Tips on nutrition for swimming

A daily intake of 10,000 calories might be enough to sustain five average men for a day, but it meets the needs of just one all-conquering swimmer. When asked to describe his daily regime, Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who won eight gold medals in Beijing 2008, said: “Eat, sleep and swim, that’s all I can do”. While Phelps’ food requirement is exceptional, most elite swimmers need to gobble between 3,000 and 6,000 calories a day just to replace the energy they use up in intense training.

“They are in the pool twice a day, often performing sessions that deplete their glycogen stores – the body’s source of fuel in exercise – completely,” says Alex Popple, a performance nutritionist for the English Institute of Sport who worked with British Swimming in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. “Tiny muscle fibres get damaged when they are training so hard and need to be healed, and a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet with some protein is the best way to keep their bodies on top form.”

Typically, says Alex, a top swimmer will eat main meals based around carbohydrate foods such as bread, potatoes and pasta. When it comes to a race or training session, they consume a large meal – often pasta with a tomato-based sauce – about four hours beforehand. “One to two hours before swimming it’s a good idea to have a light meal of breakfast-type foods such as cereal, toast and fruit jam, which is easy to digest,” he says. “Moments before competing many swimmers use isotonic gels or sports fluids containing tiny particles of easily digestible carbohydrate.”

Think drink

Because swimming pools are generally cooler than the body’s core temperature, it is unlikely that swimmers will sweat too much or overheat, so dehydration is not a great risk. “Pool water is generally heated to about 26-29C, which has a cooling effect on the body,” Alex says. “Although swimmers don’t have as great a need for fluid intake during training as, say, distance runners or cyclists, they still need to make sure they drink enough. Generally, the rule is to drink about 125ml of fluid for every kilometre swum.”

Post-swim snacking

Louise Sutton, head of the Carnegie Centre for Sports Performance and Wellbeing at Leeds Metropolitan University, has also worked with top swimmers. She stresses the need for recovery foods. “A lot of people neglect the food they eat after intense exercise, but it’s very important. Try drinking fresh fruit juice to supply carbohydrate, fluid and electrolytes or body salts – dilute with water if it tastes too acidic.”

As a guideline, you should aim to eat 0.5g of carbohydrate for every pound of body weight two to three hours after you finish training to top up your depleted glycogen stores. “Rest and replenish are the rules after intense swimming,” she says. “Your body needs to recover.”

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