Swimmer's Nutrition

The Best Carbs to Include in the Training Diet

Published 2/17/2015 on



Carbohydrate Illustration. (Medium)By Jill Castle//MS,RDN

Carbohydrate-based foods are a swimmer’s best buddy when it comes to fueling for competition. Carbohydrate-containing foods can offer a quick burst of energy, or they can load up the muscle with a lasting source of fuel. A swimmer’s training diet should contain two types of carbs: simple carbs to provide a fast source of carbohydrate (think sports drink or dried fruit) and complex carbohydrate foods to offer sustained fuel (pretzels, bread, potato).


Carb loading is the idea that eating a high carbohydrate diet prior to competition prepares the muscles with a ready source of glycogen (carbohydrate that is stored in the muscle) so the swimmer will avoid early muscle fatigue, low energy, and experience superb performance in the water. Although a popular concept, carbohydrate loading is not proven to be effective in young swimmers.

For one, carbohydrate loading is an approach based on what we know about the adult metabolism of carbohydrate. The reality is there is little scientific evidence supporting the benefit of this practice in the younger athlete (pre-pubertal or pubertal children and teens). Additionally, young swimmers don’t store carbohydrate in their muscles as well as adults. Females, because they have less muscle mass than males, store less. It’s not until teens reach adulthood that they may see the benefits of carb loading. 

Instead, researchers advise a daily high carbohydrate diet for young athletes so they have a readily available fuel source for their working muscles.

The healthiest and best way to get optimal amounts of carbohydrate is to eat a diet that is loaded with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products. Some of the best carbohydrate-based foods the swimmer can incorporate into daily meals and snacks are starchy carbs.

Despite the media spin that carbs are “bad,” starchy carbs are a good fuel source for the swimmer. Here are some starchy carbs to incorporate in meals and snacks, along with some of their nutritional benefits:

Sweet potato: A baked sweet potato is full of fiber and vitamin A. Nix the brown sugar to keep it a healthy option.

Potatoes: Potatoes are high in fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Eat them baked, not fried, most of the time.

Rice: Rice is low in fat, and if you chose brown or wild rice, you’ll get a kick of fiber as well. 

Quinoa: Quinoa offers a good source of fiber, potassium, healthy fats, protein and magnesium. Cook it like you would cook rice.

Pasta: A classic pre-competition meal inclusion, pasta is a favorite among youth athletes. Bump up the fiber by opting for whole wheat versions.

Corn: It may surprise you to know that corn contains protein and iron. It’s also a good source of vitamin B6 and magnesium.

Peas: Peas enhance the diet with potassium, fiber, protein and vitamin C.

Beans and lentils: Beans and lentils are a nutritional powerhouse. They are low in fat, high in protein, fiber, potassium and iron. 

There are many more carbohydrate-rich foods swimmer’s can include in their training diet. Try whole grain breads, cornbread (made with cornmeal), shredded wheat cereal, cornflakes, pretzels, bagels, English muffins, and oatmeal. 

Which carbs will you add to your diet?


Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School ( and author of the upcoming book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete (July 2015). She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Find out about Jill at

Top Food Mistakes Made by Swimmers


Published 1/20/2015 on

By Chris Rosenbloom//PhD, RDN, CSSD

I have been a nutrition consultant to hundreds of athletes over the past many years. From high school to professional athletes, I see the same mistakes time and time again. This year, let’s learn from these mistakes and correct them to help make you the best swimmer you can be.


Double Cheeseburger Illustration. (Small)

Mistake No. 1: Thinking you can eat whatever you want because you are very active.

It is true that active young swimmers burn a lot of calories in training and have a higher need for calories because they are growing. However, that doesn’t mean you can thrive by eating double quarter pounders with cheese, fries and large soft drinks. That meal contains 1250 calories, easily a third to half of an active swimmer’s calorie needs for the entire day. Every fast food restaurant offers healthier choices these days, even on the value menu, so when faced with choices, make good ones. A better choice would be a regular cheeseburger, small fries and a fruit ‘n yogurt parfait for about half the calories with the added benefit more healthful nutrients and less fat and sodium. And, it still tastes pretty good if you like fast foods.

