A swim mom asked for help for her 12-year old swimmer. She said her son complains of being sluggish, tired, and low energy during competition. “Are there energy foods that he can eat during the meet to overcome this?”
First, I asked her about her son’s training diet. The big 3 Rs…rest, replenish, and recover are keys to peak performance for competition. If he doesn’t practice the 3Rs, then it is hard to make up for it on competition day. It’s like he is trying to top off his gas tank when it is on empty.
After a hard workout, the body can be depleted of muscle stores of fuel, namely carbohydrate. The best strategy is to refuel as soon as possible after practice, especially if there is another hard workout or a competition on the following day. An easy way to start is by drinking a sports drink right after practice… and I mean a sports drink that has carbs, not a “zero’ calorie formula. Calorie-free sports drinks might provide hydration and some electrolytes, but the muscles want carbs for replenishing stores. Another reason that the carbs in sports drink work, is that the simple carbs are quickly digested and absorbed to be taken up by the muscles.
After hydrating, eat a snack or meal with quality carbs and proteins for recovery. For swimmers with and afternoon practice, that usually means dinner is their go-to recovery meal. Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken pot pie, cheese and spinach lasagna, grilled chicken and roasted potatoes, fish tacos with coleslaw, or a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato basil soup all deliver needed carbs and protein (along with other nutrients needed by young athletes). A fast food meal of chicken nuggets isn’t going to give a swimmer all he or she needs.
If swimmers are well-nourished going into competition, then there is less need for “energy foods” during the meet. But, for long competition days, energy gels or bloks might help to keep the blood sugar up. Be sure to use one blok or gel with plenty of water and don’t be tempted to down a whole package of blocs at once. Stay away from high-fat foods, like chips or nuts during competition; foods higher in fat, even the healthy fats, take longer to digest and can make you feel sluggish. Keep a cooler with 6-ounce cartons of yogurt, 4-ounce fruit smoothies, or pretzels for a quick snack.
Lastly, don’t forget the 3rd R…rest. Using the phone late into the night or playing video games online can rob your body of needed rest. Keep the screen in blue-screen mode or better yet, set limits on phone and game use after a certain time in the evening to help with restful sleep.
Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian, sports nutritionists, and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents, and coaches at email@example.com.