- Fueling Your Stroke, Buying and Burning Gas
Six 200’s descending on five minutes. Twenty-five 50’s
on :58. Whatever your “favorite,” every set during
every workout and dryland session requires energy.
Nutrients are the “chemicals” that supply the body
with energy. Carbohydrate, protein and fat supply energy in the
form of calories. These are your “Energy-Yielding
Nutrients.” Vitamins, Minerals and Water don’t supply
energy in the form of calories, but their presence is required in
order for the body to access the energy provided by carbohydrate,
protein and fat.
During exercise, the body gets its energy primarily from
carbohydrate and fat. It likes to save protein for other things
(building and repairing muscle tissue, hormones and red blood
cells, and supporting the immune system). The only time the body
uses protein as an energy source during exercise is when
carbohydrate and fat are not present in sufficient quantities. This
happens when the total caloric intake is too low over a period of
months, and or the bout of exercise is so long that the
body’s accessible sources of carbohydrate and protein become
exhausted. Neither of these scenarios is desirable for
Think about money. When you have lots of it, you don’t mind
paying full price for things. But when money is scarce, or there is
just too much you have to buy, you look for bargains. You’re
not being cheap, just thrifty. Simplified to some extent, your body
knows how to shop.
Now instead of dollars, think of your currency as oxygen. When
swimming is “easy,” say during warm-up or your easiest
sets, there is plenty of oxygen available to support the exercise.
The body perceives itself as “rich” and doesn’t
mind splurging on fat (1 gram of fat costs 9 oxygens). In fact, it
automatically does so because it knows it might need carbohydrate
at a later time.
When exercise is hard (we’re talking tough sets, definitely
your hardest sets), oxygen is not plentiful. In fact, the body
needs every bit it can get to support the exercise, but even that
is often not enough, and the body is forced to derive energy in
ways that do not require oxygen (i.e. anaerobic metabolism). In
this situation, the body perceives itself as very
“poor” and becomes very thrifty with its
“purchase” if fuel. Since carbohydrate costs less than
fat (1 gram of carbohydrate costs 4 oxygens), the body chooses to
rely primarily on carbohydrate for its energy.
Keep in mind that this entire fuel burning process is never a case
of “all or none.” In other words, the body is always
using some combination of carbohydrate and fat, but the intensity
of the exercise dictates which fuel source will be the dominant
one. When swimmering is easiest, fat is the primary fuel source.
When swimming is toughest, carbohydrate is the primary fuel source.
When swimming is about 50% of maximum effort, carbohydrate and fat
contribute about equally.
Let’s face it – the majority of workouts are hard.
Above 50% for certain. If you consider the typical swim workout,
it’s pretty safe to say that the primary fuel source for
swimmers IS carbohydrate.
- Eat Colorful Foods.
What are the first three foods that come to mind when we say
Each if these is excellent. But what do they have in common?
They’re all white!
One of the most overlooked
sources of carbohydrate is fruit. Yes, FRUIT. Fresh, canned,
frozen, dried or juiced. No matter how you look at it, fruit is an
excellent source of carbohydrate. Not only does fruit provide
carbohydrate in the form of natural sugars (versus refined sugar),
the bright colors of fruits indicate that they are also excellent
sources of vitamins and minerals, including a sub-group called
You might recall that exercise is the stimulus that leads to
training adaptations. And that adaptations to training occur ONLY
is you give the body the right kinds of fuels during periods of
Well, one of the side effects of exercise is the generation of
“free radicals.” Free radicals are molecules that can
actually cause damage to muscle tissue above and beyond the damage
caused by exercise. The damage caused by exercise is normal. It
serves as part of the stimulus for training adaptation to take
place. But damage caused by free radicals is NOT a desired part of
the training process. Damage caused by free radicals (aka
“scavengers”) circulating in the bloodstream after
workout can continue well into the recovery period. This is when
the body is supposed to be adapting!