Mistake No. 2: Thinking more is better when it comes to protein.
Protein is very important for athletes, but more isn’t better. Research shows that you need 0.55-0.90 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Most swimmers should aim for somewhere in the middle of the range. The higher end of the range is needed when you are cutting calories to reduce body fat. For recovery, you need about 20 grams of high quality protein within the first hour after exercise. The double quarter pounder meal has almost 50 grams of protein, way more than needed for recovery. The single cheeseburger meals has about 20 grams of protein…just right. Extra protein isn’t stored in the muscles. It is broken down for energy which can be stored as fat. The excess nitrogen (the part that makes protein unique from carbohydrate or fat) gets eliminated in the urine.

Mistake No. 3: Overemphasizing the value of supplements and undervaluing the power of healthy foods.
I must admit that the marketing for healthy foods is not nearly as exciting as for supplements. Supplement ads promise quick weight loss, bigger muscles, and increased energy; one study of about 600 supplements identified over 800 performance enhancing claims, most of which were bogus without scientific backing. Supplements are no short-cut to improving body composition, building muscle or increasing performance. Supplements have the added risk of containing banned or illegal substances that could harm your health and your sports career. That is why USA Swimming takes a food-first approach when advising athletes.


(Editor’s Note: Along with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), USA Swimming considers dietary supplements, such as some protein shakes and powders, as “take at your own risk,” placing full responsibility for any effects and repercussions on the athlete. For more information, see our Dietary Supplements page).  

A wise researcher I know tells athletes that good nutrition won’t make an average athlete a great athlete, but poor nutrition can make a great athlete an average one. So, if you are a great athlete or aspire to be one, fine tune an eating plan that works for you, not against you.

Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD, is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University and provides nutrition counseling to athletes of all ages. She welcomes questions from athletes at


5 Strategies to Make Sure Young Swimmers Get Enough Protein

Published 1/13/2015 on

Protein is a nutrient everyone in the sports world talks about, from boosting it in the diet to eating the right types.

Protein certainly plays an important role in the young swimmer’s diet. For one, it has a starring role in growth, supporting the building of new tissue.

Protein also lends a hand in muscle repair. During intensive exercise, muscles work hard and break down. Protein, and the amino acids that make up protein, help repair muscle damage and support muscle growth.

Most nutrition experts agree that getting protein from food is the ideal strategy for growing athletes. But some athletes (and their parents) worry that their swimmer isn’t eating enough.

Rest assured, most young athletes get plenty of protein in their diet from the food they eat. In fact, studies show that most young athletes eat 2-3 times more protein than they need. However, swimmers who diet or follow a vegan diet may fall short on good protein sources.

Getting enough protein isn’t the only issue for athletes, though. The timing of when protein is eaten matters also. For example, spacing protein evenly across the day is ideal for making sure protein is available to the body when needed. And, eating a source of protein within 45 minutes of a grueling workout is linked to improved muscle repair. 

Here are some fail-proof strategies to ensure swimmers get enough protein, and at the right times:

Protein illustration, small.Know your Protein: Food including meats like beef, lamb, chicken and other poultry sources; fish; beans and products made with beans like hummus and other bean-based dips; eggs; milk; soymilk; cheese; yogurt; and nuts and nut butters are all good sources of protein.

Space out Protein: Make sure you eat a quality protein source at each meal and include protein with most snacks. This effort will make protein available to muscles and the rest of the body throughout the day.

Chocolate MilkRecover with a Protein-containing Snack: A source of protein eaten within 45 minutes of intensive exercise has been linked to muscle recovery and muscle mass gain. Studies have pointed to chocolate milk as a good recovery snack, as it contains protein (a casein- and whey-based type of protein) and carbohydrate, of which effectively repair muscle and supply glycogen (energy) to the muscle, respectively. Other sources of protein, like cheese or yogurt, combined with a carbs like crackers or fruit, likely provide similar benefits as chocolate milk.

Soy Milk (Small)

Drink Milk or Soymilk Regularly: Drinking milk or soymilk with meals is one easy way to assure protein appears at mealtime. Of course, if the swimmer is eating other protein foods at that time, milk may not be needed. Milk and soymilk are also packed with other nutrients important for the swimmer like calcium and vitamin D.

