By Chris Rosenbloom//PhD, RDN, CSSD
Last month I gave my annual nutrition lecture to the physical therapy students at Mercer University in Atlanta. A student, Jacob Reynolds, approached me and asked about my nutrition articles for USA Swimming because he was a former competitive swimmer and was interested in nutrition and athletic performance. Jake swam from the age of 5 through high school with the Montgomery, Alabama YMCA Barracudas. From there he then went on to compete on the NCAA Division I swim team at the University of Alabama. He competed in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle and 100-yard backstroke. Jake graduated in May 2013 from UA where he was captain of the men's swimming and diving team and a 3-time letterman.
So many swimmers (and their parents) ask about nutrition so I interviewed Jacob to get some insights from a competitive swimmer to share with you.
What do you think are the biggest challenges to healthful eating by young swimmers?
I think the biggest challenge I faced as a young swimmer was finding opportunities to eat throughout the day. During my high school years of swimming, much like most high school swimmers, I started practice at 5:00 a.m. and swam for two hours before heading to school. From school it was back to practice from 3:45-6:00 PM, and finally arriving back home around 7:00 PM with a 9:00 PM bedtime. This hurried schedule did not allow many opportunities for high-quality meals. I compensated by eating fast foods, high-fat foods, breakfast bars and Pop Tarts for many of my meals. I rarely sat down for breakfast or lunch and didn’t eat a lot of fruits or vegetables. I was more concerned about getting calories. Eating nutritiously seldom crossed my mind. I was, however, fortunate to have a home cooked, balanced meal for dinner on most nights.
Like a lot of teen athletes, I had a hard time keeping weight on as I was expending 4,000-7,000 calories a day. I was eating between 6,000-8,000 calories a day just to maintain my weight. To most people being able to eat so much sounds like a dream come true, but it's actually harder than one might imagine, especially with the time constraints many swimmers face. That is why it was easier to eat fast foods or highly processed foods.
What can parents do to support a young swimmer's nutritional needs?
It is very important that parents understand the role of nutrition to athletic performance and monitor the types of foods their children are consuming, especially age group swimmers. I remember as a kid we thought we would swim faster if we ate powdered Jell-O. To this day I don’t have any idea why we thought that, but we did. Today’s kids have many more options for quick energy. For example, I coached a kid this summer who drank two different caffeinated energy drinks during a meet with poor results. He threw up almost immediately after drinking the second energy drink.
If parents and swimmers are interested in pursuing higher levels of swimming, establishing good nutrition habits early in their swimming career will help them transition to the upper levels of sport. Planning to take healthy foods to practice and school can go a long way to helping swimmers achieve good nutrition. Looking back, I know that I put myself at a disadvantage in training, recovery and performance through my poor nutritional decisions. I urge parents to be cognizant of the foods their kids are eating and supply them with nutrient-rich and wholesome foods. Encourage healthy eating habits and educate yourself on nutrition and human physiology. The nutrition articles on USA Swimming contain a wealth of tips for healthy, quick meals and snacks that swimmers will enjoy.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were swimming in high school and college?
It is a myth that swimmers can eat whatever they want and get away with it. Competitive swimming puts tremendous stress on the body and depletion of energy stores need to be replenished with high-quality fuel. As a physical therapy student, the more I learn about the human body and physiology, the more horrified I am with the decisions I made while training and competing. It was not usual for me to go to a doughnut shop and eat a dozen doughnuts in the store and take another dozen home to eat a few hours later. I didn’t realize that if you put cheap fuel in your tank you won’t be able to achieve peak performance. The car analogy should resonate with young swimmers. You train your body to be a high-performance machine, so don’t fill it up with regular gas. Fill it instead with premium fuel. Today, I eat a wide variety of wholesome, natural foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and I eat organic foods whenever I can.
What is your favorite food no? And what was it in high school? College?
In high school my favorite food was pizza. I could eat upwards of 20 slices in one sitting. In college, I ate whatever the dining halls were serving. Sometimes it was a salad, most often it was chicken parmesan with pasta or steak. While the university athletic department provided athletes with nutritious options, I often ended up negating the good choices by eating 6 cookies and 2 bowls of ice cream. Also, I am sad to admit that nearly every single night my freshman year I ate an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Now, however, my favorite foods are organic spinach, blueberries, kale, bananas, walnuts, broccoli, and Greek yogurt. I have also become a big fan of quinoa. I guess it is never too late to start eating healthy.
Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the editor-in-chief of Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th ed (2012) and provides nutrition consultation to athletes of all ages. She welcomes from swimmers, parents, and coaches at firstname.lastname@example.org.