Nutrition for Good Health and Healthy Swimmers

Written by Anthony Rogan

The topic of nutrition is one full of opinion and bias. Whilst there is a large body of research, some of this loaded with bias as well. I have been very interested in food for a long time!

More recently I have been reading books, research, opinion pieces, and listening to friends and colleagues and “world leaders” in the field. All of this leads me to offer my opinion, thanks to the gentle prompt from some of the wonderful parents at Ballarat Gold Swimming Club whom we sponsor. I re-iterate, this is MY OPINION albeit an informed one, not an expert one – take it, leave it, digest it or spit it out!

I think more vital than nutrition specifically for swimmers is nutrition for a healthy life. But food has become an obsession of the media and there is a lot of conflicting information out there. In recent times the food pyramid that was recommended strongly by health authorities has been turned upside-down. Well almost, literally. Carbs no longer hold the importance they once did. Fats are no longer the evil muck-raking disease loaded yumminess they were reported and advertised to be. The importance of proteins hasn’t changed all that much – they are still the essential building blocks of life. Vegetables are undoubtedly THE most important food group to consume. Fruit is good for us in small amounts, particularly berries. “Superfoods” are fashionable one minute and not the next. The market is flooded with supplements advertised as essential to optimal health. Some say that intermittent fasting is good for men but maybe harmful for women. The Melbourne Football Club has gone low carb high fat (LCHF) and this probably explains their wins last season! Well maybe…Confused?

So here I go at trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat and make simple sense of it all. If we take healthy eating first, I actually think it is pretty simple. So here are my 6 GOLDen (GO GOLD!) rules:

  1. Eat lots of plants.
  2. Eat moderate amounts of protein, about two palm size portions for men and one for women at each meal, the bigger your palm the bigger your portion.
  3. Eat fats including saturated fats. They are a great energy source, far more energy dense then carbohydrates per gram and have greater satiety (they fill you up for longer).
  4. Eat small to moderate amounts of carbohydrates, preferably from plants rather than processed grains.
  5. Limit your sugar significantly – this is probably THE most important thing you can do for your long term health, not just your dental health. The “healthiest” forms of sugar are thought to be those that you consume in vegetables and fruit (read whole fruit, not juice).
  6. Drink moderate amounts of water.

I suspect that if you follow these 6 GOLDen rules 70-80% of the time and you get out in the sun regularly, exercise often, and have nourishing relationships you will be healthy.

Those who exercise more intensively, are in training for competition and who are trying to gain muscle mass have slightly different requirements, although the GOLDen rules still apply for the most part.

My recommendations for swimmers

Before your swim session: Eating prior to exercise is important and generally the recommendations are to eat 1-2 hours beforehand. This is a challenge for swimmers who do bounce out or get dragged out of bed by Mum or Dad for a 5.15am training session. The sensible thing to do here is to drink milk or water or both, and a eat a piece of toast with a spread. The alternative is to make a shake or smoothie. There are loads of recipes online and I would recommend sticking with real foods. There should be no need to add protein powders or other supplements unless you are really trying to put on muscle mass. 

If the session is an afternoon or evening, you are better off eating a small to moderately-sized well balanced meal 1-2 hours beforehand. If you don’t have the time, then follow what to do before the morning session.

During your swim session you must stay hydrated. Water is best for this and for a two-hour session in the pool you should drink minimum one full sports bottle (600-750ml). You can add lemon juice to your water for taste. Sports drinks really aren’t necessary!

After your swim session is known as the Recovery phase and this time is really important. You need to replenish your energy stores relatively quickly, especially if you are training later that day. There are advocates who say that eating within 30 minutes of finishing training is vital and it may be, but I think so long as you eat within a couple of hours you should be right. What to eat is personal preference. Just make sure that there is plenty of vegetables, a portion of protein, some fats and some carbs.

It is critical if you are trying to build muscle mass and strength that you increase the protein component in your recovery phase and of course make sure that you continue to pay attention to your hydration and drink water.

Before an event it is important to eat a good meal, preferably 2-4 hours prior to competing. Probably one of the most important elements of this meal is that it is one that is familiar, perhaps one you have tested out at training or at a previous competition. The “old” recommendations of carb-loading are probably ok if that is what you are used to. Hydration, hydration, hydration.

During a swim meet between events, eat small amounts of foods that again you are used to and have tested out before or at training. It is really pleasing when I see kids snacking on strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, nuts, dark chocolate, half a sandwich, a small piece of sushi or home made “powerballs” packed with nutrient-rich goodness. Forget all your lollies, hot chips, dim-sims, ice-creams, etc. So my point here is eat REAL food, not something out of a packet or the deep fryer. In all honesty a few lollies won’t do anyone any harm but don’t make them the mainstay of your between event snacks.

Gels: those sweet, gooey, sometimes caffeine-loaded sachets of mostly fructose and flavourings. For swimmers, seriously not needed. The only place for them should be in the jersey of a rider on le Tour de France or tucked into the waistband of an endurance runner. They are easily digested during exercise but in my opinion should only be used during endurance events.

If there is a lunch break between events have a light meal and follow the 6 GOLDen rules. Some suggestions would be some salad with avacado, egg and tuna, a salad roll with some cold meat, sushi, some roasted vegetables. Again, avoid the stuff from the deep fryer – it will slow you down.

If you want to learn more about what to eat then have a look at some or all of the reading suggestions below. This is just a handful – there is soooooo much reading material out there. Sweet Poison by David GIllespie Lots of good information in their blog Some great recipes here from naturopath Sally Gray Very “American” but contains some good information and a more toned-down version of Paleo eating

Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It by Gary Taubes Some good recipes here and the man behind this is Tim Noakes, the worlds most outspoken LCHF advocate 

Several links on this page to information given to the swimmers at the most successful swimming club in country Victoria. It is a more traditional view but it is one that clearly is a part of this teams success.