Anti-oxidants “absorb” free radicals, neutralizing
their effect in the body before their damage to muscle tissue can
amount to much. A diet consistently rich in fruits (and other
colorful foods, such as VEGETABLES) is apt to keep the body
consistently supplied with anti-oxidants, which will assist the
body in keeping free radical formation to a minimum. This a good
reason to eat lots of colorful foods during the recovery time
Colorful foods include, but are not limited t
Apples, Strawberries, Blueberries, Bananas, Oranges, Kiwi,
Watermelon, Raspberries, Grapes, Mango, Papaya, Apricots, Red
peppers, Broccoli, Corn, Squash, Carrots, Peas, Green beans,
Colorful foods DO NOT include: Skittles, Jelly Beans, M&Ms,
Mike&Ikes, Fruit Loops, etc.
3 - Carb, Protein, Fat...How Much is Enough?
We talk a lot about the body using carbohydrate, protein and fat
as it Energy-Yielding Nutrients, but the requirement from swimmer
to swimmer varies. A swimmer’s energy requirements depend on
several variables, including their age, gender, body weight (and
possible composition) and level of training.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, American
Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada Joint Position
Statement on Nutrition and Athletic Performance,
“Protein requirements are slightly increased in highly
active people. Protein recommendations for endurance athletes are
1.2-1.4 g/kg body weight per day, whereas those for resistance and
strength-trained athletes may be as high as 1.6-1.7 g/kg body
weight per day. These recommended protein intakes can generally be
met through diet alone, without the use of protein or amino acid
supplements, if energy intake is adequate to maintain body
weight.” (ACSM, ADA, Dietitians of Canada, 2000, p 2131)
The generally recommended daily intake of protein for swimmers in
training is 1.4-1.8 g/kg of body weight. Typically this should
account for 12-15% of total calories. For a 160 lb athlete, that
equates to 102-131 g/day, which is 12-15% of a diet of 2,720-4,367
Meeting this requirement typically ensures adequate dietary intake
of all of the necessary amino acids. It is important, however, that
high-quality protein products be selected. Sources include meats,
dairy, beans, dried peas, milk, eggs, and grains. These sources
provide a more complete mixture of the necessary amino acids and
therefore have a higher “biological value” or protein
efficiency score. If these protein needs can be met by selecting
good dietary sources of protein on a daily basis, the amounts of
amino acids required to achieve the effects observed in the studies
mentioned above can easily be met as well. There is no evidence
that ingesting protein in amounts far in excess of the recommended
intake is beneficial to either protein balance or exercise
performance. The primary role of protein, and therefore amino
acids, is to synthesize structural proteins and TCA-cycle
intermediates. Excess protein can be stored to some degree, but
that which is not used for the aforementioned purpose is typically
metabolized and excreted. Protein is generally not used for energy
The American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic
Association and Dietitians of Canada Joint Position Statement on
Nutrition and Athletic Performance also states that:
“Carbohydrates are important to maintain blood-glucose
levels during exercise and to replace muscle glycogen.
Recommendations for athletes range from 6 to 10 g/kg body weight
per day. The amount required depends upon the athlete’s total
daily energy expenditure, type of sport performed, sex of the
athlete, and environmental conditions.” (ACSM, ADA,
Dietitians of Canada, 2000, p 2131)
The general recommendation is that carbohydrate intake should
account for at least 60% of total caloric intake. In addition,
long-supported research by Costill (1988) indicates that athletes
training more than 2 hrs/day require a carbohydrate intake of 9-10
g/kg of body weight on a daily basis to prevent chronic depletion
of carbohydrate stores.
Body Weight in lbs
Carbohydrate Required (g) to meet
Intake of 9 g/kg
Carbohydrate Required (g) to meet
Intake of 10 g/kg
Protein Required (g) to meet Intake
of 1.4 g/kg
Protein Required (g) to meet Intake
of 1.8 g/kg
Lastly, The American College of
Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of
Canada Joint Position Statement on Nutrition and Athletic
Performance also states that:
“Fat intake should not be restricted, because there is no
performance benefit in consuming a diet with less than 15% of
energy from fat, compared with 20% to 25% of energy from fat. Fat
is important in the diets of athletes as it provides energy,
fat-soluble vitamins, and essential fatty acids. Additionally,
there is no scientific basis on which to recommend high-fat diets
to athletes.” (ACSM, ADA, Dietitians of Canada, 2000, p
The general recommendation is that swimmers get 20-25% of their
calories from fat. For the swimmer whose daily caloric requirement
is 2,000 kcal, this translates to 400-500 kcal from fat, or 44-56
grams of fat per day. Use the following table to determine that
amount of fat you should be consuming on a daily
Total Caloric Need
Daily Fat Intake (g) To meet 20-25%
of this Caloric Intake
4 - Eat Early and Often to Recover Well.