Don’t Overdo It with Extra Protein: Adding extra protein to shakes, or eating high protein bars or other supplements isn’t necessary for the young athlete and may provide too much protein. Going overboard with protein can contribute to dehydration, stress the kidneys, and promote unwanted weight gain. (Editor’s Note: Along with the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), USA Swimming considers dietary supplements, such as some protein shakes and powders, as “take at your own risk,” placing full responsibility for any effects and repercussions on the athlete. For more information, see our Dietary Supplements page).

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School ( and author of the upcoming book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete (July 2015). She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (, and lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Find out more about Jill at

5 Bad Eating Habits Swimmers Must Break


Published 11/11/2014 on

by Jill Castle, MS, RDN

A habit is a regular tendency that is hard to give up. When it comes to food and eating, there are good habits and there are bad ones. Good eating habits promote health, overall wellness, and may even optimize swimming performance. Bad habits, on the other hand, may get in the way of athletic performance and future potential. Here are some of the bad eating habits I see among young swimmers: 

Breakfast illustration. (Small)Skipping Breakfast
It’s estimated that about 20% of kids  (9-13 years) and 36% of teens (14-18 years) skip breakfast. The reasons vary, but in the case of the swimmer, they include running short on time in the morning, not feeling hungry, or eating too much the night before, which can suppress hunger in the morning. Swimmers need breakfast, not only for revving up their engine (metabolism), but also for paying attention in school, meeting important nutrient requirements, and feeling energized throughout the day. Breakfast kicks everything in motion—the swimmers “engine,” and his brain—so skipping it is a habit that needs to be broken. Don’t be picky about a full course meal! Almost anything for breakfast is better than nothing. Try a smoothie, instant oatmeal, a handful of nuts and cereal, a bar, or even a box of flavored milk.

Light lunch illustration. (Small)Light-loading Lunch
Some swimmers are “watching their weight,” and in doing so may think it’s healthy to opt for a salad or a cup of soup for lunch, or maybe a sandwich and nothing else. This uber-healthy approach, which sounds like a good (and healthy) idea, really doesn’t work, especially if after-school training is on the horizon. Lunch is the meal that loads the swimmer’s body with essential carbs and protein (as well as other nutrients) for training. So a salad or broth-based soup won’t cut it, but a sandwich or wrap on whole grain bread served with a cup of soup and fresh fruit would be ideal. 

Overeating illustration. (Small)Overeating Later (after school, practice, and late at night)
When the swimmer skips or light-loads on eating earlier in the day, he is bound to experience significant hunger, eventually. After school or practice, or even after a full dinner, hunger may rear its ugly head, and the swimmer may overeat, and perhaps even binge (eat a large amount of food in a short period of time). Overeating can cause unwanted weight gain, and if done at night, may interfere with the morning appetite, and disturb a healthy rhythm of eating during the day. Back-loading calories at the end of the day robs the swimmer’s body of needed nutrients for training and learning at school when he needs it most—during the day!

Eating the wrong foods. (Small)Eating the Wrong Food
Candy, sweet muffins, chocolate-coated granola bars, chips, and cookies are the wrong foods for swimmers to be snacking on, or eating routinely. Once in a while, on a non-training day, or in the context of other healthy foods is acceptable, but relying on unhealthy foods to sustain a training program or competition is silly. While these foods can fit in to the swimmer’s diet, their role should be minimal. For example, one or two regular portions of sweets can fit into the swimmer’s diet without crashing it, however, eating a chocolate chip muffin for breakfast, a big cookie and chips at lunch, popping Skittles throughout practice or competition, and finishing the day with ice cream or fried food is a bad idea, and a blossoming bad habit. Eating the right foods, and downsizing the wrong foods, is an area where many young swimmers can do better.

Hydration Illustration. (Small)Forgetting Fluids
A headache, feeling tired, and a sense of hunger may be signs of poor drinking habits. True, dehydration is common among young athletes and stems from getting behind in fluid consumption. Prepping for practice takes place all day, from eating nutritious, juicy food to drinking enough water or other beverages. Some swimmers forget to drink, and play catch-up at practice, which is hard to do. Ideally, swimmers should drink fluids all day (preferably water, milk or small amounts of 100% juice), come to practice with water or a sports drink, drink throughout training, and replenish with more fluids during their recovery and the rest of the day.

Don’t let these bad eating habits curbside the swimmer’s hard work in and out of the pool!

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School ( She is the creator of Just The Right Byte (, and is working on her next book, entitled Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT.