Photo by David Mark via Pixabay
Swimming is popular the world over. From George Washington to Michael Phelps, swimming has always been an enduring American activity. It’s the third most popular adult activity in Australia. Even tiny Singapore recorded around 6.51 million swimming pool visits in 2018.
If recent evolutionary theory is to be believed, humans learned to swim even before we learned to walk upright. And that makes it even more interesting that swimming is actually one of the hardest sports to train for.
If you’re not on your ‘A’ game in our workouts every day, you’re going to get absolutely smoked. – Michael Phelps
What makes swimming so hard?
1) Drag and Resistance
Water is 784 times denser than air at sea level. It takes more force to go through water than it does air. The faster you swim, the greater the drag, or the friction, is. This is why swimming strains the muscles more than a land sport like running.
Humans cannot breathe underwater. You have to train yourself to consciously control your breathing in the water, otherwise, you risk drowning.
Not everyone who drowns is physically unfit. It doesn’t matter how muscular or strong you are. If you don’t know proper swimming techniques, you can still get in trouble in the water.
One interesting trivia about Michael Phelps: as a 7-year-old just learning to swim, he was scared of putting his head underwater. This is why he learned the backstroke first, because it allows his face to be above water.
If the greatest swimmer of all time can dread the water, what more can a regular person?
But more than these reasons, swimming feels hard because it is hard. It’s a full body workout – from the core to extremities - that can burn up to 700 calories per hour. And that’s not even competition-level swimming we’re talking about. Professionals like man-fish Michael Phelps can burn as much as 10,000 calories per day.
Wellness coordinator Brigette Peterson says in her research that competitive swimmers can burn around 40% of their daily energy while clocking in some pool time.
Common Harmful Swimming Nutrition Mindsets
An amazingly huge amount of energy is expended by athletic swimmers. And while they mostly recognize proper nutrition is fundamental to muscle growth and recovery, it doesn’t always translate to doing the right thing.
1) Eat hard, swim hard.
Some swimmers think they can eat whatever they want because they will burn all the calories in the pool anyway.
But not all calories are made equal. One small apple has the same amount of calories as say, a small bag of potato chips. But do they provide the same nutritional value?
Eating the necessary nutrients is key to keeping an athlete healthy and swimming fast.
2) No overeating.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have swimmers that do not want to eat too much, or worse, eat less than they should for fear of “ruining” their diets. Unfortunately, not eating enough means the body also does not get enough fuel to push through with workouts.
At the end of the day, all the hard work in the pool can be negated if proper nutrition is ignored.
The Nutrition Foundation
Proper nutrition is vital in any sport. But what does that look like for a competitive swimmer?
Regular Training Days
It is recommended that a swimmer eat light, easy-to-digest meals between 4 to 7 times within the day. Too heavy meals, or eating too much, may make the swimmer lethargic.
What should be included in the diet?
Carbohydrates are stored in the body in the form of glycogen. It’s broken down in a process called glycolysis and provides the body with the energy to do activities.
Good carbs sources include rice, pasta, potatoes and peas.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends spacing protein intake throughout the day. An athlete, depending on training intensity, should consume between 1.2 to 2. grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight.
Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth. It also supports and boosts immune system response. Getting enough protein also works to quench hunger pangs during swim practice.
Good protein sources include lean meat, eggs and fish.
· Healthy Fats
Fat gets a bad rap. But not all fats are bad. Healthy fats, or good fats, can be quite beneficial as they contain essential fatty acids and help with circulation, metabolism, immune response, energy and muscle strength. However, too much can still negatively impact heart health so keep your intake to no more than 10% of your daily calories.
Some good healthy fat sources are olive oil, nuts, avocados, seeds, soymilk and tofu.
· Fruits and Vegetables
The health benefits of fruits and vegetables have been proven time and again:
o Supplies the body with dietary fiber
o Helps lower cardiovascular risk
o Lowers incidence of obesity
o Supplies vitamins and minerals
o Good sources of phytochemicals
o Good anti-inflammatory agents
o Good antioxidants
Swimmers can load up on berries which are a good source of antioxidants. There’s also oranges which are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and E, as well as potassium. Vegetables that can be included in the diet are spinach and collard greens. These help maximize iron absorption and are also good sources of vitamin C.
· Whole Grains
You probably already know that whole grains are a good source of fiber. On top of helping you feel fuller for longer, grains also absorb bad cholesterol, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart disease.
For the best grains to add to your diet, try oats, bulgur wheat and barley.
Sweat loss happens even in the water. Sweating profusely means you’re losing electrolytes and minerals like sodium and potassium. This is why swimmers should take special care to stay hydrated and continue drinking water throughout the entire day.
The minimum suggested fluid intake for swimmers is 1.8 liters (64 ounces).
· Vitamins and Minerals
The human body needs to consume over 30 essential nutrients to maintain optimal health. Some of these are important for the body to work efficiently. For swimmers, the most vital are the following:
o Vitamin B
This group includes thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6) and cyanocobalamin (B12). Together, they work to turn fats, proteins and sugars into energy. They’re also essential in the production of red blood cells.
Where to get your B vitamins: bananas, broccoli, spinach, milk, eggs, cheese
o Vitamin D
Vitamin D helps the mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cells) generate energy during muscle contractions. People suffering from Vitamin D-deficiency are prone to muscle weakness. They also tire easily and may have higher risk for muscle strains.
Where to get your Vitamin D: Get some sunshine! Also, add tuna, salmon, or any other fatty fish in your diet. Egg yolks and fortified milk are also good sources of this vitamin.
o Vitamin C
Viruses like the flu thrive in colder conditions. You know what can be cold? Lakes. Rivers. Seas. You’re lucky if heated pools are available all the time, but why risk it?
Load up on Vitamin C and strengthen your immune system. This vitamin is very helpful especially for swimmers with asthma. Studies show it can help reduce shortness of breath and wheezing during and even after exercise.
Get your vitamin C fix from cabbages, cauliflower, kale, strawberries, oranges and limes.
Iron is important in energy production because it carries oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the cells. Extended and intense swim sessions can deplete iron stores and cause exhaustion and fatigue and may even cause anemia.
Iron can be found in food like raisins, almonds and cashew nuts.
Magnesium factors in energy metabolism and bone formation. It also helps in muscle relaxation. Unfortunately, we easily lose magnesium through sweat so topping up before a training session is needed.
Nuts and quinoa are great sources of magnesium.
What to Eat Before a Meet
If you’re participating in a meet, you also need to adjust your diet accordingly.
The best foods to eat before a competition are complex carbs. Carbs, again, are excellent sources of energy. It also helps in delaying fatigue so you can compete at higher levels for longer.
You also need to ensure that you drink fluids often and stay well-hydrated.
To ensure you have an adequate level of carbohydrates and sugars to fuel your swim, eat small meals every 2-4 hours. Avoid overeating as it will make you lethargic on competition day.
What are good meal options to get the needed complex carbs?
· Grains like brown rice, beans and oats
· Fruits like apples, bananas and grapefruit
Day of Meet Meals
You may be tempted to skip meals on race day, whether due to nerves or fatigue. But this is a big mistake. Eating will help kickstart your metabolism. This means you’re getting your body ready and stocking up on the fuel needed to maximize your performance later on.
Aim for a light and easily digestible meal of around 500 to 1000 calories. Some fruit or whole grain toast should be alright. If you really don’t feel like eating, take your nutrients in liquid form and indulge in a fruit smoothie or drink some milk.
If you’re participating in multiple races, make sure you also eat and drink between them. This helps you recover, avoid dehydration and ensures you have enough energy for the next race. Complex carbs are still best in-between races. But if time is an issue, chocolate milk or a smoothie are also okay.
What to avoid:
· Processed sugar
· Energy drinks
· High fiber food
· Spicy and fatty food
After the Meet
Immediately after a meet, you’d want to boost your recovery. It’s tempting to just use medication to get this done. But muscle recovery without supplements is entirely possible.
You can eat carbohydrate- and protein-rich foods for muscular repair and growth to begin. We also need to keep reiterating that hydration is crucial, so drink lots of water.
Nutrition plays a big factor in muscle recovery in athletes. But on top of eating right, there are few more things a swimmer can do to quickly recover from the rigors of swimming.
Rest days are imperative for physical health. But more than that, rest days allow the mind to heal as well. Get ample rest by:
· Getting enough sleep. Sleep is restorative. It helps in muscle repair, growth and appetite, too. For adults, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommends 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
· Making time for relaxation. A relaxed body releases serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – all feel good hormones and known stress reducers. Also, University of Miami head swim coach, Andey Sean Kershaw, said that tense muscles tend to sink like rocks. So relaxation is even more important.
2) Active Recovery
Ironically, sitting around doing absolutely nothing is not the best way to recover. Active recovery, or doing light to moderate physical activity, is actually recommended to keep the blood flowing. This helps reduce soreness and decrease recovery time.
Gentle stretching, yoga, running, or even light swimming are excellent ways to stay active while also taking it easy on your body.
If you totally do not want to move a lot, you can get a massage. Massage helps boost muscle tone, improve circulation and improve relaxation. And if you don’t relish the idea of going out to a spa for massage therapy, then you’ll love a percussive massage therapy device like the HYDRAGUN.
Massage guns are getting popular in the market. They provide all the perks of massage therapy without having to spend so much time or money to get it done.
I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it. – Michael Phelps
Whether you’re like Franklin D. Roosevelt who swam for health reasons or Benjamin Franklin who swam to “normalize and reduce fatty tissue” (yes, despite of, or maybe because of his rather rotund shape) or a Michael Phelps-in-the-making, proper nutrition should not be left floating in the pool.
Always keep in mind that in swimming, winning in the pool is only half the battle. It’s investing in the correct diet that will ensure you swim faster and for longer.