Fuel yourself like a champion so that you can race like a champion. Here are some proven tips from sports dietitians on what to eat before, during, and after a swim meet.
A solid block of training is in the bank, your taper has gone relatively anxiety-free and smooth, and now it’s time to fuel up and drop-kick your personal best times across the pool deck.
But for many swimmers, the added pressure and stress of competition means that they are paying extra close attention to every part of their preparation, and this includes nutrition.
The questions (and stresses) come in hot and heavy as race day approaches:
- What should I eat the night before a swim meet?
- Should I carb-load with nine large pizzas the day before racing?
- What kind of healthy snacks should I feast on between races?
- What should I eat the morning of competition?
- Is eating a jar of Nutella ten minutes before my race a smart idea?
Fortunately, I have some of the top sports dietitians on the planet here to help you navigate the dietary uncertainty that comes with swim meets.
Instead of overthinking what you are stuffing into your mouth-hole before, during, and after the big swim meet, follow these simple nutrition tips from the experts and focus on having fun and swimming fast.
Let’s do this!
Come Prepared to Eat Like a Champion.
One of the perks of our sport is travel! We get to go to new cities, new states, new countries.
Unfortunately, getting out of our usual routine and surroundings often means we are defaulting to less-than-awesome food choices.
Instead of relying on take-out or depending on the concession or vending machine, come prepared.
“Most swim meets have some sort of food stand, but you can’t always count on it to have options you know sit well in your stomach,” says Lauren Trocchio, RD, LD, CSSD, former sports dietitian at George Washington University. “Best to bring your own stash of non-perishable and/or perishable snacks (using a small cooler if needed).”
Yes, this will require a little bit of planning. Some meal-prepping.
But plotting ahead of time what you are going to eat, and having it ready and on hand, means you can stop worrying about how you are going to fuel yourself and spend that time getting locked in on swimming like a certified boss.
Try out your swim meet snacks before a hard workout.
One of the perks of being prepared ahead of time is that it cuts down the likelihood of you going out and getting last-minute adventurous with your diet.
Hey, I am not knocking trying out new foods (variety is the spice of life and all that!), but trying that super spicy dish the night before competition when you have a, shall we say, timid tummy isn’t a great game plan.
(Unless your game plan is white-knuckling the toilet until the wee hours of the morning.)
Stick to what you know so that you aren’t walking out onto the pool deck with one eye on the starting block and the other scanning for the nearest washroom.
The pre-race nerves and butterflies that happen on race day will make you extra sensitive to what is happening in your belly, so let’s keep the angry grumbles in our belly to a minimum.
Sticking with what you know starts with trying out your meet snacks ahead of time. If those bananas, grapes, and whey protein sit well in your tum-tum before a hard practice, there’s a good chance it will sit just fine before the big race, too.
Rehearse what you are going to eat ahead of time. This is just one additional way of calming some of the uncertainty and unpredictability that is inherent with competition, especially on the road.
“Don’t wait until a big meet to try out your snacks. Try having the snack before a tough practice one day to see how it sits on a stomach in similar race day conditions (high-intensity work),” says Trocchio.
Snack Like a Champion
Swim meets are exhausting. Between the all-out efforts, the warming up, the warming down, and the stress and emotional bumper-carting, it is vital to keep yourself fueled over the course of each day and the weekend.
And this means snacks! All the snacks!
And more importantly, healthy snacks that are easy to digest.
“Needs vary depending on how many events the swimmer is competing in each day. However, one recommendation always remains the same: Pack lots of easily digestible carbohydrate-rich snacks,” says Amy Connell, Director of Sports Nutrition at Columbia University.
Diana Nguyen, who was the Director of Sports Nutrition for the NC State Wolfpack from 2015-2020, echoes the importance of eating snacks to keep your energy and recovery topped up. “Look for high carbohydrate snacks that are easy on the stomach,” says Nguyen.
Here are some healthy swim meet snacks that are easy on the tum-tum:
- Apple sauce
- Pita chips
- Fig newtons
- Dried dates
- PB&J sandwich
- Electrolye drinks
- Energy bars
- Energy chews/gels
Hydrate Like a Boss
Training and competing in water masks the fact that we are sweating while we are swimming. Dehydration sneaks up on us because it’s not obvious that we are sweating like crazy without the tell-tale sweaty brow or soaked gym shirt.
