swimmers' diet

All athletes need fuel to power them through their sport. Competitive swimmers are no exception. A swimmer’s diet is critically important for their athletic performance.

While most of us will never experience the thrill of competing on a world stage, we still can benefit from the same sound nutritional advice the pros follow throughout training and before a big meet.

Our sports nutrition experts at UPMC Sports Medicine have provided these five nutrition tips for swimmers and nonswimmers alike.

1. Keep Your Plan Carb-Friendly

Carbohydrates are an important part of any athlete’s training. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for moderate- to high-intensity activity. They assist with muscle repair, muscle preparation, and performance.

According to the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), when you are training at a competitive level/in-season, carbohydrates should make up 50% or more calories in your diet. For example, the average swimmer needs around 6 g of carbs per kg of body weight. So a 160-pound (72.7 kg) swimmer would need 72.7 kg x 6 g = 436 grams of carbohydrates each day.

But not all carbs are the same.

You’ll want to consume simple/refined carbohydrates — such as sports drinks, sports gels, fruit, and pretzels — before, during, and immediately after a workout. The purpose of promoting these types of carbohydrate sources is to quickly fuel and refuel the muscles.

Outside of training, a swimmer should focus on complex carbs, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, rice, and vegetables, due to their slower digesting nature, high-fiber content, and ability to regulate blood sugar and cortisol levels.

It’s important to note that both types of carbohydrates assist with carbohydrate replacement, but the timing of each is invaluable for optimal athletic performance.

2. Pick Quality Proteins

Protein is an essential macronutrient for any athlete — but especially a swimmer. Swimmers need consistent doses of protein throughout the day.

A high-quality protein source post-training is highly recommended for recovery, as well as in aiding muscle protein synthesis. Throughout the day, a swimmer should consume moderate doses (10 g to 30 g) of protein at snacks and meals.

Our team’s daily recommendation of protein for swimmers is 1.6 g per kg of body weight per day. In the case of the 160-lb athlete referenced above, that would equal 116 grams of protein per day.

Bottom line: Choose nutrient-dense sources of protein like eggs, milk, chicken, pork, nuts, fish, beef, and soy.

3. Promote Recovery

Immediately after a workout, you can replenish your body and prime yourself for recovery by eating a recovery snack with a ratio of 3 to 4 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein. Replenish within 30 minutes of workout/training completion.

One of the snacks we highly recommend that falls into the carb-protein ratio above is chocolate milk. Chocolate milk checks all the boxes that an athlete should have for their post workout nutrition, including:

  • Fluid
  • Carbs
  • Protein

Chocolate milk is also a quality source of vitamin D.

Vitamin D is very hard to get through diet alone due to the limited food sources that contain vitamin D. The main source of vitamin D is the sun. In the case of the average swimmer, most of their day is spent in an indoor pool with limited sun exposure. For that reason, a swimmer should take full advantage of any chance to add vitamin D to their diet.

4. Plan Combo Snacks Every Day

Snacking should always be a part of a swimmer’s daily plan.

We recommend swimmers plan for combo snacking that includes carb/produce and protein. The reason for the combo is that swimmers need ample carbohydrates (shown above with the daily recommendation), as well as high-quality protein doses throughout the day. Here are three easy, packable snack ideas that meet the above criteria:

  • Apple + Peanut Butter.
  • Greek Yogurt + Granola.
  • Beef Jerky + Pear.

5. Wet Your Whistle

Ironically, as you swim in water, your body requires more of it. In fact, dehydration can sap your performance.

Don’t just stick with water; also include sports drinks during high-volume (1 hour +) training to replace the electrolytes and carbohydrates. Water is a great source of hydration throughout the day, but when it comes to performance, you need a performance drink.

Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables that naturally contain a high water percentage also will help in daily hydration practices.

Swimmers’ Diet and Nutrition at UPMC Sports Medicine

Sports nutrition experts at UPMC Sports Medicine support athletes in all areas of sports medicine, including those recovering from concussion, joint replacement, and impact injuries. We also offer sport-specific nutrition programs.

Consider working with a sports nutritionist to help reach your goal faster, whether it’s preparing for a big race, fine-tuning an off-season program, or just trying to live a healthier lifestyle.


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