8 Nutritional Recommendations For Swimmers

Courtesy of Aaron Schwartz M.S., R.D., L.D.

Nutrition is the one part of most athletes’ training that gets neglected. I have studied nutrition for seven years and have plenty of experience working with people that struggle with nutrition. Why is that? For one, most athletes don’t consider nutrition as training. Like just about anything, nutrition requires consistency to see results. Sure, you can get by with your training without even thinking about nutrition; a proper diet isn’t necessary if you’re looking to just “get by”. Our bodies are pretty efficient and can turn whatever junk food we throw at it into a usable fuel. However, I would argue that in order to maximize your workouts, truly see your full potential, nutrition should be viewed not only as part of your training but the most important part. If you consistently invest in your health through nutrition, I guarantee that over time you will feel and perform better. It’s easy to get discouraged when the quick fixes and miracles diets that the world we live in promises fail to yield results. I encourage you to ignore what this world says and start investing in your health through a consistently healthful diet, simply by eating real food. Here are some tips to get the athlete started:

1. Make the majority of your carbohydrates complex outside of workouts.

Carbohydrates have taken a beating lately from the most recent fad diets to the popularity of both the Atkin’s and Paleo diet. No, carbohydrates are not inherently bad for you but I will agree the Western Diet consists of entirely too many carbohydrates. With that being said, carbohydrates are, or should be, an aerobic athlete’s best friend. The literature is riddled with study after study demonstrating the benefit and importance of a high carbohydrate diet for athletes, particularly aerobic athletes. Simply put, carbohydrates are the body’s fuel currency. No other nutrient burns as efficiently as the carbohydrate does. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American College of Sports Medicine and the Dietitians of Canada all agree that carbohydrates should make up the majority of calories in your diet. Want numbers? A range, albeit large, of 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight is recommended. Swimmers and other mostly aerobic athletes will need closer to 8-10 g/kg.1 For a 160 pound person, this turns into 580-720 grams of carbohydrates. Outside of the actual workout itself, the carbohydrates that you want to focus on are complex carbohydrates. Examples include: Legumes (lentils, beans and peas), Whole Grains (oats, brown rice, and whole grain breads), Fruits and Vegetables.

2. Simple carbs directly before, during and directly after workouts.

It may come as a surprise to you that simple carbohydrates (or simple sugars) are not always bad, especially for athletes. Simple sugars are digested very quickly (thus the name simple) and will result in a rapid rise in our body’s blood sugar. This is typically unwarranted because if that blood sugar is not utilized, say, through exercise for example, then it will be stored in a fat cell. However, the up-side to simple sugars is that it provides a quick, easy-to-burn fuel for our muscles. Sports drinks are an excellent example of this. The carbohydrates in sports drinks are simple sugar which makes it a great, ready-to-burn fuel source during a workout. Simple sugars are important directly after a workout due to the insulin response which will be discussed shortly. Other examples include pretzels, honey and fruits.

3. A little protein before a workout goes a long way.

Protein before a workout may sound counterintuitive. However, a small dose of protein can prime your muscles for recovery even before you start your workout. In fact, The ISSN recommends consuming 0.15-0.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight an hour or so before a workout (about 15 grams for a 160 lb. person).2 The reason? Protein before a workout helps establish a positive nitrogen balance thus improving the uptake of protein into the muscle, preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue and delays gastric (fancy word for stomach) emptying which in turn increases satiety and prevents hunger during training.

4. Strive for a 3-4:1 Carb-to-Protein ratio after a workout.

It’s no secret that protein is beneficial after your workout. In fact, protein is not only critical for muscle building but also for effective recovery. However, you may not know that consuming carbohydrates with that protein post workout is just as important. The carbs not only replenish glycogen stores but also stimulates a greater insulin response. Insulin drives sugar along with amino acids (the building blocks of protein) into cells, including muscle cells, for more efficient use of the protein we consume. The goal is to strive for a 3-4:1 ratio. That is, 3-4 grams of carbohydrates for every 1 gram of protein. Chocolate milk is a great example.

5. Protein: Quality over Quantity.

Try not to get too caught up with consuming loads of protein. A recent journal article that came from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed little difference in protein absorption and synthesis when comparing a 30 gram protein dose with a 90 gram protein dose.3 What happens to all of that extra protein that doesn’t get synthesized in our muscle? Most of it will be stored in fat cells. What’s more important is the quality of protein. The buzz word dietitian’s like to throw out is “high-biological value” (HBV) protein. That’s a fancy way of describing how usable the protein is. A HBV protein is one in which contains all of the essential amino acids that are required by humans and will thus vastly improve muscle repair after a workout. Whole eggs, milk, fish, beef and soy beans are among the proteins with the highest biological value. Vegetarian? That’s okay, be sure to mix and match your plant proteins to meet all of your essential amino acids.