On top of the sweat that we are expelling from racing and putting in thousands of meters of warm-up/warm-down, there is also that unrelenting need to pee from pre-race nerves and anxiety.
Which makes swim meets an ideal scenario for dehydration.
(This study found that muscle endurance crashes with just a 1.6% drop of bodyweight from dehydration.)
During extended bouts of exercise—which is essentially what a session of a swim meet is—we are sweating like crazy, losing water, losing electrolytes and burning glycogen.
Sports drinks, which contain electrolytes, glycogen, and carbs, keep us topped up and fueled when ingested before or during exercise [Science!], [More science!].
Hit your hydration with a 1-2 punch of water and sports drinks. Not only will you perform better, but you will also bounce back quicker. Another study found that athletes who drank a sports drink before and after a 90-minute workout recovered faster.
- “Get plenty of fluids and sports drinks so you are always optimally fueled and ready to race,” says Connelly.
- “Maintain your hydration! Even though you are in a pool, you still sweat and lose electrolytes. Sip on water and sports drinks throughout the day,” adds Nguyen.
The Swim Meet Breakfast
I always had a hard time sleeping the night before a big race. So many nerves and excitement! This extended to the following morning. Sitting at the breakfast table with a swirling tornado of pre-race nerves and butterflies made eating a little difficult.
The advice from our sports dietitians might sound repetitive, but the truth is that there is no “perfect” swim meet breakfast, just what works for you and is well-balanced.
Why is which it is so important to pay attention to what has worked for you in the past when it comes to your nutrition and performance.
“Eat a balanced breakfast the morning of the meet. A balanced breakfast should include carbohydrates, protein, fluids, and a small portion of healthy fat,” says Auburn Weisensale, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, Director of Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh.
In terms of timing your swim meet breakfast, aim for a three-hour window from the time you throw down on your eggs and avocado toast and when you expect to get up on the blocks. So if you expect to race at 10:00am, load up on breakie around 7:00.
Half an hour before you race, top up with one of those healthy snacks listed earlier.
“Meals should be three hours before competition to allow ample time for digestion,” says Nguyen. “Thirty minutes to an hour before your race, have a carbohydrate-rich snack for a quick energy boost.”
The Post-Swim Meet Meal
Alrighty, so the day is finally over, and feeling has returned to your butt after sitting on cold metal bleachers for hours on end in a soggy swim-suit.
Now, it’s time hit recovery mode.
(Assuming you actually completed your assigned warm-down, of course.)
There are two simple things you should focus on when it comes to eating after a swim meet:
- Get some carbs and protein in you within thirty minutes of racing. This is when your muscles are hungriest for energy uptake. “Recover with carbohydrates and protein within 30 minutes after competition,” says Wiesensale. A protein shake and a banana have long been my staple post race/workout snack.
- Eat a protein-focused dinner. Once you have given something to your muscles to snack on, follow up with a meal that has plenty of protein. “It is extremely important to get a protein-rich recovery meal after the day is done so you can replenish energy stores and rebuild muscle,” says Connelly.
The Next Step
A staggering amount of swimmers, even at the elite level, do not meet the daily requirements when it comes to eating properly.
Swim meet nutrition for swimmers doesn’t need to be something that has to be overthought or overly confusing.
To summarize the important stuff:
- Rehearse ahead of time what you are going to eat.
- Meal-prep as much as possible.
- Stick to the foods that you know agree with you.
- Snack on foods that are easily digestible.
- Hydrate with water and sports drinks.
- Recover with a carb/protein mix after racing.
- Get lots of protein at the end of the day.
More Nutrition Resources for Competitive Swimmers
5 Quick Nutrition Tips for Competitive Swimmers. Dr. Douglas Kalman, sports dietitian and two-time Team USA member, stops by with some quick knowledge bombs for swimmers.
Swimmers: Why You Need to Be Meal Prepping. One of the fastest ways to corral your nutrition is by meal planning and meal prepping. Here’s why this simple tactic can be so effective.