Knowing how much carbohydrate, protein and fat to get in a day is
good. But knowing when you should be getting those nutrients is
even better. When it comes to optimal nutrition, timing really is
In general, following these guidelines for incorporating
carbohydrate, protein and fat into your day:
· Spread carbohydrate intake out over the course of the day
(i.e. smaller meals and frequent snacks). This keeps blood sugar
levels adequate and stable.
· Eat some carbohydrate before morning practice. Note: This
can be in the form of juice.
· Eat carbohydrate in the form of a carb-electrolyte drink,
such as Gatorade or Powerade, during workout IF workout is 90
minutes or longer. Gels are also acceptable.
· Eat carbohydrate and protein within the first 30 minutes
after practice. This enables the body to replenish glycogen stores
and repair muscle tissue. This is perhaps the most important time
· Eat again (something substantial, like a real meal)
before two hours post-practice has elapsed. This is critical to
· Incorporate fat into the day at times that are not close
to workout. Fat is necessary, but contributes little to the workout
or immediate post-workout recovery period.
Part of the reason good nutrition is critical during recovery has
to do with the fact that the body is extremely good at making the
most of what it is given. Following exercise, the body is very
sensitive to the hormone insulin. Insulin is that hormone that
rises every time blood sugar rises. In other words, every time a
swimmer eats carbohydrate, which causes blood sugar to rise,
insulin goes up. Well, it’s insulin’s job to remove
sugar from the bloodstream, and it does so by facilitating its
storage as glycogen. Glycogen, the storage form for carbohydrate,
is what the body taps into for fuel when exercise is very intense.
This can happen quite a bit during a tough workout, which is why
it’s important to see that glycogen is replenished before the
The American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic
Association and Dietitians of Canada Joint Position Statement on
Nutrition and Athletic Performance states that:
“After exercise, the dietary goal is to provide adequate
energy and carbohydrates to replace muscle glycogen and to ensure
rapid recovery. If an athlete is glycogen-depleted after exercise,
a carbohydrate intake of 1.5 g/kg body weight during the first 30
min and again every 2h for 4 to 6h will be adequate to replace
glycogen stores. Protein consumed after exercise will provide amino
acids for the building and repair of muscle tissue. Therefore,
athletes should consume a mixed meal providing carbohydrates,
protein, and fat soon after a strenuous competition or training
session.” (ACSM, ADA, Dietitians of Canada, 2000, p 2131)
In addition, research (van Loon et al, 2000) has implicated
immediate post-exercise carbohydrate ingestion (1.2 g/kg/hr for 5
hrs) in the enhancement of glycogen re-synthesis.
Body Weight in lbs (kg)
Carbohydrate Required (g) to meet Intake of 1.2-1.5
5 - Know the Scoop on Cereals.
For swimmers, cereal is great just about any time of the day.
Competitive athletes are encouraged to choose nutrient dense
cereals, which contain more of the right kinds of nutrients
(carbohydrate, protein, vitamins, minerals) per serving than their
“candy cereal” counterparts. More bang for the buck, so
Generally speaking, the best cereals are high-carbohydrate (>25
grams/serving), moderate-protein (5-10 grams/serving), low-fat
(<5 grams/serving), and moderate-fiber (2-4 grams/serving). Most
cereals on the market today, including “candy cereal,”
are fortified with vitamins and minerals, such that one serving
usually provides 20-100% of a given vitamin or mineral. However,
these values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, which is well below
the energy requirements for most competitive swimmers in their
teens and twenties.
