Fueling Your Swim: What Swimmers Should Eat Before, During, and After Swimming

When it comes to swimming fast, training alone isn’t enough. Your diet plays a crucial role in your performance and focus in the water. To shed light on the importance of nutrition for swimmers, we spoke with Registered Dietitian Maggie Evans. She not only provides valuable insights into pre- and post-swim nutrition, but also shares her own experience as a former water polo player turned nutrition expert.

Meet Maggie: Expertise and Experience

Maggie’s love for swimming and water polo began at a young age and continued into her college years. After earning a degree in Nutrition & Dietetics, she joined a master swim team in her home state of California. With a Master’s degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science, Maggie possesses a unique understanding of nutrition and human movement. As a Registered Dietitian, she now focuses on helping swimmers optimize their diets for peak performance.

Filling Up Before a Swim

Fueling up before a swim is a balancing act that depends on the duration of the activity and the time available before you hit the water. Let’s say you’re a casual swimmer planning a 1-hour swim after work, with only 1 hour between leaving the office and starting your swim. According to Maggie, some good pre-workout snack options include a few crackers, a piece of fruit, or a glass of juice. For a 1-hour swim, a light snack rich in carbohydrates is sufficient.

However, if your swim session is 2 hours or longer, planning ahead is key. Maggie suggests having a solid meal 4-5 hours before your workout and supplementing it with a carb and protein-heavy snack about 90 minutes before you hit the water. Snacks like a cheese stick with crackers or a piece of fruit with yogurt can help fuel your body for a longer swim.

Fueling During Your Swim

Staying hydrated during your swim is crucial. Make sure to have a water bottle at the end of your lane and take periodic sips to maintain hydration. Maggie recommends drinking 16-24 ounces of water during a 1-hour workout. For swims lasting longer than an hour, consider alternating between water and a sports drink to supply your body with extra carbohydrates.

Refueling After Your Swim

To determine whether you need an additional snack after your swim, consider when your next meal is scheduled. If you’re heading straight home for dinner, ensure your meal is well-balanced and includes carbohydrates, protein, fats, and some vegetables. Avoid loading up on too many vegetables, as this can reduce the amount of protein and carbs on your plate. Maggie suggests following the Performance Plate concept, which entails filling half your plate with carbs like potatoes, rice, or bread, a quarter with protein, and a quarter with healthy fats.

If there’s a significant gap between your swim and your next meal, Maggie recommends having a snack within an hour after your swim. Opt for a protein and carb combination like chocolate milk, cereal with milk or yogurt, or a banana with peanut butter.

Fueling Between Workouts

For swimmers who transition from swimming to another workout, like hitting the gym, it’s important to replenish energy stores during the short break. Maggie suggests hydrating with a sports drink and having a carb-focused snack, such as a banana.

Navigating Swim Meets

Swim meets can pose challenges when it comes to food. With hours spent at the meet and intermittent high-intensity racing, it’s essential to plan your meals strategically. Maggie advises having a hearty breakfast 3-4 hours before your first event. Between events, focus on easily digestible carbs like granola bars, crackers, or dates. Avoid foods high in fiber or protein close to a race, as they take longer to digest. If you have a longer break, such as between prelims and finals, opt for a larger meal like a sandwich or wrap. Timing your fuel intake during meets requires trial and error.

Choosing the Right Fuel

To make the most of your training sessions, prioritize nutrient-dense foods. Avoid consuming high-fat meals like cheeseburgers before swimming, as they can leave you feeling sluggish. However, Maggie emphasizes that there’s still room for your favorite indulgences, even if they aren’t considered “healthy.” Swimmers require carbohydrates for optimal performance, so she doesn’t recommend low-carb diets.

Proper Hydration Matters

Although swimmers may not feel themselves sweating while in the water, proper hydration is key to peak performance. Maggie highlights that a mere 2% reduction in body fluid can impact your swimming abilities. To determine your hydration needs, weigh yourself before and after your workout. The weight difference will indicate the amount of fluid lost, which you must replenish. For example, if you lost 1 pound, rehydrate with at least 16 ounces of water. If you find yourself losing 3-4 pounds or more during a workout, you’ll need to consume even more water than usual. Maggie also suggests adding electrolytes to your water bottle to replenish those lost through sweat.

Embrace Your Hunger

If you feel hungry after dinner or throughout the day, don’t hesitate to eat. Maggie encourages swimmers—and athletes in general—not to fear hunger. It’s your body’s way of signaling the need for fuel. If you find yourself ravenous at night, you may be underfueling during the day. Try incorporating more food into your meals and snacks to ensure adequate energy levels.

For more nutrition tips, follow Maggie on Instagram @dietitian.maggie. And if you’re seeking personalized nutrition coaching, you can apply directly through her website.

Remember, your diet can transform your swimming abilities. With the right fuel, you’ll be gliding through the water with strength and focus. So, dive into nutrition and make each swim count!

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