Motion Nutrition cofounder Joe Welstead is an ex professional swimmer, finalist of the 2014 Commonwealth Games for Scotland. In this blog, Joe shares his experience of developing a high-performance swimmer’s diet.
One thing’s for sure: swimmers need a lot of food. Even as a sprinter, I regularly hit over 40km in the pool per week, and my long-distance training partners often reached over 60km. Even young swimmers with growing, hungry bodies, churn through an impressive number of laps day after day, sometimes even twice a day, on top of having to focus in a classroom all day.
How do you fuel such a demanding routine? This is not an easy question to answer, and I know there are swimmers and parents of swimmers all around the world trying to find the right answer.
I recently shared my experience with a group of Maltese swimmers and their parents, and it reminded me how daunting this can be. Not only can you be unsure how to fuel yourself, you might also not have anyone to turn to for advice. It certainly took me years and years of practice to develop a nutritional plan that worked for me. In the end, I wrote down 7 golden rules to fuel my swimmer’s diet, and I’ll share these with you now. These rules are in addition to healthy regular meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and are specific to swimming routines.
My 7 golden rules for a high-performance swimmer’s diet
Eat something before morning training
Spend a little time researching fasted morning training, and you’ll be very confused about whether or not you should be eating anything before your early morning practice. Well, let me tell you something: when you’re training every day, and often twice a day, you are not a normal human being. Advice given to weekend fitness warriors trying to shed a few extra pounds does not apply to you.
In my experience, I needed a little something before heading to those 6am swimming sessions. A banana and one or two slices of toast worked for me, along with plenty of water to rehydrate after the night’s sleep. A natural source of caffeine is a welcome addition, and helps improve performance but also raises the mood in time for getting to the pool.
Without this, I’d maybe feel OK for the first half of my session, but completely void of energy for the second half. Not good if you’re looking for optimum performance.
Large, high protein breakfast after morning training
Regardless of whether you’ve had something to eat before heading to the pool, by the time you get out, you’ll be HUNGRY. Fuel yourself, and fuel yourself good: lots of protein, lots of carbs, lots of fresh fruit. I tended to go for porridge with an extra scoop of protein in the mix, along with a freshly made juice (followed by an occasional nap, if I didn’t have class immediately!). Or just whizz it all up in a thick smoothie when I’m low on time (try this recipe).
Regular meals and snacks throughout the day
I’m one of the lucky few whose appetite fluctuates with my volume of training. In other words, now that I don’t train 25 hours a week, I’m not as hungry – and that’s a good thing. At the time, I knew that on top of my regular 3 meals a day, I needed some food every 2-3 hours.
Full tank, 2 hours before evening training
So how did rule number 3 apply in practice? Let’s say I had lunch at 12, but then had my afternoon training at 5. I knew, through trial and error, that I needed to feel full at 3pm, i.e. 2 hours before my evening training session. This usually took the form of peanut butter and toast, maybe with some yoghurt too. If I did not have this snack, I would lack energy in my evening set. If I ate this snack any later (i.e. any closer to my session), I would feel uncomfortable and suffer from heartburn in the pool, and my performance would be sub-par. Play around with different snacks and timings to find what works best for you.
Carb & protein snack, immediately post evening training
Swimmers: are you ever guilty of getting home after your evening training in a FOUL mood, latching on to any food you get your hands on even if it’s not been cooked yet?
Parents of swimmers: have you ever picked up your kid from the pool, driven home, started cooking, by which times it’s been an hour since the end of the swimming set, and you have one GRUMPY child waiting for their feed?
There’s an easy fix to this. Try a small snack, like a post workout shake free from artificial additives, or a home-made protein bar (how about these protein brownies), consumed immediately after swimming. That is immediately. As in: you’ve just jumped out of the pool and you’re still in your costume and you’ve not even showered yet.
Trust me, you’ll be much more relaxed with the whole journey-home-cook-dinner-feed-swimmer scenario. Not only that, your recovery rate will go through the roof and you’ll feel much better in the morning. Don’t overdo it though, or you won’t be hungry for dinner.
Carbohydrate support during tough sessions
When I knew I was in for a big session, or had several races in a row, I’d make sure I had some electrolyte and carbohydrate support with me to stay hydrated and fuelled. For regular sessions, I liked to keep my energy topped up just a little by adding part fruit juice to my water bottle. I always stayed clear of vending machine drinks – too much sugar and artificial additives.
Plan your swimmer’s diet
Probably the most helpful rule of all for me, was to have a set of rules to follow. Because without a plan, you’ll end up jumping for a Mars bar or grabbing some chips from the café. Not exactly high-performance snacks, I’m afraid.