Consider cereals in three categories: High Nutrient Density,
Moderate Nutrient Density, and Low Density (aka “candy
cereal”). Athletes looking for a good cereal but not a whole
lot of calories, a Moderate Nutrient Density product is best. For
those looking for density (i.e. lots more nutrients/calories in a
smaller serving), then a High Nutrient Density cereal is the way to
go. Swimmers looking for “candy cereal” should be
encouraged to save this type of product for weekends and/or limited
occasions. The following table offers a non-exhaustive list of
cereals in each of the categories mentioned above:
High Nutrient Density Cereals
>30 grams carb
>4 grams protein
<40% of carbohydrate is sugar
Moderate Nutrient Density
20-30 grams carbohydrate
2-4 grams protein
<40% of carbohydrate is sugar
Low Nutrient Density
>40% of carbohydrate is
Quaker Toasted Oatmeal
Wheaties Energy Crunch
Raisin Nut Bran
Honey Nut Shredded Wheat
Cinnamon Toast Crunch
And of course, hot oatmeal and
granola are always excellent choices. And all dry cereals make a
great snack to take on the road. Just toss 1 cup into a plastic
storage bag or air-tight container, and off you go. The point is to
find a cereal that tastes good and also meets your nutritional
needs. With all the products on the market, no swimmer should have
any problem doing just that.
6 - What IS One Serving?
Coaches….Got 15 bucks? Go to your local super store and
splurge on one of the most valuable Nutrition teaching kits
you’ll ever own. You may even have these things lying around
the house. Here’s the list:
· 1 tennis bal
· 1 baseball
· 1 deck of playing cards
· 1 book of matches
· 1 CD case
· 1 1” wooden cube
· 1 nickel
Why would you want these things? Each item represents the
approximate size of a serving for various foods. See the table
below for representations:
Serving it Represents
1 cup of
cooked rice; 15 grapes
potato; 1 cup of cold cereal
3 oz cut
of oil, salad dressing or mayo
1 oz of
2 oz of
dry spaghetti, 1 cup of cooked spaghetti
- Drink Early and Often.
There are 2 reasons to drink fluids: (1) to stay hydrated, and (2)
to provide the body with fuel.
During Workout - Regardless of age or length of workout, all
swimmers need fluids during practice to stay hydrated. Easily
accomplished with a couple of sips from the water bottle every
15-20 minutes. As swimmers progress, workouts get longer and
tougher. It’s well established that exercise beyond 90
minutes benefits from a supplemental fuel source. The sports drink
can provide it. But we still have hydration to think about. Drinks
that are too strong, or “concentrated,” can provide the
fuel but also inhibit fluid absorption and often lead to
Years of research tells us that drinks that are 6-8% carbohydrate
by weight provide the perfect balance. Enough carbohydrate to
provide a fuel source during long exercise, but not so much that
will inhibit fluid absorption. A couple of sips every 15-20 minutes
keeps the body fueled, helps prevent unnecessary tissue breakdown,
and maintains hydration. Today, only Gatorade and Powerade meet the
6-8% criteria. Most other drinks are too strong to be effective
After Workout – Water is an excellent choice to replenish
fluids after practice. It’s always wise to drink at least one
cup. But after a tough workout, replenishing fuel stores is equally
important. Competitive swimmers need a little over 1 gram of
carbohydrate for every kilogram they weigh (lbs/2.2) each hour
after workout. And they need it within the first hour.
Oftentimes, a sports drink that is easily digested and quickly
absorbed, such as Gatorade or Powerade can provide a convenient way
to get some of this fuel within the first 20 minutes. Accelerade, a
newer drink on the market may also do the trick. Endurox, perhaps,
but beware of the high protein drinks, as they often forgo the
carbohydrate, and carbohydrate is what you are trying to replenish
within that first hour after workout. A little protein won’t
hurt, in fact a little bit of protein may actually help by
supporting tissue repair and re-building processes. But too much
protein, especially when it comes in place of carbohydrate, may
actually be detrimental to the post-workout recovery process.
1. Carbohydrate is the primary fuel source during tough workouts.
Protein is used as a fuel source during exercise only when
carbohydrate and fat are not present is sufficient quantities. This
can happen during long/tough workouts when the body uses much of
its stored carbohydrate, and it must find an additional source. If
an additional carbohydrate source (ex. Gatorade, Powerade) is not
supplied, the body taps into stored protein, aka your muscles. This
is why we drink carbohydrate-electrolyte solutions during
workout…to spare muscle protein. And this is also why it is
important to replace carbohydrate stores lost during a
workout…so you start the next workout with a full tank of
2. Following exercise, the body is very sensitive to the hormone
insulin. Insulin is that hormone that rises every time blood sugar
rises. In other words, every time a swimmer eats carbohydrate,
which causes blood sugar to rise, insulin goes up. Well, it’s
insulin’s job to remove sugar from the bloodstream, and it
does so by facilitating its storage as glycogen. Glycogen, the
storage form for carbohydrate, is what the body taps into for fuel
when exercise is very intense. This can happen quite a bit during a
tough workout, which is why it’s important to see that
glycogen is replenished before the next practice.
