When it comes to improving performance in the water we know that nutrition plays a pivotal role. Despite this knowledge, a shocking number of swimmers don’t eat a well balanced diet. Here is the research behind how swimmers eat.
The way that swimmers eat their food and exercise their legendary swimmer’s appetite plays a crucial role in determining how they perform in the water.
A demanding training schedule that includes doubles, long days, exhaustive travel added to misinformation or lack on knowledge regarding proper nutrition can result in decreased performance.
There is no special food or meal that will help swimmers perform at peak ability. Rather, it’s a complete, healthy diet that allows swimmers to swim at their best.
We’ve all heard the stories of swimmers who eat like dumpster trucks and still managed to perform well.
Ryan Lochte ate only McDonalds cheeseburgers in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Michael Phelps and his overblown diet of 12,000 calories per day.
Even though our excessive training schedule leads us to feeling like we can load up on anything we want, blind calorie consumption doesn’t equal proper nutrition.
In fact, as many of the studies performed below illustrate, swimmers are much more likely not to be eating nearly well enough to fuel optimum performance.
The Research: Just How Well Do Swimmers Eat?
- When 85 female swimmers were surveyed from a group of Michigan universities and colleges 99.5% of them did not meet the recommended daily servings of all three macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats). The young women scored on average just over 70% on a written test designed to determine their knowledge of proper nutrition. In other words, they generally knew what they should be eating, but weren’t.
- A group of 20 competitive swimmers, averaging 6,000m of training per day over four days monitored all of their fluid and dietary intake. Over half the swimmers were deficient in both calcium and iron, and the women in particular were taking in much less carbohydrates then the boys when compared to what was needed to fuel daily training.
- Another study of national development swimmers had them record food intake during a training camp. Similar to the previous studies, there was poor distribution of macronutrients, with swimmers getting not enough carbohydrates and too much fat. Female swimmers in particular failed to meet daily required amounts of iron and calcium.
- When swimmers from Greece’s national swim team were measured over the course of 8-months the researchers found that the swimmers diets included too much fats, not enough carbohydrates, and supplements that were being improperly used. Which goes to show that even elite level athletes can benefit from better dietary information and planning.
- One of the most potent quotes from a meta-study that looked at 22 different dietary intake studies, including 50 groups of elite athletes, noted the “superfood” or “super-supplement” myth that pervades sporting culture—that there is a magic dietary choice that will completely turn around performance. In reality, it is a complete diet that will best insure that athletes are able to perform at their best physically and mentally.
How to Fix the Swimmer’s Diet
While nutritional issues and challenges are largely individual, there are some things that swimmers, parents and coaches can do in order to meet the dietary needs of competitive swimming.
Start a food log and meet with a sports dietitan.
The most obvious place to start is by keeping a food log and meeting with a sports dietitian that can go through your food journal and help you address the things that need changing.
Having a qualified professional telling you exactly what to do instead of relying on the suggestions of friends and clickbait articles on the internet filled with bad science (“New Study Finds That Drinking Wine is Super Healthy for You!“) can do much to relax the confusion and stress of knowing what to eat and when to eat it.
And keep using your food log.
The self-awareness that comes from writing out your meals can do much to help gain control of your eating habits. Just knowing what you are eating, when you are eating it, and even why you are eating it (did you crush that bag of chips out of boredom or legit hunger?) shines a light on your habits in the kitchen that can help kickstart change.
Self-monitoring works wonders, as this meta-study of weight loss research found, with one group of 1,700 people experiencing twice as much weight lost when they kept a food journal.
Plan out your meals.
Prepping your meals in advance requires some planning, requires a little bit of work, but once you know what to eat you can start bulk preparing good meals so that they are convenient.
The main reason we succumb to our urges isn’t always that we enjoy the treats and fast food more (after all, whoever felt good about themselves after crushing a handful of cheeseburgers from McD’s?), but because it is convenient and easy. At the end of a long day of workouts typically the last thing we want to do is spend half an hour making a healthy meal when we can get a ready-made meal in our bellies in minutes.
Preparing your meals in advance removes the convenience factor, and more than often that is enough to help you make better food decisions.
This article is a part of our Nutrition for Swimmers series.
Here are some more posts in this series:
Should Swimmers Go Gluten-Free? Going gluten-free is all the rage right now. But for those who don’t have gluten insensitivity is there any value in dropping it from your diet? One study of endurance athletes in Australia sought to find out.
Creatine for Swimmers: Everything You Need to Know. When it comes to supplementation for swimmers there are fewer performance aids that cause more confusion and hype than creatine. Long shown to provide gains in muscle mass and increased recovery, short term studies have found that creatine can help boost performance in the water.
5 Quick Nutrition Tips for Competitive Swimmers. Dr. Douglas Kalman, sports dietiatian and two-time Team USA member, stops by with some quick knowledge bombs for swimmers.
Eat Better & Swim Faster: 3 Strategies for Awesome Nutrition Habits. Getting control of your eating habits—and ultimately your performance in the water—starts with these three powerful ways of managing your nutrition.
How to Prevent Muscle Cramps for Swimmers. Although there is a vast number of athletes who suffer from muscle cramps—including swimmers—there is uncertainty over precisely what it is that causes them. I provide a summary of the research available on the topic, and a plan of action for helping limit the occurrence of muscle cramps while training.