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Healthy nutrition for swimmers

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Healthy nutrition for swimmers ┬ęSuzanne Tucker Shutterstock

Compared to most other athletes, competitive swimmers have more training sessions per week and they often start swimming at a younger age. A good diet is not only important to optimize your performance, but also for improving recovery between training sessions. For young swimmers it is also important to get enough energy for growth and development. Therefore, good nutrition should be more than just a sports bar and sports drink during a competition.

Create your own sports drink

While you are swimming you will lose fluids through sweating, which may not be as clear as in other sports. It is important to replenish this fluid loss by drinking sufficiently during a workout. In addition, a drink can contain extra carbohydrates to help fuel the body. Young swimmers should be actively stimulated by their trainer to drink enough. During a one and a half hour workout, it is wise to drink a bottle of 500ml and during a workout of two hours 750ml. If the pool water is very warm then a swimmer may require more.

It will cost you a fortune if you only drink sports drinks during every workout, which is not necessary. Water is sufficient, but by adding a flavour to the water it is likely you will drink more. It is very easy and cheap to make your own sports drink. For a shorter session, you can make an isotonic drink with less carbohydrates, and for a longer session you can make a drink with more carbohydrates.

To make an isotonic drink - add 6 to 8 grams of carbohydrates per 100 ml. You can mix about 300 ml of pure (sugar free) pineapple juice, orange juice, or apple juice with 200 ml of water. You can also replace some water with coconut water in order to give it an additional flavour. For a longer session, you could mix 600ml fruit juice with 150ml water. Another option is to mix water with squash in a proportion of 6-8 grams of carbohydrates per 100ml for a shorter session, and >8 grams of carbohydrate for a longer session. You could also add a very small pinch of salt to your sports drink to replace salts lost through sweat. This also increases fluid absorption in the body, further improving hydration.

Swimmers should eat before a morning session

In swimming it is normal to train early in the morning, but it's difficult to eat enough before such an early session. However, it is very important to eat something before you dive into the water.

Some of the carbohydrates we eat are stored in the muscles as glycogen, ready to be used when necessary. In a workout of 90 minutes you can deplete your glycogen stores. After an overnight fast your glycogen stores are already lower, therefore it takes less time to deplete them. You need glycogen for high intensity exercise and if you do not have enough glycogen it will affect the quality of your training session. Your body can convert proteins into a fuel for your muscles, but this can result in muscle damage which ultimately can lead to overtraining.

Before a morning session, you do not have to eat a full breakfast before training. Sandwiches, cereals, and porridge are some examples of a good breakfast, but also breakfast cookies before training and a carbohydrate drink during training will give you enough energy for an optimal training session. Before you go to school or work you must always start your day with a good breakfast. This will also make it easier to get enough calories throughout the day.

Young swimmers need extra energy for growth and development

Before puberty, the relationship between muscle mass and fat mass are similar for boys and girls. During puberty, boys develop more muscle and grow faster compared to girls. Ideally, the growth of young swimmers should be measured regularly.

During puberty there is a risk that girls are wrongly seen as 'overweight'. This happens when growth and weight gain do not coincide with each other. During puberty, girls reach their peak weight sooner than their peak height. Caution should be taken, because a wrong body image often leads to poor eating habits and eating problems.

Young swimmers need sufficient energy for growth and development as well as for exercise. Many children cycle or walk to school, which also costs extra energy. A poor diet lacking enough energy will slow down their growth and development often resulting in poor athletic performance.

It is possible to catch up growth and development, this usually happens during periods when training intensity and volume are low and energy intake is sufficient again. You often see this in young athletes who do not train during a longer holiday. When growth and development are slowed down too much it’s not possible to catch up. For young swimmers, it is therefore very important to get enough energy.

Active boys need about 2900-3300 kcal per day and active girl about 2300-2500 kcal. Those who swim once or twice a day, as well as cycle or walk to school will need more.

Strategies to recover between swimming sessions

Swimmers need to adjust their energy intake (both carbohydrates and proteins) to suit their training needs. Failing to do this will result in a loss of optimal recovery, incur weight loss, and as a result will lead to inhibited performance. Since young swimmers need extra energy for growth and development, it is even more important that they eat enough.

Besides recovery between workouts a proper diet can also optimize the immune system. There are many supplements and strategies that suggest they can improve the immune system, but by keeping your body fuelled during exercise, and by taking a recovery snack after exercise you can reduce most stress on the immune system.

This does not mean you have to buy all kinds of sports bars and supplements. Good meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus some snacks are sufficient. By drinking chocolate milk immediately after exercise you have an excellent recovery "snack".

Try not to overeat before or during competition

Pasta is seen as the ideal food before competition; however this is not entirely true for swimmers. Eating pasta early in the morning before a competition is often very hard and completely unnecessary. It is more important to eat well in the days before the competition to maximize your glycogen stores. On the day of the competition, you do not need to eat much. A swim competition often consists of warming up, 2-4 races per session and some recovery swims in between. The distances you swim on competition day are far smaller than those compared to a training day with two sessions. For this reason, less energy is needed. In addition, most distances are too short to deplete your glycogen stores.

What and when you eat depends on the time that you have to compete. It is important that you eat three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Additionally, you can eat some snacks between your races. For example, a good breakfast can consist of sandwiches, cereals, porridge, fruits, scones and much more. The snacks you eat don’t have to be expensive sports bars. Sandwiches, cereal bars, sultanas, fruits and wine gums are some good examples of snacks that you can eat between your races. Try not to eat too much, because you don’t use huge amounts of energy on a competition day. More important is the timing of your meals and snacks. Finally, you must remember that there is probably also a lot of energy in your drinks.

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