Swimmers want to win. They want to do better than their last performance, and perform at their best every time they compete. It takes a lot of hard work to get to the next level. Endless hours in the pool, working on stroke technique, weight training and conditioning.
Many swimmers know that nutrition is an essential part of their success. In other words, they understand the importance of food to their performance results. But sometimes they learn this information late in their career. What if the ground rules about nutrition were common knowledge? What if swimmers followed these rules from the start?
Food is fuel
Just like an automobile, athletes need fuel in the tank to perform well. And not just any fuel! Premium fuel is the nutritious, wholesome food and beverages swimmers eat to perform at peak level. Fried foods, sweets, and sugary beverages, although tasty, aren’t the ideal foods in which to anchor the diet if swimmers want to take their performance to the next level.
Carbs, or the carbohydrate found in whole grains, fruit, vegetables and dairy foods are desirable fuel sources for exercising muscles. They require some time to digest, allowing a slow release of energy to the muscles. Refined carbs, such as those found in sweets, sports drinks, and dried fruit, contain sugar and offer the muscles a quick source of energy. Swimmers can use a blend of both types of carbs to support their performance.
Too much protein can contribute to dehydration as well as other potential problems for the young athlete. Eating large amounts of protein at the end of the day, or not eating enough protein at breakfast isn’t the most effective way to grow and repair muscles. Ideally, wholesome protein sources like meat, eggs or beans are eaten at spaced intervals throughout the day, such as at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Dehydrated muscles don’t work well
Drinking plenty of fluids is a constant effort, as thirst isn’t always easy to identify for young swimmers. If it is noticed, it doesn’t mean they will drink, so gentle reminders are helpful. If dehydration does occur, it may impair athletic performance and contribute to muscle cramping.
Muscle recovery is a key to progress
The harder you train, the more important nutrition is to your recovery and development as an athlete. Eating a snack that contains protein, such as chocolate milk or nut butter and crackers, and carbohydrate after an extended training session, helps the athlete repair muscle damage, promote muscle gain, and reload muscles with fuel for more training.
You can’t out-exercise a bad diet
No matter how hard you work, the habits of overeating, skipping meals, poor food choices, or under-eating work against optimal performance. The body performs best when it’s given premium fuel (nutritious food).
Eating habits are key to lifelong health
Swimmers may not swim forever, but their eating habits can last a lifetime. Making nutritious and balanced choices now means a better chance at optimal health later in life.
It's all about timing
When swimmers eat is just as important as what and how much they eat. If a swimmer skips out on breakfast and lunch, how will she have the stamina and strength to train hard after school? Or, if a swimmer ‘backloads,’ eating large amounts of food at the end of the day, an optimal weight for sport may be harder to maintain.
Understanding these ground rules can help swimmers get to the next level in their athleticism, while keeping their growth and health front and center.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutritionist. 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 class for young athletes and their parents.