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Swimming Nutrition 101: What to Eat Before, During and After Swimming

food for swimming ideas

Fast swimming and quality nutrition go hand in hand.

Seriously, eating the right foods, in the right qualities can fuel your performance to new heights.

But with so much nutritional information out there, sorting the wheat from the chaff can be challenging. Especially when you consider the unique demands that swimming places on the body.

In this article, we’ll discuss what to eat before, during and after your sessions to power-up your swimming training, swim faster, and get in great shape.

Sounds good? Let’s get to it.

How to Eat For Swimming: Figuring Out Macronutrients

Sports nutrition can get pretty complex at times. For example, when constructing a nutritional plane, typically you need to consider things like: body size, body composition goals, meal timing and so forth.

But since this post isn’t a degree in exercise nutrition, I’m only going to cover the one thing that’ll have the biggest impact on your training: the macronutrient make-up of your diet.

Ok, now ‘macronutrient’ might sound like a fancy word. But in reality, it’s just a way to describe the three nutrient groups:

  • Carbohydrates (like bread, rice and pasta) – power your muscles during training and races
  • Proteins (like chicken breast and steak) – build and repair muscle and connective tissue
  • Fats (like olive oil and butter) – critical for proper hormone production and recovery

The amount of each macronutrient you consume can drastically alter how you’ll perform in the pool and how your body looks.

But the thing is everyone has unique macronutrient requirements based on their body size and activity level. So, you’ll need to figure out what’s right for you.

For example, check out the kinds of foods that Michael Phelp’s ate in the run up to the Olympics:

If a 3-times a week swimmer ate his old diet, they’d probably be obese within a six months.

But thankfully, you don’t have to eat like Phelps. There are a bunch of calculators out there to help you tailor your nutrition to perfection. Here’s a handy one from Calcultor.net to try.

Ok so once you’ve input your details, you’ll get a target for how much protein, carbohydrates and fats you should eat in a day. (note: if you’re swimming for weight loss, take 300-500kcal away from this figure)

The next step is to download an app called MyFitnessPal which will allow you to log what you eat and learn how close you are to your targets. There is a paid version, but if you’re just getting started the free one is fine.

Log everything you eat for a week and soon you’ll know if you need to eat more (or less) carbohydrates, fats and proteins for optimal performance!

The Hydration Factor: How Much Fluid to Drink For Swimming

A drop in hydration of just 2% can impair your swimming performance. That’s why you’ll see all the top swimmers with a water bottle at the end of their lane.

But even if you’re just splashing about in a pool, you can lose a large amount of fluid while in the water. And the thing is, you can be dehydrated without even feeling particularly thirsty.

So, to stay hydrated, you should drink fluids before, during and after your session. How much you need to drink again depends on individual fluid losses.

But a good rule of thumb is to consume around one litre of water every hour that you’re training. For most training, water is the best choice.

However, if you’re engaging in extended sessions (longer than one hour) sports drinks can be handy. Sport drinks give you some carbohydrates for fuel and alsol replace the electrolytes you’re losing through sweat.

If you’re at a swimming competition, make sure to always have a water bottle to hand and take regular sips. The heat of a pool environment can quickly dehydrate you if you’re not careful.

What Should You Eat Before Swimming

Ok, now that you know how much you should eat, and the importance of staying hydrated, let’s look at the best things to eat before you get in the pool.

When it comes to timing, the old wives tale of ‘not eating an hour before swimming’ has genuine merit. You need to give the foods you eat time to digest and enter your system.

Before you swim, you want to give your body some fast acting carbohydrates to fuel your session.

Here’s some ideal snacks to eat one hour before you hit the pool:

  • A banana or an apple
  • A rice crispy square
  • A granola bar
  • A couple of crackers

These low-fat, fast carbohydrate snacks will get into your bloodstream fast and get you ready to train. If you’re training in the morning a little caffeine-boost from coffee or black tea can also get you revved up.

