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How Swimmers Can Achieve Optimal Nutrition

Food & Nutrition

Planning proper nutrition for swimmers can be a complicated process but it is a necessary step if one wants to achieve peak performance levels. Indeed, Dr. Joel Stager, swim coach and professor of kinesiology at Indiana University says that “eating right…may be ultimately as important as swimming up and down the pool.”

Swimming is an endurance sport that relies on proper dietary habits to provide its fuel, but these nutritional needs are constantly in flux. In order to achieve optimal nutrition for their sport, a swimmer must know what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat for any given training period.

Basic Nutritional Needs of Swimmers

As for all athletes, nutrition for swimmers involves a proper mixture of protein, carbohydrates, and fats in their diets. Protein is essential for muscle development and repair, carbohydrates provide energy for high intensity exercise, and fats provide energy for extended endurance exercises. In the proper combinations, these three provide the energy and muscular needs of swimmers. To that end, experts recommend that 60 percent of a swimmer’s calories should be carbohydrates, 15 percent should be protein, and the remaining 25 percent should be fat.

But these numbers can vary significantly depending upon the specific training needs of a particular training period.

Nutritional Needs During Training

A swimmer’s nutritional needs are greatly increased during the competitive season when swimmers are in training. According to the American Dietetic Association, while in training nutrition for swimmers should include:

  • A daily food intake of 3,000 to 6,000 calories
  • The majority of these calories should be derived from carbohydrates (2.3 to 3.6 grams of carbohydrates for each pound of body weight per day).
  • Protein intake should approximate 0.55 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day. (A quality rice and green pea protein powder is an excellent adjunct to aid in meeting these requirements).
  • Fat intake should comprise a minimum of 0.45 grams per pound of body weight per day. (Ensure that the majority of fat consumption is of the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated variety, as is found in canola oil and nuts).
  • Proper hydration in the form of sports drinks or water – 2 cups 2 hours before practice and 5 to 10 ounces every 15 or 20 minutes during the practice.

In addition, some experts suggest that the diet should be supplemented with a pharmaceutical grade, standardized synergistic multivitamin/mineral complex.

Preparing for a Meet with Carbohydrate Loading

In general, a swimmer’s nutritional needs while preparing for a meet, or competition, would be the aforementioned methodology. But there are additional ways to use the diet to significantly increase athletic performance. One of the most popular of such methods is called “carbohydrate loading.”

Carbohydrate loading is only useful to endurance athletes, such as swimmers, who will be in competition for a minimum of 90 minutes, but it has proven to be remarkably successful.

Carbohydrates (such as vegetables, grains, and beans) are the primary fuel source of the body. The body’s digestive system converts carbohydrates into sugar, which then enters the cells to provide necessary energy. Some of this sugar is stored in the muscles as glycogen. But the muscles only store enough glycogen to sustain normal recreational exercise. If one exercises intensely for more than 90 minutes, glycogen stores will be depleted and athletic performance (and stamina) suffers-but not if one practices carbohydrate loading.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the process of carbohydrate loading is enacted in two steps.

  • Step One: A week before the planned meet, the swimmer will reduce carbohydrate consumption to about 55 percent of the daily calories, but increase protein and fat consumption to compensate for the reduced amount of carbohydrates. The training level and intensity, however, will remain the same, which will cause a depletion of the swimmer’s carbohydrate stores.
  • Step Two: Approximately four days before the meet, the swimmer will increase carbohydrate consumption to 70 percent of the daily calories and reduce some of the fat consumption to compensate for this increase. (Some of the training levels will also be reduced so as to conserve glycogen stores). The day before the meet, the swimmer will completely rest and will not perform any physical fitness or exercise activities.

Studies have shown that, for a man, carbohydrate loading can increase the glycogen stores in his muscles by as much as twice the normal amount. Although he will still need to replenish his stores during the meet with a sports drink or a piece of fruit, this additional glycogen storage will increase his endurance levels. (Unfortunately, there are not many studies on the effects of carbohydrate loading on women to enable nutritionists to offer specific advice).

Recovery Nutritional Needs

Nutrition for swimmers, however, extends beyond the training and actual competition period. Indeed, the recovery period (the time immediately after training or competition, when the swimmer replenishes his energy stores and repairs muscle) is an essential part of this process.

And the swimmer has only 45 minutes to enact this part of the process.

The 45-Minute Nutritional Advantage

Studies have shown that athletes who eat and drink within 45 minutes after practice recover more quickly than those who do not. One 2004 study, conducted by Dr. Stager, showed that athletes who drank chocolate milk after their morning practice (during this crucial 45-minute period) were better able to perform athletically during their afternoon practice. It appears, said Stager, that muscles do not easily absorb nutrients after two hours. Although there are many reasons why chocolate milk, in particular, may have been so effective in this study (i.e., its sugar content boosted energy and its liquid content was more rapidly absorbed by the body), there is little doubt that there is, indeed, a recovery benefit for those swimmers who eat and/or drink after practice.

The results of this and other studies have led researchers to propose a recovery diet for swimmers and other athletes. Within 45 minutes after practice, say experts, a mixture of carbohydrates (for energy) and protein (for muscle repair) should be consumed. The carbohydrates should be composed of colorful fruits, vegetables, and breads while the protein may be derived from peanut butter, nuts, and high quality protein powder.

Though proper nutrition for swimmers can be a complicated subject, scientific research is paving the way for a proper understanding of this process. Science has shown that those swimmers who know what, when, and how much to eat have a decided competitive advantage over their peers. Indeed, these studies have proven that proper nutrition for swimmers may be even more important than technique and practice in improving athletic performance.

Fortunately, such nutritional choices are completely within a swimmer’s realm of control.

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