During the Day – Staying hydrated during the day is just as
critical as hydrating during and after workouts. Most swimmers can
do this by incorporating a variety of fluids into their daily diet.
Water, fruit juice, milk, soups, etc, etc. Water is always an
excellent choice, but other drinks, including sports drinks
(defined as 6-8% carbohydrate by weight) are okay too. Just
remember that variety is the key to a healthy diet. If you use a
sports drink during and after practice, it may be better to drink
water and juice during the day to stay hydrated. Juices are often
healthier than sports drinks in that their sugars are natural.
Always keep in mind that juices and sports drinks contribute to
total caloric intake.
For the purpose of this article, a sports drink is defined as a
6-8% carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. Do NOT include
“energy drinks,” such as Red Bull, 180o, Sobe, etc.
These dietary supplements fall into the Yellow Light category of
Dietary Supplements Health & Contamination Risk
Chart. (pdf file…requires
8 - Analyzing Your Diet
Diet analysis is comprised of two parts, needs and intake. Optimal
nutrition is a matter of balance (nutrients-in versus
nutrients-out). In other words, a swimmer’s intake of
nutrients must match his/her output of nutrients during rest and
exercise. In terms of energy (aka calories), if the needs are
greater than the intake, the net result is weight loss. Conversely,
if the needs are less than the intake, the net result is weight
There are three variables that contribute to a person’s
total nutrient and energy needs:
Resting Energy Expenditure (REE)
– REE is the energy required for
cellular and tissue processes that maintain physiological functions
at rest, plus small amounts of energy related to previous muscular
activity. It is the energy the body needs to maintain itself in the
sedentary state, and this need tends to decrease with age. REE
remains relatively constant for a given age and gender. In other
words, the REE for most 120-lb 16-year-old males is about the same.
Typically, REE accounts for about 60% of a swimmer’s daily
expenditure. For swimmers, about 40% of it is used to support
Thermic Effect of Food
(TEF) – TEF is the energy required
by the body to digest, absorb, transport, store and metabolize
food. Eating actually increases a person’s metabolic rate
temporarily, which translates into an elevation in energy
expenditure. This effect is higher for protein and carbohydrate
meals, versus fat meals. In fact, fat has little effect in
elevating the metabolic rate at all. Typically, TEF accounts for
about 10% of a person’s daily expenditure. Similarly, about
10% of a person’s daily caloric needs are to support
Thermic Effect of Exercise
(TEE) – TEE is the increase in a
person’s metabolism due to moderate and strenuous physical
activity. The exact amount of energy this accounts for depends on
the physiological “cost” of the activity. Determining
this directly involves monitoring a person’s oxygen
consumption (VO2) during exercise and translating that into
calories burned. There are many reference charts available that
indicate how many calories are required or spent to perform a given
activity for a given period of time. Typically, TEE accounts for
about 30% of a person’s daily expenditure. For swimmers,
about 60% of it is used to support TEE.
Since lean tissue is the site for
most metabolic (energy conversion) processes, the more lean tissue
a person has, the higher is their level of metabolic activity. For
this reason, Resting Energy Expenditure and the Thermic Effect of
Food are typically higher in males than in females, and higher in
athletes than in non-athletes. Resting Energy Expenditure also
tends to be higher in individuals who consistently meet their
metabolic demands with an adequate intake of calories. Severe
restriction of calories (<80% of calculated needs) for prolonged
periods of time can lead to a decrease in the metabolic rate,
usually because it results in a loss of muscle mass. It should be
noted that although stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine will
also increase Resting Energy Expenditure slightly, these products
are not recommended for various health reasons. Changes in
temperature can affect Resting Energy Expenditure as well, but the
most powerful environmental influence is EXERCISE.
Adding the Thermic Effect of Exercise to the Resting Energy
Expenditure and Thermic Effect of Food constitutes calculating an
individual’s total energy needs for the day.
