, fresh fruit is still great, but you can also include a bagel or slices of bread. Your body has more time to breakdown the carbohydrates but still not the optimal amount of time so still focus on the fresh fruit as your primary intake here.
If you are more than 3 hours away from your race, then including some proteins and fats along with your carbohydrates can be ideal here. You still probably shouldn't have a huge meal or anything, but you are giving yourself a lot more time to process the carbohydrates into energy that you can use later in your race.
No matter how close or far you are from a race, you should be staying hydrated. Getting comfortable with the idea of carrying at least one refillable water bottle with you at all times will do wonders for your swimming.
Consuming the right amounts of each category isn't an exact science. Each of us needs to learn what our bodies need to properly fuel ourselves for training and racing. There is a small chance those could be different. Learning how your body feels after you eat certain things and what effect it has on your swimming will make you a smarter, healthier swimmer. Don't get wrapped up in the latest fad or trend. There is no magic food or diet that will help you be the best you can be. Have a healthy overall outlook on the eating choices you make will help you accomplish any additional weight related goals you may have.
Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist so before you change any eating habits, please check with your doctor first.