Make a Splash with Nutrition That’s Spot-On
This post is by Steph Saullo, our Performance Dietitian.
Nutrition for optimal performance during your next swim meet starts before the competition. It’s vital to establish a foundation for eating right during training while in and out of the pool. The groundwork consists of:
- Adequate carbohydrates during meals/snacks and adjacent to training sessions;
- Plenty of protein at meals and after training;
- Enough fluid to stay hydrated, always; and
- Ample iron.
Swimming is unique in that water has more resistance than air. Additionally, unlike some other endurance sports like running or cycling, you can’t fuel up while you’re swimming so it’s important to achieve sufficient energy intake leading up to the event. Nutrition needs vary depending on the training day, but in general, all meals should include a source of carbohydrate, protein, fluid and iron.
Carbohydrates are stored in the form of glycogen in the muscles and in the liver. When we need energy, as in during training sessions, glycogen is broken down. It’s important to take in enough carbohydrates in order to preserve glycogen stores in the muscle. Additionally, the higher the training intensity, the higher degree of carbohydrates are used. The more carbohydrate used, the more you need to put back. Carbohydrates include starches like whole grain bread, brown rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, or whole grain cereals like oatmeal. Fruits including those that are fresh, frozen, canned or dried as well as 100% fruit juice all count. Dairy and non-dairy alternatives (think low-fat milk, yogurt or soymilk) also provide carbohydrates.
Protein intake is pretty important to achieving optimum performance. There is no reason to overdo it, just get in enough. Shoot for approximately 20-25 grams of high-quality protein at each meal and immediately after training or practice sessions. High-quality protein sources include eggs, lean red meat, poultry, fish, yogurt (particularly Greek-style yogurt), cottage cheese, and soy products (like tofu or edamame). What does it take to get to 20-25 grams of protein?
- 1 cup 1% low-fat cottage cheese = 28 g protein
- 3 oz. cooked sirloin steak = 27 g protein
- 3 oz. cooked chicken breast = 27 g protein
- Approximately 1 oz. scoop of most whey protein isolate protein powders = 20-24 g protein
- 3 oz. canned white tuna = 20 g protein
- 3 slices turkey breast deli meat = 18 g protein
- 6 oz. contain non-fat, plain Greek yogurt = 17 g protein
- 1 cup non-fat milk = 8 g protein
- 3 oz. firm tofu = 7 g protein
- 1 egg = 6 g protein
Preventing dehydration is also fundamental. Start drinking water as soon as you hop out of bed and keep a water bottle with you throughout the day. Monitor your urine color and volume to assess adequate intake. Urine color should be light yellow to clear. Dark urine or small volumes can be signs of dehydration. During high-intensity training consider sports drinks and make sure to replace electrolytes lost through sweat via salt during meals.
Iron isn’t just a metal; it is a key nutrient that we must eat. It’s involved in energy production, maintaining immune system function and it is a component of protein that delivers oxygen to the muscles. A shortage of iron can lead to exhaustion, reduced immune function and dwindled performance. Heme iron is better absorbed and is found only in animal products while non-heme is present in both animal and plant food. You can also enhance the absorption of iron by eating heme and non-heme iron foods together or by eating iron-containing foods with foods high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits/juices, peppers and tomatoes.
So now that you’ve laid the groundwork, what about that competition? Swim meets can be long, span the entire day and take place over multiple days, therefore it is imperative to have a plan in place to guarantee you’re getting in enough fuel to perform at optimal levels and recover. In general, consider the following:
- Consume your pre-race meal one to two hours before warm-up time. Focus on eating mostly carbohydrate with a small amount of protein.
- Between events take in carbohydrate snacks or sports drinks. If you have more than a couple hours between events, add in some protein.
- Recover within one hour of your last event (of the day) with a combination of carbohydrate and protein. Smoothies and shakes are quick and easy options. Low-fat chocolate milk, cereal with low-fat milk, Clif Bar (or similar), half bagel with fruit preserves and peanut butter, or low-fat yogurt with cereal and fruit are also good options.
Remember that nutrition takes practice. Not only do you need to practice how you swim, but you need to practice how you fuel. If you’re fueling during practice or in between events, you need to select foods that will sit well in your stomach and are well-tolerated.