swimmers' diet

Updated June 2021

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 can still benefit from the same sound nutritional advice the pros follow throughout training and before a big meet.

Jeff Lucchino, MS, RDN, CSSD, director, UPMC Sports Nutrition, talks five nutrition tips for swimmers and non-swimmers 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 intense 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 160-pound swimmer needs around 6 g/kg (160-lb swimmer = 72.7 kg), which equals out to 436 grams of carbohydrates each day.

“But not all carbs are the same,” Jeff says. “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 assisting in muscle protein synthesis. Throughout the day, a swimmer should consume moderate doses (10-30 g) of protein at snacks and meals.

“My daily recommendation for swimmers is 1.6 g/kg of protein per day. In the case of the 160-lb athlete referenced above, that would equal out to 116 grams of protein per day,” Jeff says. “Bottom line, choose nutrient-dense sources of protein like eggs, milk, chicken, pork, nuts, fish, beef, and soy.”

3. Promote Recovery

Immediately following a workout, you can replenish your body and prime yourself for recovery by promoting 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 I highly recommend that falls into the carb-protein ratio above is chocolate milk,” Jeff says. 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 the diet 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. This is why an athlete 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. “I recommend swimmers plan for combo snacking that includes carb/produce and protein,” says Jeff. “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 will also assist in daily hydration practices.

Swimmers’ Diet and Nutrition at UPMC Sports Medicine

Jeff Lucchino, MS, RDN, CSSD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. He specializes in sports dietetics, weight management, and disease prevention.

Jeff is the director of sports nutrition at UPMC Sports Medicine. In this role, Jeff supports all areas of Sports Medicine, including concussion, joint replacement, and impact injuries. He also supports several Division I athletic programs – including Robert Morris University, Duquesne University, and Saint Francis University – and is the sports dietitian consultant for the Pittsburgh Ballet Company.

To make an appointment or learn more about our nutrition services, please call 724-720-3081 or email SportsNutrition@upmc.edu.