Key Nutrition Tips for Swimmers


We all know a well balanced diet is vital for our health, but it’s also important for making the most out of your time in the pool (and for improving our figures!).

As a swimming instructor, I’m sure your competing swimmers have asked you what it is they should be eating to enhance their performance? Or perhaps you feel that you would like to give them some general nutritional advice, as there are a lot of tips out there, many of course are fantastic but some are just plain confusing. 

As a general rule no matter what ability, experts at the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) advise that if planning to go swimming or training later in the day its best to try to eat an exercise-friendly meal two and three hours before you go. This means keeping your carbohydrate and protein levels high on roughly a 60:40 ratio.  For more information from the ASA click here .

Competitive Swimming is a highly explosive sport which requires large amounts of energy; to fuel this intense activity your body requires a good balance of both energy and nutrients.  

Kathleen Woolf, who is a member of the American Dietetic Association, gives some great nutritional advice for swimmers, which she divides up into 3 key areas of focus.


During a competitive event your muscles use carbs as fuel; yet your body can only store a limited amount in your muscles. In order to keep your body well stocked with carbs (in the form of glycogen, is made and stored primarily in the cells of the liver and muscles, and functions as the secondary long-term energy storage), which can easily deplete after any competition, it is really important to ensure that pre-competition meals are rich in good quality complex carbohydrates. Perhaps recommend your swimmers to include a range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and breads and cereals into their daily diet. Some of the best complex carbohydrates include wholegrain pasta and brown rice, which should make up 60% of total calorie intake. Even though things like biscuits, sugar-sweetened beverages and cake provide your body with carbs, these are nutrient- poor so don’t be tempted (although every now and then isn’t too bad as we all love a bit of cake!).   



Your muscles will need a good amount of protein for the tissue to be able to repair. The daily recommended amount depends on your weight, which according to experts it is approximately 2 grams per pound of weight for a sports person. So be sure to recommend good sources of protein such as lean meats (grill whenever possible), fish, seafood, eggs, low fat dairy and beans. Super-foods such as Brazil nuts and quinoa are also a great source of protein. For optimal muscle repair you should try to include a form of protein throughout your day, if not in every meal.


Since competitive swimming is such a high energy sport having three meals a day plus snacks, will give your swimmers that vital fuel needed for training as well as competitions. Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day, and is essential for those early morning swimming sessions. Don’t recommend your swimmers to train on an empty stomach, otherwise they’ll be running on empty and their performance will be impaired. Do try and encourage them to eat at least an hour before training if possible though to avoid potential bowel irritation which can sometimes occur if you eat too close to beginning exercise. If you’re swimmers are wondering about snacks, things like low-fat yogurt, fruits and peanut butter sandwiches are just some examples of great healthy fuel-foods.

Remember try to recommend your clients refuel within 30 minutes of finishing any competition or training as the body immediately needs nutrients to repair muscles and replace energy.



Good hydration has huge impacts on physical and mental skills during swim practice. Sports drinks are recommended during an intense practice while water is great during a recovery or an easier session. In regards to caffeinated drinks such as coke, it’s best to recommend that these should be avoided as caffeine is a diuretic and it is important to watch the sugar intake.

A recent study regarding Hydration and Health has been presented at the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF) conference.  The study itself calls for sports coaches and instructors to ensure adequate provision of fluids and access to weighing scales at training and competition venues, to help cut down the number of athletes competing while dehydrated.  The study¹, by Dr Karen Reid of University of Wales, Trinity St David, is the first large scale study in the UK to investigate hydration knowledge, attitudes and practices of sportspeople. The study showed that 46% of people rely on their instructors for hydration information but only 6.3% of those ‘often’ use simple and effective weighing measurements, before and after exercise, to estimate their fluid requirements.  

It is a well know fact within the sporting environment that dehydration  can increase  cardiovascular strain, thermal strain, glycogen utilisation (in turn depleting valuable stores in the body), muscle lactate production (contributing to muscle fatigue) and the perceived rate of exertion. The research that was presented at the conference showed that most people still train, as well as compete, dehydrated and that their knowledge about hydration and practices for monitoring hydration levels is limited.

To help stay in top condition, the BNF has put together the following simply hydration measurement tips. You may find these tips useful when talking to your swimmers about the importance of keeping hydrated.

Before Exercise    

•    Drink about 500ml of fluid 2 hours before exercising to allow time for any excess to be lost in urine
•    Then drink a further 125-250ml immediately before exercise.

After Exercise    

•    It is recommended that swimmers should consume 150% of the amount of fluid lost during exercise to allow for the fluid that is naturally lost from the body via urine.  For example, if you have lost 1L of fluid, you need to drink 1.5L.
•    The easiest way to calculate fluid loss is to weigh yourself before and after training. 1kg of weight loss resulting from exercise is roughly equivalent to 1L of fluid loss.
•    Weight loss in kilos then needs to be multiplied by 1.5 to calculate the amount of fluid to consume. This does not need to be consumed all at once, immediately after exercise.  Tell your swimmers to aim for 500ml immediately after training, and then consume the remainder at intervals afterwards.

To see the full article and for further advice on hydration please click here. For further information on the topic of nutrition why not look at the ASA website. Or see what other tips Kathleen Woolf gives by clicking here.

Kathleen Woolf, PhD, RD is a registered dietitian and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, and the American College of Sports Medicine. 

¹‘Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices of Athletes and Sportspeople with Respect to Their Hydration’

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