When it comes to nutrition and swimming, perhaps the most common form of knowledge among athletes and the general public alike is not to swim immediately after eating.
And indeed, there is certainly some truth to this information. Much the same as most forms of exercise, when we’re active the blood flow moves away from the process of digestion in the stomach to prioritise fuelling working muscles. If you’ve recently eaten, it could mean a lot of food remaining in the gut while swimming, which may cause discomfort.
But what about if we want to fuel the swim we are about to do?
Preparing in advance
Planning ahead for what you eat will be important to have fuel to burn when you swim. This is especially important if you’re doing an ocean swim as you’ll want to have enough energy to return to shore through the surf at the end of your swim.
Eating regularly in smaller meals of fresh wholefoods, including a balance of lean meats, wholegrain carbohydrates, plenty of fruit and vegetables, and limiting processed food, will have your body healthy and ready to train.
Carbohydrates to fuel your swimming
Swimming is a great low impact activity which engages the whole body. While people will be able to cover different distances over their time in the water, if you’re swimming for an hour at a steady pace the body will be using carbohydrates as your fuel source.
How often you are swimming will determine how much you need to increase your carb load.
If you’re only swimming every second or third day, regular balanced meals as part of a healthy diet will be adequate.
If you’re swimming more frequently or doing intervals in a pool, then you may need to increase your carb intake in the hours leading up to the swim.
After your swim
When you have finished swimming, what you eat directly after will help start recovery and manage energy levels and appetite during the rest of the day.
This snack should include a protein source like a tub or tube of high protein yoghurt, a protein shake, large milk-based coffee and piece of fruit, eggs on toast, or tinned tuna with crackers.
Practising what you are eating around your swim to know what is enough to sustain you, but not make you uncomfortable, is an important tactic to learn ahead of your event day swim.
Before your swimming race
When you get to the event day that you’ve been working towards, here are some tips to consider for putting everything into practice.
- Aim for your last meal to be 2½ – 3 hours prior to the event starting so there is time for the food to digest and not be sitting in your stomach.
- 1-2 hours before, or between warm up and starting, you may want to have a small top up of carbs from a light snack like a piece of fruit or sipping on a sports drink.
- Don’t try any unfamiliar or unusual foods the night before or day of competition; eat food you would usually eat around training so you know that food sits well in your stomach when active.
- Food choices leading into the swim should be high in carbohydrates, contain some protein and should be low in fat, especially saturated fats as these can be heavy and hard to digest.
- Include a snack in your gear to give to your support crew so you have something available as you finish rather than waiting a long time to find something to eat.
- Consider travel time; if you have a long drive home you might also like to bring something to have in the car to avoid unhealthy stops along the way.