Food for thought…

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Talent, commitment and the quality training provided by Dane Valley ASC combine to produce good club swimmers.

All of this has to be underpinned by good nutrition.

Like all athletes, swimmers require a nutritionally balanced diet to sustain normal daily activities plus the additional demands of training and competing.

Training sessions are hard at times! They’re supposed to be. They’re designed to tell the body, "This is hard work for me…you better do something to enable me to do it again later." And the body actually responds by becoming more efficient – aerobically and anaerobically. During its time off, the body WILL adapt, but only if given the proper fuels. If during the course of a weekend competition, or a week’s intensive training, the swimmer’s body is not refueled properly, its energy reserves become depleted and performance declines rapidly.

Like everyone else, a swimmer’s basic nutritional requirements are made up of:

  • Carbohydrate
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water


Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for aerobic athletes. They are NOT fattening and if taken in reasonable amounts are used for energy, leaving little to be converted into body fat. Think of them like the wick on a candle – they burn slowly for long lasting energy, giving the power to perform for long meets or training sessions. They fall into two groups:

Complex carbohydrates – made up of long chains of glucose, and associated with starchy foods like potatoes, brown rice, wholegrain cereals, bread and pasta. These are the foods which release a steady stream of energy as the body breaks down the chains.

Simple carbohydrates – these have shorter chains or single units which are broken down quickly to release immediate energy. This quick absorption can sometimes upset the body’s balance and reduce available energy. However one special simple sugar which does not cause this reaction, and is good for snacking or consuming straight after training or during competition, is fructose which is found in fruit.

Glucose is removed from the blood by the hormone insulin, and stored in the body as glycogen.

The aim for a swimmer is to keep levels of blood glucose constant throughout the day, which can be achieved by eating reasonable amounts of complex carbohydrates, plus fruit, and preferably consuming them in the course of 5 or 6 medium sized meals instead of three traditional larger ones.

Protein & Calcium

Males stop growing around 21 years of age, and females at 18. Training increases the need for protein and calcium which builds and repairs muscles, produces hormones, supports the immune system and replaces red blood cells. Protein provides energy only when other sources are no longer available (starvation, malnutrition). Extra protein does not build muscle bulk…exercise does. A swimmer should have protein every day – young athletes have 1.5 to 2 times the requirement for protein and calcium compared to inactive youngsters. Aim for 1 pint of milk or ½ pint plus one or two yoghurts. Goats milk, soya milk or cottage cheese are good alternative sources.


Fat is used by the body for energy but it takes a lot longer than carbohydrate to break fat down for use. Our ability to make certain fats limits our need to consume them. Fat helps control our feeling of fullness after eating; it stores our fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E and K), and delivers our essential fatty acids. We need it, but not too much of it. Remember, it gets in fast when you’re hungry, but it takes its time leaving!


It is difficult to overstate the importance of hydration, yet many swimmers, especially in the junior groups, fail to drink enough, risking their performance and their health. It may seem that you are not sweating while you are swimming because the water keeps you cool, but you are. Performance can suffer badly (by as much as 10%) when a swimmer loses as little as 2% of body weight as sweat. Beyond this level the capacity for muscular work declines quickly and heat exhaustion can set in, leading to hallucinations and heat stroke with circulatory collapse and ultimately death.

It is essential that swimmers stay well hydrated throughout every day, and drink before training or competition. You should bring plenty of drinks (2 to 3 litres for two hours of training) to last the session – water or weak cordial is fine.

You should drink constantly between sets. Lots of small sips are best because when you are exercising your stomach can only let through a restricted amount of fluid because your blood has been diverted away to feed your working muscles. Never wait to get thirsty; this means you are already dehydrated. The colour of your urine is a good guide to hydration – pale and straw coloured is best; dark urine shows you are not drinking enough.

Sports drinks become more relevant as the swimmer progresses, because they contain a variety of vitamins, minerals and glucose based carbohydrates which are designed to support the different requirements of training and competition. Individual coaches will advise swimmers if they feel specialized sports drinks would be beneficial. Do not confuse sports drinks with energy drinks, such as Red Bull, which are not recommended.

The Swimmer’s Diet

It is not difficult to provide swimmers with the right things to eat and drink. In essence they should be eating a varied diet with the emphasis on good carbohydrate (pasta, rice, bread), some protein (fish, chicken, turkey etc), dairy products for calcium (milk, yoghurt), plenty of fruit and vegetables, and limited fat. Junk food should be avoided or only allowed as an occasional treat. Drinks should be plentiful.

As a general rule, in terms of calories, 60% should come from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 25% from fats. There are seasonal and individual variations but carbohydrate intake should not drop below 50%, protein should not exceed 25% and fat should not go above 30%.

If all this seems just too complicated, just remember the basic rules: 

Unlike some swimming variables, nutrition is within your control.

Eat a variety of foods from all food groups.

Servings grow as you grow.

Eat colourful foods to get vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and carbohydrates for  recovery (after training and competition) and general health.

Eat often – six medium sized meals plus snacks are better than 3 larger ones.

Eat early – the first 30 minutes post exercise are the most critical.

DRINK, DRINK, DRINK water or cordial – early and often.

Energy for competitions is provided by food eaten several days before a competition, not in the minutes before a race.· Pre-competition meals should be high in carbohydrate and low in fat.

Most fast food menus provide the opposite of the above.

More Guidance on What to Eat and When

The nutritional needs of swimmers vary depending on what they are doing. The following sections provide guidance on what to eat pre, during and post training and competition.

