Swimming’s Incredibly Backward Approach to Sports Nutrition

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I’ll start off right away by saying that I’m not a nutritionist, dietician or an expert in food in any sense other than I’ve been eating my whole life. Clearly that is NOT enough to make my nutrition opinions count. That’s why we have a team sports nutritionist. And to tell the truth, our team appears to pay far more attention to sports nutrition than most other swim teams I know.

But what intrigues me about swimming specific sports nutrition is that it is almost completely ignored in the world of swimming. We pride ourselves on our scientific approach to training, ensuring that teams use periodization, minimize energy system interference, debate USRPT, and use massive quantities of technology to analyze every aspect of swimming. But when it comes to nutrition, swimming is like a rotary phone in a smart phone world.

Why is this? It’s not like the knowledge isn’t out there. Cyclists have nutrition more or less down to a rigorous science. Athletes in any weight classification sport can drop tremendous weight in a week without losing muscle mass, all due to their knowledge of nutrition. High intensity sports such as weight lifting also seem to have the knowledge. But not swimming.

I can hear some of you out there questioning my sanity. We DO know all about sports nutrition – drink Gatorade at practice, and eat pasta before meets. Well, it’s obviously far more complex than that. But then why is it that our national swim organizations have almost no useful information out there for us?

  • Swimming Canada provides one news release about promoting healthy eating, in which the Chicken Farmers of Canada are sponsoring a Team Kitchen page encouraging generic nutrition advice and providing recipes. Vancouver’s Canadian Sports Council has a Powerpoint Presentation that provides a broad and general overview, and at one point says that half of a meal plate should be vegetables, and the other half split into protein and grains. Try telling a swimmer who needs 4000 or more calories a day to eat like that.
  • USA Swimming does a little better, with a Nutrition Center page on their site that provides some articles and a system that helps people track their eating. But these articles are generic, non-scientific, and not geared to performance.
  • The Swimming Australia site appears to have no information about nutrition, although a little searching did reveal a Sports Dietitians Australia article focussing on very basic nutrition needs, including hydrating (big emphasis on sports drinks) and general guidelines for eating.
  • British Swimming has perhaps the best nutrition information for swimmers, with many articles that went beyond general nutrition knowledge, and some that dealt with the need for protein. Definitely a good start towards providing some specialized knowledge, but it still stopped far short of providing specific and detailed information on how to optimize fueling for performance.

The problem is that none of the national swim organizations provide any information that can really help us. Such as how to actually eat huge amounts of calories each day (a big problem with elite athletes), or how much protein to eat and when. Or about how to optimize muscle protein synthesis and make sure you’re in an anabolic state and not a catabolic state during and after practice.

I know that knowledge is available, because our own team’s sports nutritionist is providing that information to us, right down to an ability to individualize formulas for our swimmer’s practice and post-practice drinks. And I strongly suspect that elite swimmers all have access to very knowledgeable sports nutritionists. The elite are probably fuelling themselves properly. But why is this information so hard to find?

I’ve heard one explanation that makes sense. It’s because we all eat, and we all make meals. And we think that makes us experts in nutrition. It’s the same phenomenon that makes us all believe we are above average drivers. Familiarity becomes a replacement for expertise.

The bottom line is that sports nutrition is being left up to individual coaches, and despite the fact we eat every day, we are NOT experts. Ideally the national swim organizations will take the lead, and start publishing the kind of detailed nutritional information that will bring us up to the level of cycling. In the meantime, I’d suggest you all go get yourself a team sports nutritionist as good as ours.

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5 thoughts on “Swimming’s Incredibly Backward Approach to Sports Nutrition

  1. Thanks for the post. I just flashbacked to making a box of Kraft Dinner between school and practice as a quick snack. Also remember that while swimming and doing triathlons…food selection was based on simply getting enough calories to cover the expenditure. And that chlorine killed the taste buds. Protein/carb/fat ratios were not discussed at swimming. It was something I learned myself doing tri.

  2. Hi,
    I read your article with somewhat amusement so my apologies as I share your frustration. I’m a strength & condotioning coach in swimming with a fairly good knowledge of nutrition (my 1st MSc was in Exercise & Nutrition Science) i’m currently doing MSc in S&C.

    Athletes I’ve been working with are 15-19y.o. & despite my best efforts, they still persist on eating whatever they want & when they want. For example, if they’ve done a 2hr swim session & then come to the gym, at least 1/2 the group will be munching on a bar they got from one of the machines. No gels, bananas, driedfruit, powerbars or maltloaf or isotonic, CHO or protein drinks in site even on poolside only water. If it’s a morning session before their pool time, they’ll have had breakfast (toast, weetabix or cornflakes) 1hr before they turn up, some wont even have anything (more so the girls)!!

    Despite numereous offers to the club & parents to get a registered supplement company to supply the club with the correct food (pre-, during & post-training), it’s fallen on deaf ears.

    I share your frustrations in equal amount but have realised it’s not that we/you dont have the necessary info or access to it, it’s the attitude of the athlete & if living at home, their parents too. They simply DONT want to know & only 3 out of 15 in a regional school of excellence actually follow the sports nutritional advice i give them. If it means preparation of food&liquids then that means time away from the tv, iphone/ipad, internet or mobile which they dont or worse, WONT give up. The area of focus seems to be the junior swimmers (8y.o upwards) with continued education & practice as they progress. For the interim, all we can do as coaches is just continue to do our job to the very beat of ability, as frustratung as it may seem at times.

    Very best of luck

  3. Love this article. I swam D1 and now have coached for 18 years. Recently made a swimming comeback after switching to LCHF. It is going so well that I feel I have been lied to about food all my life. Just sayin… swimming has ignored diet other than “eat enough carbs” for way too long. And in my opinion “eat enough carbs” is the worst sports nutrition advice in history.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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