Endurance Swim Nutrition

Endurance swimming is a unique sport, particularly when it comes to nutrition and body composition requirements to perform at your best.  We had an insightful chat with David Bryant, one of Australia’s leading Sports Dietitians about reaching your swimming performance goals through targeted nutrition.  

David, what are the main goals for a distance swimmer when you prepare their day to day nutrition requirements?

The first goal is always to ensure that come race day, the athlete is in peak condition through being provided with a nutrition plan that has supported their performance and recovery goals.

Secondly, come race day, the athlete is confident in implementing their race nutrition plan as they have trialed and trained their gut to tolerate the fuel required to swim without stomach upset or an inadequate amount (too much or little) of fuel.

What are the differences for a nutrition plan for a long course swimmer compared to a triathlete for example? 

The difference really depends on the athlete’s training load, swimming history and conditioning and their body composition to name a few!

The biggest challenge for leaner athletes is keeping warm.  Particularly first time solo swimmers who are lean have a tendency to get cold after long durations in the water, and they should pay particular attention to increasing their energy reserves – basically a slight increase in body fat can protect them against the cold. A Sports Dietitian can tailor a nutrition plan that supports training and body composition goals (instead of a DIY job of just eating ice cream and beer each day!). This can include eating healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados and nuts and seeds.

What are specific recommendations for race day nutrition for an endurance swim? 

First and foremost, PRACTICE your race nutrition many times in the lead up to race day. Use your key races and long swims as an opportunity to trial this nutrition.

As a very rough guideline, 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour is a good target to aim for whether that be from a sports drink such as Bindi, and/or sports gels.

As they are a liquid composition, they are much easier to digest and chew than solids, particularly whilst swimming, but solids can be achieved with prior careful planning.

“Hot tea with honey (I’d go 25-30g of honey per 500ml of tea) will not only top up energy stores, but it’ll also warm your core body temperature should a swimmer start to get cold” 

How do you work out how much salt a swimmer would need on race day? 

Although the volume and sweat loss of an athlete during a training session can be easily estimated with a pre-and post-weigh in, electrolyte loss is more difficult to quantify. Furthermore, the concentration of an athlete’s sweat is highly variable and dependent on others factors such as temperature, environment, conditioning, acclimatisation and nutrition intake pre, during and post an event to name a few.

Just like an athlete’s total energy requirements being increased during heavy training periods, so too is an athlete’s sodium requirement. Sipping an electrolyte drink pre, during and post training will stimulate water and sugar uptake in the small intestine (which improves absorption) and will help to maintain extracellular fluid volume.

When swim training, it is quite easy to not place much of a priority on hydration as you’re literally swimming in water and don’t give it a thought. Yet it is important to remember that you are basically training in an 100% humidity environment, so whilst you might not realise it, you are actually sweating across your swim training.

So next time you do go to your swim training session, practice sipping fluid across the swim and for the longer and higher intensity sessions, sip an electrolyte and carbohydrate based sports drink such as Bindi to improve hydration status and maximise performance.

Many swimmers suffer from cramping – is this linked to nutrition and what are your thoughts on managing this? 

Most recent evidence suggests that the two biggest factors in Exercise Associated Muscle Cramping (EAMC) is altered neuromuscular function (i.e. a physiological process involving both the nerves and muscle) secondary to extreme fatigue in the exercised muscle. Basically, you must be physically ready and conditioned to handle the challenges of the swim on race day!

Secondly ensure an adequate intake of carbohydrate before and during exercise, which may help prevent premature muscle fatigue. Therefore, it makes sense that our muscles start to fatigue once we’ve depleted our muscle reserves, so ensure they are adequate.

Consuming an adequate amount of fluid with electrolytes and carbohydrates across the swim will reduce the risk of cramping and also dehydration, further affecting overall performance (and enjoyment!).

Do you have any tips to help with sea sickness whilst swimming?

In terms of nutrition, the best tip is to trial all your nutrition in the lead up to race day.  This will ensure that your gut is well trained to digest food whilst swimming. Furthermore, when carbohydrate loading in the lead up to the event, reduce your fibre intake to reduce the residual load in your gut so that come race day your gut is clear of residual load and digests fuel efficiently.

When should a swimmer start planning their nutrition plan prior to a race?

Start as soon as possible!  Particularly before and during key swim sessions and lead up races. You also want to be well fueled during your training sessions to increase performance and thus overall fitness come race day.

“It’s not about who can do the most amount of training, on the least amount of fuel. Practice your race nutrition in training, as your performance will improve in the KEY sessions, as will your guts’ ability to tolerate and digest fuel come race day. Did I mention you’ll also boost your confidence and ability to backup sessions as well?” 

David Bryant Catalyst Dietitian



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