When it comes to swimming fast, training is important, but so is your diet. Satisfying our seemingly constant swimmer hunger with the right foods, in the right amounts, can make a huge difference in our performance and focus in the water.
We chatted with Registered Dietician Maggie Evans, who shared her tips for fueling up before your swims and optimizing muscle recovery after a tough workout.
Maggie grew up swimming and playing water polo, and went on to play water polo in college. After graduating with a degree in Nutrition & Dietetics, she joined a master swim team in her home state of California.
Maggie also earned a Masters degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science, which offers her a unique understanding of both nutrition and human movement. She now works as a Registered Dietician, helping swimmers optimize their diets for performance.
What to Eat Before Swimming
When it comes to fueling up before a swim workout or swim meet, Maggie looks at 2 factors: How long is the activity, and how much time the swimmer has before that activity begins.
For example: You’re a casual swimmer who plans to swim for 1 hour after work. You have 1 hour between when you leave the office and when you start your swim. Any of the following would be good pre-workout snacks, according to Maggie:
- A few crackers
- A piece of fruit
For a 1-hour workout, you don’t need a huge meal — a light snack that focuses on carbohydrates is a great option.
If you choose to swim for 2 or more hours, you will need to plan ahead. Have a solid meal 4-5 hours before your workout, and top off your energy stores with a carb and protein-heavy snack about 90 minutes before your workout. Snacks can include:
- A cheese stick and crackers
- A piece of fruit with yogurt
Extra protein will help fuel your body to swim longer.
How to Fuel During a Swim Workout
You should always bring a water bottle with you to the pool. Keep it at the end of your lane with your gear and sip on it periodically to stay hydrated. Maggie recommends trying to drink 16-24 ounces of water in a 1-hour workout.
If you plan to swim for 1 hour, you don’t need to worry about extra fuel beyond water. For workouts longer than 1 hour, Maggie recommends drinking a sports drink that will supply you with extra carbs throughout your swim. You can alternate between drinking water and a sports drink as well.
What to Eat After Swimming
In terms of timing, Maggie recommends that you look at when your next meal is going to be to determine whether you need an extra snack post-workout.
Eating Right After
If you’re heading straight home to have dinner after your swim, that’s perfect. Make sure the meal is balanced and includes carbs, protein, fats and some veggies, too.
A common mistake swimmers make when it comes to refueling is loading up with lots of vegetables, which ends up reducing the amount of protein and carbs on your plate.
Maggie uses the Performance Plate concept to help her clients build their meals. If you had a tough training session, here’s what your plate should look like:
- ½ plate carbs, like potatoes, rice or bread
- ¼ plate protein
- ¼ plate fat
Eating Hours After
If you went for an afternoon swim and won’t eat your next meal for a few hours, Maggie recommends having a snack within an hour after your swim. The snack should include protein and carbs:
- Chocolate milk
- Cereal with milk or yogurt
- Banana with peanut butter
How to Fuel Between Workouts
Many swimmers will go for a swim and immediately hit the gym, or vice versa. What can they do in their short break between workouts to replenish their energy stores? Maggie recommends hydrating with a sports drink and eating a carb-focused snack, such as a banana.
How to Eat at Swim Meets
Swim meets can be a challenge, food-wise. You’re sitting at the meet for 4-8 hours, with intermittent bouts of high intensity racing. Maggie recommends eating a hearty breakfast 3-4 hours before your first event.
Between events, focus on simple carbs like granola bars, crackers or dates. Stay away from foods that have a lot of fiber or protein close to a race, since your body takes longer to digest them.
If you have a long break, like between prelims and finals, eat a bigger meal, like a sandwich or a wrap. Timing your fuel during meets takes a lot of trial and error, and planning.
Choosing the Right Fuel
A diet rich in nutrient dense foods will fuel your workouts and help you make the most of each training session. If you’re eating high fat meals, like cheeseburgers, before your swims, you’ll likely feel sluggish and won’t be able to perform.
However, Maggie notes that there’s always room to add in your favorite foods that may not be considered as “healthy.”
She doesn’t recommend low-carb diets for swimmers, because carbs are essential for performance in the pool.
How to Hydrate Properly
It’s easy to forget to hydrate during a swim, since we don’t feel ourselves sweating! But proper hydration is key to swimming well. A 2% reduction in your body fluid makeup can impact your swimming performance, according to Maggie.
To figure out how much water you should be drinking during your swims, Maggie recommends weighing yourself before and after your workout. Subtract your end weight from your start weight to determine the amount of fluid you lost, and rehydrate.
For example, if you lost 1 pound, rehydrate with at least 16 ounces of water after your swim.
If you find that you are losing 3-4 pounds or more during your workout, you need to rehydrate with even more water than you would normally drink. Maggie also recommends adding electrolytes to your water bottle after your workout to replenish electrolytes lost in your sweat.
What to Do if You’re Hungry All the Time
If you’re feeling hungry after dinner or throughout the day, eat! Maggie says swimmers — and athletes in general — should not be afraid of hunger. It’s your body’s cue that you need to fuel up.
If you get really hungry at night, you are probably underfueling during the day. Try adding more food to your meals and snacks throughout the day.