If you’re swimming for longer than an hour, it’s best to beef-up your snacks with a little added protein and fat to help slow digestion and keep your energy up. This can mean:

  • Toast with peanut butter and jam
  • A banana or granola mixed with greek yoghurt
  • Crackers with cheddar slices on top.

If you’re preparing for a race, or sessions that’s more than three hours away, you could eat something more substantial. You still want to keep things high in carbohydrates, but protein and a little fat are fine too. Some examples:

  • Porridge with low-fat milk
  • Chicken sandwich
  • Pasta salad with beans and chickpeas

What Should You Eat During Swimming

If you’re swimming for an hour or less, there’s no need to eat anything while you’re in the pool.

However if you’re swimming for more than an hour, or you’re in between races at a competition, then consuming something small is a good idea.

For training sessions over an hour, you want something that’s low in fat, high in carbs and quickly digested. Liquids can come in handy here too. Some suggestions are:

  • A handful of dried fruit (raisins, bananas chips, goji berries)
  • Sports gel packs
  • Sports drinks
  • Handful of grapes
  • A satsuma
  • Low fat yoghurt drinks
  • Jelly babies

For competitions where you’ll have more than two hour between races, eat something similar to the substantial meals discussed above to stave off hunger and keep you going.

Remember that competition venues often don’t offer suitable food choices for performance swimming. So, it’s best to pack any food you’ll need for your race day.

What Should You Eat After Swimming

What you eat after swimming massively impacts your ability to recover from your training session or race.

Recovery-focused meals need to contain plenty of carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen, protein for muscular repair and fluids to replace sweat losses.

Ideally, you want to consume your post-workout meal as soon as possible after you swim. That said, if you trained intensely, sometimes you may have to wait a little while for your appetite to come back.

If your next main meal is very close to your training session, you’ll want to opt for more of a snack post-workout instead of a full meal.

Some suggestions for recovery foods are:

  • A fruit smoothie enriched with protein powder
  • Poached eggs on toast
  • Ham and cheese sandwich
  • Whole grain crackers with peanut butter
  • A glass of chocolate milk

Lots of swimmers go straight from the pool to the gym – for this a lighter snack like crackers with cheese or chocolate milk are perfect.

Getting some form of calories in after your training session will ensure you’re recovered and ready to go harder the next time around.

How to Eat For Swimming General Tips

Now that your brain is brimming with ideas about what to eat and when to eat it, let’s cover some quick maxims that’ll help you stick to your swimming nutrition plan.

  • Organisation is key: As the old adage goes ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. If you haven’t got the right foods prepped and ready to go, you’ll inevitably reach for a poor alternative.
  • Variety is the spice of life: Mixing up food types is not only a healthier approach to eating, but you’ll be less likely to get bored and give up too.
  • No unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets: No one meal or snack in isolation is inherently unhealthy. As long as you primarily eat whole foods and stick to your macronutrient requirements,  a little indulgence here and there is fine
  • Add more vegetables: Vegetables contain a huge amount of vitamins and minerals that are necessary for peak performance. They’re also a  great source of fibre while being generally low in calories. Try and fit more veggies wherever possible.
  • Hydrate all day: Bring a water bottle with you throughout the day. It’s entirely possible to get dehydrated without noticing when you’re sitting at a desk all day. Keep topping up your water to make sure you arrive at the pool ready to perform.

Go Forth and Eat Like a Champion!

What you eat has a massive impact on your ability to give your all in training and races.Use the advice we’ve provided above to feel more energy and power in every session.

To close, remember not to over-complicate things. The ultimate key to getting better at anything is consistency. If you make your nutritional program too strict or hard to follow you’ll end up packing it in.

Remember, eating an 75%-optimised diet 100% of the time is better than eating a 100%-optimised diet 20% of the time.

Now over to you! What’s your best nutritional tip for swimmers? Surely we forgot something in this article? Share it in the comments below to help other readers out!

by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.

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