When the swim season is over, swimmers often wonder if they should change their eating habits. Should they continue to focus on the training diet? Should they eat as frequently as they have been or should they taper eating to reflect a decrease in exercise? Are there foods they can eat to preserve their physique?
When the swimming season ends, eating patterns need to shift to accommodate the decreased demand for energy and nutrients. The goals for eating during the off-season include maintaining a healthy weight, keeping the muscle tone and mass that has been accumulated during the season, and matching nutritional requirements for continued growth and development.
Off-season eating may not be easy for some swimmers, as the habit (and perhaps enjoyment) of eating large portions, pre-training snacks and post-training recovery foods may have become ingrained, making them challenging to reverse.
I like to remind athletes of the difference between a training diet and a regular healthy approach to eating. The training diet not only includes foods that help the athlete meet the demands of exercise and improve performance, it also is a mindset and strategy for getting the most out of the season. The swimmer can think about the off-season diet in this same framework: a focus on nutritious foods that match needs for growth and maximizes health.
One mistake I see young athletes make, in general, is failing to adjust their eating patterns after the season has ended.
I’ve got some quick tips to help swimmers accommodate the changes in training that naturally occur in the off-season phase.
It’s no surprise swimmers burn a lot of calories in the pool during the competitive season. As such, the young swimmer especially needs to maintain a calorie intake that covers the demands of swimming and his nutritional requirements for growth and development.
In the teen swimmer, calorie requirements can be as high as 4,000 calories per day (or more), depending on age, gender and training schedule. However, when swim season ends and training tapers off significantly, such a high calorie intake isn’t necessary.
There are a few easy ways to taper caloric intake with a non-dieting approach. One is by reducing the portion size of the hefty pre-training snack. Most growing athletes, even if they aren’t actively training, will need a nutritious afternoon snack to meet daily nutritional requirements and help with appetite management. However, if the swimmer is eating a 4th meal or a large snack to prepare for training, shrinking this to a smaller snack size portion will help reduce overall calories.
Second, if the swimmer isn’t exercising for an hour or more, the post-training snack can be eliminated, as well. No need for a recovery snack if the swimmer doesn’t have anything from which to recover.
High levels of carbohydrate are needed during training because muscles use this nutrient as their primary fuel source. A consistent provision of carbohydrate throughout the day helps prepare muscles for training and reloads them after exercise is over. However, if there is no active training occurring, a focus on a high carb diet isn’t needed.
Instead, aim to make balanced meals using fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains. This will allow the swimmer to match her requirements for growth and development and eat nutritiously. A focus on high fiber foods from fruit, vegetables and whole grains will help the swimmer feel fuller after eating, reducing the urge to snack and overeat.
Ironically, for some swimmers the instinct is to indulge in treats and sweets when the training season is over, but this may counteract the ability to maintain a healthy, fit body weight. Watch out for added sugars in the overall diet. Eating candy and other desserts, or drinking sugary beverages can cause the swimmer to go overboard with excessive carbohydrate-based calories.
Maintain Protein Intake
Swimmers want to make sure they still get a good source of protein throughout the day so they maintain the musculature they have developed through training. A good rule of thumb is to include a good source of protein at each meal and most snacks, ensuring protein consumption is spaced evenly throughout the day. Good sources of protein include beef, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt, nuts and nut butters, and beans, for example.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at www.jillcastle.com, her resources for athletes, and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids here. Coming soon: Eat Like a Champion online training for young athletes and their parents.
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