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What to Eat for Swimming—Fueling for Workouts and Recovery
Reading Time: 5 minutes 20 seconds
It’s hard to shake that old, persistent myth that you have to wait an hour after eating before swimming. The truth is more complicated of course, but no, you will not automatically drown if you swim right after a meal or snack.
As with any sport or type of exercise, the right fueling plan is essential. You need food before and after workouts as fuel and for recovery. A balance of nutrients is essential, as is avoiding overeating. You may not sink, but your performance will suffer if you eat too much. Here are some tips and guidelines for eating and swimming.
Swimming – A Major Calorie Burn
If part of your goal of swimming is weight loss or maintenance, you may be tempted to cut too many calories. It’s important for you, or a client beginning swimming workouts, to understand just how much energy this exercise takes.
The best of the best, Olympic swimmers, burn a whopping 3,000 to 10,000 calories per day when in training. (1) This is the extreme end of the spectrum, but it gives you an idea of the nutritional needs of swimmers. For everyday swimmers, or even amateur competitors, these numbers are more useful: (2)
- Swimming casually, not necessarily in a focused workout, burns 223 calories in 30 minutes for a 155-pound person.
- That same person will burn nearly 300 calories in 30 minutes doing the backstroke and 372 per half hour doing the breaststroke.
- Thirty minutes of front crawl or butterfly can burn over 400 calories in a half hour for someone who weighs 155 pounds.
In other words, swimming requires energy, and that means fueling is important. Don’t let a weight loss client fall into the trap of inadequate fueling. It can be dangerous. It can also lead to binges later when the hunger after a tough swimming workout becomes overwhelming.
When swimming is an endurance sport it really burns a lot of calories. Use this guide to endurance nutrition to make sure you’re fueling adequately.
What to Eat Before or After a Swim – Basic Rules
As with any activity, how you fuel before and after depends on your individual needs and the duration and intensity of the workout. Everyone will find what works best for them, but there are some general rules you or a client can follow when swimming to work out:
How to Time Eating for Swimming
Eat a balanced, light meal a couple hours before swimming. If you work out early, first thing in the morning, you may be able to get away with skipping a meal. But consider a light snack with about 30 grams of carbohydrates. Aim for a recovery snack 20 to 30 minutes after a tough workout.
Meals and snacks should be a good balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats, but carbs are more important before swimming. Don’t skimp on protein after a workout. You need it for muscle recovery and growth.
What to Eat Before or After a Swim Includes Water
Don’t forget to hydrate. It’s easy to forget that you sweat in the pool. Have water or electrolyte drinks on hand for breaks during and after a workout.
Fueling for Competitive Swimmers
If you have a client in competitive swimming, or you’re trying to take your swimming to the next level, nutrition must be more focused. Fueling well every day for workouts and to recover is essential, but you also need to consider competitions:
- Ahead of a competition. Before major endurance events, if you are a distance swimmer, load up on extra carbs a week or a few days in advance. Slow down a little on training and build up glycogen stores with whole grains, lots of veggies, beans, seeds, and fruit.
- The day before a swim meet. The day before a competition, focus on hydration. Eat several smaller meals throughout the day with plenty of carbs. Do not have a big meal in the evening. Also, stick to foods you know your digestion can handle.
- The morning of the meet. Fuel carefully and strategically in the morning or later, depending on when you compete. Choose carbs that are easy to digest, like bananas, cereal, or toast. Include a little bit of protein.
- During the swim meet. If you have multiple events, have snacks on hand to recover and refuel in between. Again, easily digestible carbs are best: pasta, fruit juice and sports drinks, bananas, crackers, cereal, or bagels.
- After the competition. Refuel as soon as possible with more emphasis on protein. A protein bar or smoothie is a good choice.
Smoothies are convenient, fast vehicles for all the nutrients you need to fuel a swim workout. This guide to smoothies will help you match up the best recipe for your routine.
Ideas for Pre- and Post-Swimming Meals and Snacks
With these tips for fueling and recovery in mind, there are a lot of options for what to eat. Try to stick with healthy, whole foods. Olympic swimmers can get away with refueling on sacks of McDonald’s cheeseburgers, but it’s not the best option for the rest of us.
Pre-Workout Snacks and Small Meals
These should be carb-loaded and balanced with some protein and healthy fats. Carbs should be easy to digest. Stick with simple carbs if snacking less than an hour before a swim. For a light meal two to three hours before, you can choose some more complex carbs:
- A bagel with peanut butter
- Bananas with peanut butter
- Whole grain toast with an egg
- Oatmeal with Greek yogurt and a little fruit
- Sweet potato hash
- Leftover brown rice or pasta
Good options for small snacks if you can’t get in a full meal include a granola bar, a piece of fruit, dried fruit, or a rice cake.
Post-Workout Recovery Snacks
After a workout, you need more protein to rebuild muscle, but also carbs to replenish energy stores. You may be less concerned about upsetting your digestion, so heavier meals are ok. Just aim to get in at least a snack within 30 minutes:
- A turkey sandwich with hummus and veggies
- A smoothie with greens, fruit, protein powder, and yogurt
- An omelet with vegetables and cheese
- Salmon and broccoli
- Chicken breast and sweet potatoes
- A salad loaded with extras like grains, beans, and meat
What Not to Eat
Avoiding junk food and a lot of processed foods is a good general rule for overall health and performance. Also important to avoid before and during swim meet or workouts is anything that will upset your stomach.
Any kind of workout can trigger digestive issues, but swimming, with its horizontal position of the body, can make keeping food down challenging. Certain foods and types of foods are best avoided before working out:
- Anything you know has upset your digestion in the past
- Spicy foods
- High-fiber foods, like beans, high-fiber cereals and breads, and certain vegetables like greens and broccoli
- Too much fat, including cheese, high-fat yogurt, avocado, or foods cooked in oil
- Caffeine, unless you are well adapted to it already
Whether working with a client or your own swimming routine, understanding how to eat for this sport is essential for a good outcome. Adequate calories and balanced macronutrients promote weight loss, fitness, and performance goals.
Check out the ISSA’s Nutritionist program to learn all you need to know about fueling exercise and helping clients make healthier food choices to meet fitness and weight goals.
ISSA's Nutritionist course is the most comprehensive approach to unlocking the secrets behind why clients eat the way they do, and the systematic approach to drive lifestyle change. You can be the ultimate authority others turn to as the one-stop-shop for fitness and nutrition needs.