Eating for Competition

The food athletes eat ultimately provides the fuel for their training. Where food is concerned, the problem is usually one of insufficient quality rather than quantity. Junk foods, such as sweets, fried foods, and meets loaded with fat pose the greatest obstacle to maximum performance. The problem with these fatty foods is that they are slow to digest and even slower to be stored in muscles and the liver as glycogen, the major source of fuel for the body during training and competition.

Evening Meal Before A Meet

The evening before a meet is your last chance to "fuel up" for competition. This meal ideally includes protein, lots of complex carbohydrates, low fat, nothing fried, low sugar, no caffeine, and lots of water. Some suggestions to consider are spaghetti with meat sauce, noodles, potatoes, broiled or baked chicken or fish, fresh vegetables and fruits, breads, and fruit juices.

Eating During Competition

Goals for eating before, during, and after meets are to prevent hunger, maintain adequate carbohydrate levels in muscles and liver glycogen stores, and to have minimal amounts of food left in your gut, stomach, and intestines when you compete. Good sources to replenish these complex carbohydrates used up during races include fruits, breads, bagels, pretzels, non sugar coated cereals, rice cakes, 100s fruit juices, low-fat milk, and low-fat yogurt. Some of the commercially prepared sports drinks such as Nutriment, Ensure, and Exceed are favorites among swimmers. Most swimmers do best if they eat a small amount of these easy to digest foods in the morning before the meet and then eat or drink SMALL amounts of food between events. Keep in mind that it takes between 1-2 hours for small amounts of these high carbohydrate meals to clear your stomach.

Don’t Forget the WATER

The most important nutrition need for all swimmers during competition, however, is to prevent their bodies from losing too much water and becoming dehydrated. Low body water levels cause fatigue, muscle cramps, and decreased performance. Most of us wait for our sensation of thirst to tell us when to drink fluids. Unfortunately, thirst means dehydration has already occurred and that the effects of dehydration, primarily fatigue, have already set in. Following these guidelines for fluid replacement will keep you in peak performance.

1.     Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid the day before a meet.

2.     Drink 6-16 ounces of water one hour before you enter the pool.

3.     Too much fluid will cause you to feel bloated and sluggish, therefore fluids should be consumed in small amounts at regular intervals. Drink approximately 4 ounces of water every 30 minutes during the meet.

4.     Cool drinks are more readily absorbed than either warm or room temperature fluids.

5.     Water is the best fluid replacement. Avoid sugary beverages like sodas, Kool-aid, and fruit "drinks" as they delay absorption of the fluid and can actually lower your blood sugar level. Even fruit juice is not an acceptable fluid replacement when consumed within an hour before you swim. If you find yourself with more than an hour to spare before your next event, fruit juice can be consumed as a light snack.


  • T. Dildy, MS, RD
  • Human Nutrition - Jean Mayer
  • The Sports Medicine Book - Mirkin, Hoffman
  • Linda Houtkooper, PhD, RD
  • Dr. George Mitchell