Swimming nutrition – your questions answered
From keeping cramps at bay to priming your body with key vitamins and minerals, elite sports nutritionist James Collins answers your commonly asked questions on swimming nutrition…
Can you eat anything in particular to help stop cramping?
There are many potential links to muscle cramping, but there is no single answer or cure. In many cases it appears that muscle fatigue (from increased training volume) plays a large part.
Sodium depletion and dehydration have previously been linked to cramping onset, so it is wise to keep on top of hydration practices. Magnesium is another mineral that may have a link to cramping and muscle function; so it is wise to ensure foods containing oats, rye and wheat, as well as mixed nuts and seeds, form part of the diet.
Are there any other nutrients that are important to the body during training?
Absolutely, there is more to consider than the main macronutrients:
Iron – plays an important role in transporting oxygen around the body (as haemoglobin). During high intensity training, levels can reduce (especially in females and vegetarians), leading to fatigue. Swimmers should aim to consume a minimum of two portions of red meat each week as it contains easily absorbed iron. Vegetarians should ensure plant sources of iron are eaten alongside vitamin C containing foods, to increase absorption from the intestines.
Calcium – is noted for its importance in bone function. Aiming for three servings each day can be easily meet when using dairy products to meet recovery needs.
Antioxidants – Heavy training increases the production of free radicals in the muscles, leading to muscle damage. Increasing the antioxidant content of the diet at this time helps to scavenge the free radicals, reducing damage and has been shown to subsequently reduce muscle soreness. Including a variety of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables is the first stage to increasing your intake.
How does the duration of my swim affect what and how much I should eat?
There are two main considerations here on the type of session; the duration and the intensity. Short, high intensity sessions can also quickly deplete carbohydrate (glycogen) stores.
At each meal try to divide the plate into thirds:
- 1/3 Carbohydrate
- 1/3 Protein
- 1/3 Vegetables
Carbohydrate intake should then increase on heavy training days (with the vegetable and protein portions slightly reducing).
When considering different hydration strategies when is the best time to take on fluids – before or after a swim?
The short answer is both. It is important to start the training session hydrated to buffer any effects of dehydration that may interfere with performance. Likewise, replacing any fluid loss as soon as possible afterwards will reduce these effects going into the rest of the day (e.g. reducing cognitive function at work).
Will I lose as much salt via sweat when swimming as I’m in the water?
Sweat rates are usually significantly less during swimming, mainly due to the pool water reducing the rise in body temperature. It is important to note that the body still sweats, even though it’s difficult to detect, but this is less than running and cycling – electrolytes (salt) will still be lost, but again in a smaller amount.
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As a sport and exercise nutritionist, James Collins regularly provides comment and consultation within the media and maintains a role of governance within health & nutrition in the UK, where he sits on The Royal Society of Medicine's (RSM) 'Food and Health' Council. He was heavily involved in advising Team GB in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic games, and now towards Rio 2016.