Total Energy Needs = REE + TEF +
What changes with the competitive
season is the relative contribution of each of the three variables
to the total requirement. For example, during the in-season,
Resting Energy Expenditure may account for about 50% (half) or a
little less of the total energy expenditure, or total energy needs.
During the off-season, Resting Energy Expenditure may account for
60-70%. This is because Resting Energy Expenditure does not change
much, while active energy expenditure (i.e. the Thermic Effect of
Exercise) is lower during the off-season due to a reduction in
training volume. Because Resting Energy Expenditure plays a larger
role during the off-season, keeping it elevated reduces the amount
of dietary change that will be required to maintain body weight.
This can be accomplished by maintaining lean tissue, as opposed to
losing muscle during the off-season. Hence the role of exercise
during this time.
Fortunately, the USA Swimming website offers a program to take
care of calculating all three of the variables mentioned above.
Of course, the other side of the equation involves intake, or the
amount of energy an athlete consumes on a daily basis. Nutrition
Tracker can do this too. Using Nutrition Tracker, a swimmer can
enter an entire day’s food intake to see how much
carbohydrate, protein, fat and calories are in it, compare what
he/she ate to his/her individual needs, and track his/her habits
throughout the season and off-season. Upon comparing nutrient needs
with the swimmer’s current intake, the program generates a
feedback report, and stores the information for future reference.
Swimmers are provided with an analysis of their current diet on
which they can base changes or interventions. Deficiencies and
excesses are highlighted based on comparisons with reference ranges
established for swimmers. The best part is that the analysis is
specific to swimming and current level of training. (Nutrition
Tracker is available to all USA Swimming members. National Team
athletes have pre-established accounts. All other users must
register prior to first use.)
Any complete diet analysis, including Nutrition Tracker, involves
a record of every food item that was eaten on that particular day.
The most common way to do this is by using a food recall.
The typical food recall requires an athlete to report what he/she
ate over a 3-7 day period of time. The energy content (i.e. kcal)
of each food item and the exact amount eaten are used to determine
the total energy content of a full day’s menu. Total
carbohydrate, protein and fat intakes can also be determined using
this format. Knowing the contribution of each of these
macronutrients provides information on where the calories are
coming from. Unfortunately, when athletes know they have to record
what they ate, they (especially females) tend to under-eat and/or
under-report their food intake. Therefore, a person’s typical
caloric intake based on food recall is often misrepresented,
under-estimated, or both.
Specifics regarding an athlete’s caloric needs are
individual. They vary with seasonal changes in training volume and
should be discussed with a qualified Sports Nutrition professional.
What works for one athlete may not work for another. However, the
following guidelines are a good place to start and can be used by
anyone who has issues with off-season nutrition:
Do-s and Don’t-s of Optimal Off-Season Nutrition*
Do… Focus on healthful eating and lifestyle habits.
Do… Use performance and energy level variables to monitor
Do… Decrease normal energy intake according to decreases in
Do… Substitute lower-fat foods for whole-fat foods.
Do… Reduce the intake of energy-dense snacks.
Do… Eat more whole grains, cereals, beans and legumes.
Do… Get at least 5 servings of fruits and 5 servings of
vegetables each day.
Do… Eat low-fat dairy products and lean cuts of meat, fish
and poultry often.
Do… Drink a variety of fluids to maintain hydration.
Do… Keep snacks on hand for times when hunger might set
Do… Find a place for “favorite foods” to fit in
Do… Continue to exercise, even if it’s not as much as
Don’t… Focus on the scale.
Don’t… Eat low-energy diets (i.e. less than REE).
Don’t… Reduce energy intake by more than TEE.
Don’t… Reduce fat intake to less than 15% of total
Don’t… Skimp on protein or calcium.
Don’t… Skip meals.
Don’t… Allow hunger to set in.
Don’t… Deprive yourself of favorite foods.
is an on-line tool that calculates a swimmer’s nutrient
needs, based on age, gender, current body weight and daily training
guidelines have been adapted from the American Dietetic
Association, Dietitians of Canada and American College of Sports
Medicine Position Paper on Nutrition and Athletic Performance and
Melinda Manore’s paper on Chronic Dieting in Active Women
(Women’s Health Issues 6:332-341, 1996).