Before Training

Never miss breakfast – start every day with a fully stocked energy store. If you don’t like the food at school take a packed lunch if possible, or healthy snacks to supplement what you have. School lunch choices and packed lunches need to be complete – carbohydrate, protein, vitamins/minerals, and fluids.

Examples of balanced packed lunches might be:

· Ham salad sandwich, fruit, yoghurt, water or squash

· Chicken pasta salad, cereal bar, banana, fruit juice

· Tortilla wrap, yoghurt, apple, milk

Occasional treats are fine.

Eating on the run is a fact of life for most swimmers. Children are always hungry after school, and it is very easy to fall into the habit of picking up a packet of crisps or some chocolate as you make the dash to a 4.30pm training session. Healthier alternatives are: a small sandwich (jam, peanut butter), cereal bars, fruit, or Muller Rice.

Morning Training (Useful to know)

It makes good nutritional sense to have a snack (cereal bar, smoothie, fruit, small sandwich, malt loaf) with fruit juice 30 minutes before training, with a proper breakfast (cereal with milk, porridge, toast, fruit, yoghurt, fruit juice, smoothie) afterwards.

After Training

Post training or recovery nutrition is critical to an athlete. Your swimmer will typically request food the moment they finish the session. If training is straight after school, don’t be tempted to make them wait until dinner so as not to spoil their appetite. The muscles are most receptive to the restoration of carbohydrate stores within 30 minutes of exercise so the quicker they eat and drink after training, the quicker they recover.

To restock fuel they might have a banana and a milkshake, or a smoothie and a jam sandwich. Other good snacks include malt loaf, Nutrigrain bars, fig rolls, rice cakes and dried fruit. Sports drinks are helpful during this phase.

As usual, the evening meal should contain plenty of carbohydrates, a portion of protein, vitamins and minerals (lots of colourful vegetables) and fluids. Good examples are a chicken and mixed vegetable stir fry with noodles, tuna pasta bake or jacket potato with beans and low fat cheese. And FLUIDS!

Competition Nutrition: 48 Hours to Go

A swimmer will not win a race or get a PB because of what they eat or drink in the minutes or couple of hours beforehand. What is important is their overall nutritional status, and how they have prepared specifically in the 24-48 hours before a competition. Portion sizes should be increased slightly, fluid intake should also increase, and swimmers should get plenty of sleep.

The focus should be on complex carbohydrates (pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals, fruit and vegetables) which can be easily absorbed, and low fat choices. Foods which take a long time to digest (diverting blood supply from the muscles and not providing a ready source of energy), such as red meats and cheese, should be avoided, along with fatty foods like chips, crisps, donuts and pastries, and high sugar foods like sweets and chocolate.

Protein should be reduced and replaced with more carbohydrate.

For example, have an extra potato with a smaller portion of chicken, with vegetables, and a fruit salad. Choose a thick based pizza rather than a thin one, and cut back on the fatty toppings, choosing vegetables, tuna, pineapple and less cheese. Have more rice or pasta, but with a tomato based sauce instead of a cheese or cream sauce. Have extra beans on your toast, but go easy on, or miss out, the butter. Always drink extra juice or squash with your meals.

The Night Before

Have rice or pasta with a low fat sauce, a noodle dish like chow mein, a jacket potato with cottage cheese and pineapple or baked beans, deep pan pizza with vegetarian toppings or ham and pineapple, beans on wholemeal toast, chunky vegetable soup and sandwiches on wholemeal bread, breakfast cereal with low fat milk and toast and lots of fruit juice or cordial.

On the Day

Eat breakfast – cereal and low fat milk, porridge with syrup and raisins, toast with a scraping of butter and honey or jam, banana or jam sandwiches, muffins or crumpets with jam, pancakes with syrup, or beans on toast. Drink pure fruit juice, a smoothie, cordial or water. Lots of it.

If you are not competing in the morning eat breakfast as above, then two to four hours before racing, have a high carbohydrate/low fat meal like pasta with a low fat sauce, jacket potato with low fat filling, sandwiches, or beans on toast.

At the Venue: Eating Between Races

Go prepared and don’t rely on cafes or vending machines. They will cost you more and are unlikely to meet the swimmer’s requirements. Avoid introducing any new foods in case they disagree with the swimmer. Always take more than you need – the rest can be eaten on the way home!

Less than one hour

Diluted fruit juice, cordial and possibly (individual tolerances vary) jelly cubes, jaffa cakes, plain digestives, rich tea biscuits, rice cakes

Two to four hours

Sandwiches, rolls, pitta bread, bagels, muffins, crumpets, pasta and low fat sauce; pasta with tuna and sweetcorn, jacket potato, rice and low fat sauce, fruit (fresh, canned, dried), currant buns or teacakes, cereal bars, Jaffa cakes, popcorn, pop tarts, rice cakes, malt loaf, raisin bread, low fat yoghurt, scones, scotch pancakes, diluted fruit juice, cordial, water.

After the Competition

Don’t forget the 30 minute rule. The sooner you eat carbohydrate, the quicker muscle glycogen levels will be restored.

If you plan to (or have to) eat out, especially mid-competition, select wisely. Italian is a good choice (pizza, pasta with low fat sauces). In a Chinese choose stir fried and steamed dishes, like chicken and vegetables with rice, or chow mein. Avoid fast food chains – their high fat and salt foods will delay recovery.