Swimming, like the other Olympic sports, demands that massive amounts of energy be expended from those participating in it. Where does this energy come from? If you read our last post, you would know that sleep and nutrition make up the foundation for all successful training sessions and performances in the competition setting; however, even the most knowledgeable and goal-oriented swimmer can have trouble when it comes to navigating the world of nutrition. This week, we sat down with Dr. Brittaney Cook, Nutrition Coach, Chiropractor and owner of Athletic Outcomes in Austin, Texas, to help make this aspect of recovery and performance a little less intimidating!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
If you have already taken a step down the path toward understanding nutrition, you may have read or heard about professionals called dietitians and nutrition coaches or nutritionists. Just so we are all on the same page, let’s explain the difference between those two types of individuals. Technically, the term “nutritionist” isn’t regulated so anyone can call him- or herself a nutritionist even without any formal training, a degree, certification, or license. Some states require nutritionists to obtain a license to practice, while others do not. Registered dietitians, or simply dietitians, noted by “RD” or “RDN” after a person’s name, means something specific. Dietitians are required to meet a specific set of requirements including a minimum of a bachelor’s degree with specific coursework in nutrition science from an accredited university; at least 1,200 hours of supervised experience; a comprehensive registration exam; and continuing professional education requirements to maintain registration. Most states provide licensure or certification for RD/RDNs. Both dietitians and nutritionists work in a range of fields with various specialties. While all dietitians are nutritionists, not all nutritionists are dietitians. It is important to understand a person’s educational and professional background and their experience and credentials. You’ll want to seek out support from a qualified professional who understands your athletic needs.
RITTER: What should the goal-oriented swimmer be looking for when it comes to finding a nutritionist to work with?
Dr. B: Try to get an understanding of what they specialize in. There’s a big difference between someone who focuses on general nutrition and nutrition for athletes. You wouldn’t just train for a 50m sprint if your main event was the 1500, would you? However, it’s always important to focus on building good, basic nutrition habits before over-complicating the process for the sake of making it “sport-specific.”
LAYING THE FOUNDATION:
RITTER: In recent years, we have seen a surge of online programs and trainers looking to make a name for themselves. This has arguably made navigating an already complicated subject even more challenging. A lot of swimmers we work with mention content they have seen or read about on social media platforms and a big word that gets thrown around a lot is “macros”. What exactly are macros and what do people mean by “hitting your macros”?
Dr. B: Macros or macronutrients are the building blocks found in every food. You have three of them:
- Proteins – these essentially help us repair and build muscle
- Carbohydrates – these act as our primary source of energy (don’t be scared of these)
- Fats – help us balance out our hormones
It is important to note that more than one macronutrient can be found in the same type of food. For example, you might look at black beans as a protein and/or carbohydrate-rich food, yet a lot of my athletes do not recognize that they are also a healthy source of fats. So, if you are looking to limit your fat intake, beans may not be the best bet when looking for a protein/carb source for your meals. Practice reading your food labels and try to identify the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and fats actually make up what you are eating. Everyone is different and needs different amounts of these nutrients, that’s why it’s always helpful to work with a nutritionist when trying to determine what amount of what is right for you!
K.I.S.S: KEEP IT SIMPLE, SWIMMER!
Dr. B: One of the first things my clients want to do is start looking at nutrient timing around their training sessions. I usually ask that they first start with looking at the rest of the day first. After all, most athletes are training for 1-2 hours a day but live full lives outside of the water. It’s important to understand that we are people first, athletes second (in most cases). Instead of stressing yourself out about whether or not you are getting your proteins or carbs within a specific window after your workout, start by making sure you get it in your body in the first place! Take that a step further by looking at the rest of your day: are you eating breakfast? lunch? dinner? If you are skipping meals, focus on filling those gaps first.
RITTER: That’s a great point. We cover nutrient timing and its importance in another post but, as people living busy lives, it is sometimes easy to neglect the basics.
Dr. B: Right! You should look at food as fuel. Like putting gas in a car, everything you put in your body affects your training and performance. Focus on filling the gas tank before worrying about the grade/quality of the gas first, then, once that becomes a habit, start examining the quality of the food. Look at your training sessions, if you consistently feel tired or dragged out before you even hop in the water, ask yourself: Did I eat throughout the day or the day before? If yes, then you can start looking at quality of food.
RITTER: Great! Let’s say the goal-swimmer has eaten breakfast, lunch, dinner and taken care to get a bit in before practice, do you have any tips on what they should be focusing on when building out those meals?
Dr. B: I have three big tips:
1.) Avoid processed foods. When you are in the grocery store, stay on the perimeter – that ensures you get your veggies (eat lots of these, and try to get some in your body with every meal!) and fruits, proteins, healthy carbohydrates and small amounts of fats (the rule of thumb – keep the fat intake around the size of your thumb)
2 .) Again, don’t be afraid of carbs, but try to get used to understanding the difference between simple and complex: carbs aren’t just grains (usually simple!). Instead, try get these primarily in the form of vegetables, fruits and starches like sweet potatoes.
3 .) Start listening to your body around meal time. Do you feel bloated? Tired? Are you sleeping soundly? Our diet is usually the culprit when things start to feel “off”. The best athletes are the ones who not only listen to their bodies when training, but when eating as well.
These just cover the basics, but hopefully take the fear of “getting it wrong” out of the equation. Focus on the big picture: Why are we swimming? Because it’s fun! Don’t let nutrition scare you out of training toward your potential and never feel like you have to navigate this alone. Again, you probably work with a swim and/or strength coach, so why not consult or work with a qualified nutrition professional? Luckily at RITTER, we’ve partnered with Mike Molloy from M2 Performance Nutrition to bring one of the BEST nutritionists out there to our audience. To learn more about his programs and/or to get in touch with Mike, [CLICK HERE].
An earlier version of this article incorrectly explained the differences between a nutritionist and a dietitian. This post has been updated to correct those errors.