6. Balance is key.

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing “strive for a well-balanced diet”. Well, I’m sorry to say but that statement still holds true. The main reason why a well-balanced diet is essential is to ensure that you meet your body’s necessary vitamin and mineral requirements. These micronutrients may be small but carry an important weight for performance and overall health. For example, phosphorous is an essential mineral and key component to our body’s unit of energy, ATP. Calcium is not only important for our bone health but also aids our muscles ability to contract. Vitamin B1, Thiamin, is essential for carbohydrate metabolism. Other vitamins and minerals are responsible for red blood cell synthesis, amino acid synthesis, energy production and anti-oxidant function, all of which serve critical roles in maximizing performance. A well-balanced diet should consist of complex carbohydrates, lean meats, dairy and plenty of fruits and vegetables. The more color, the better.

7. Vitamin D for building muscle?

Among those micronutrients, vitamin D is gaining popularity in the realm of sport performance. Along with its role in bone health, vitamin D is now being studied for its role in muscle health and strength as well. It turns out that vitamin D has an important role in muscle synthesis and muscle contraction. Additionally, muscle weakness is a noticeable feature of people who have a vitamin D deficiency.4 There are few food sources of vitamin D however fifteen solid minutes of sunlight exposure will provide you with your required daily dose. This can pose a problem during winter months and especially for swimmers who train strictly indoors. In fact, vitamin D deficiency seems to be common among swimmers.5,6 Food sources include fatty fish (tuna, salmon and mackerel), cheese, egg yolks and fortified milk. It’s important to note that one study showed that supplementing with 4000 IU (100 mg) of vitamin D in NCAA swimmers and divers was effective in maintaining vitamin D status.7 Speak with your physician first prior to supplementing.

8. Hydration

One of my favorite questions to ask athletes is, “what is the single most influential nutrient for sports performance?” Would you guess water? In fact it is and I would argue that it is also the most overlooked and taken-for-granted nutrient by athletes as well. Dehydration can reduce the body’s capacity to do work by about 30%. This effect is further exacerbated in aerobic athletes when as little as 2.5% body weight loss due to dehydration turns into a 45% decrease in exercise performance.8 Being adequately hydrated can easily be the difference between first and second place. The most accurate assessment for hydration status is the color of your urine. Weight change after a workout should be used to replenish what was lost. Strive for consistent pale yellow urine and replace each pound of weight loss after a workout with 16-24 ounces of fluid.


  1. Rodriquez, N. R., DiMarco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). Position of the American dietetic association, dietitians of Canada & the American college of sports medicine. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(3), 509-527.
  2. Kerksick C., et al. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5:17-29.
  3. Symons T., et al. (2009). A moderate serving of high-quality protein maximally stimulates skeletal muscle protein synthesis in young and elderly subjects. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109:1582-1586.
  4. Moran D., McClung J., Kohen T. & Lieberman H. (2013). Vitamin D and physical performance. Sports Medicine, 43:601-611.
  5. Constantini, N.W., Arieli, R., Chodick, G., & Dubnov-Raz, G. (2010). High prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in athletes and dancers. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 20, 368–371.
  6. Halliday, T.M., Peterson, N.J., Thomas, J.J., Kleppinger, K., Hollis, B.W., & Larson-Meyer, D.E. (2011). Vitamin D status relative to diet, lifestyle, injury, and illness in college athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43, 335–343.
  7. Lewis, R.M., Redzic, M., & Thomas, D.T. (2013). The effects of season-long vitamin D supplementation on collegiate swimmers and divers. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 23, 431–440.
  8. Jeukendrup, A., & Gleeson, M. (2010). Sport nutrition: An introduction to energy production and performance (2nd Ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Me, hikingAaron Schwartz is a Lecturer and Dietetic Internship Director at the University of Kentucky.  Aaron obtained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Dietetics at the University of Kentucky.  Aaron has been a Registered and Licensed Dietitian since 2010.  He also serves on the board of the Bluegrass District Dietetic Association as the President-Elect.  Aaron enjoys working with athletes and developed and implemented a sports nutrition education program for high school football athletes.  Aaron enjoys running, cycling and swimming and has completed two half-ironman’s, most recently in July, 2014 in Muncie, IN.

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6 years ago

What would you recommend for a pre-workout protein snack?

Reply to  Grogro
6 years ago

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich 30 minutes to an hour before would be a good example of a pre-workout protein. The farther out your snack/meal, the more protein you can handle. Every body handles food very differently so be sure to play with different foods and different times to see what works best for you!

wave rider
Reply to  Aaron
6 years ago

Most peanut butters have hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in them.

Reply to  wave rider
6 years ago

“Most peanut butters” do have hydrogenated oils. Look for all natural peanut butter, contains peanuts and salt, nothing else. You need to mix it before you eat it because the natural oil separates but it’s delicious and so good for you.

Reply to  Carlos
5 years ago

And expensive

6 years ago

Turkey and chicken were not listed as hvp, is that correct?

Reply to  JTC
6 years ago

Though I didn’t mention them, turkey and chicken are both great sources of HBV protein as most all animal proteins are HBV.

Mikey Mike
6 years ago

Fantastic article. Nutrition is definitely important, but increasing your muscle mass and endurance is also of great importance.

Been using this with a good nutrition plan and I’ve gotten some great results and decreased my time in the butterfly


Reply to  Mikey Mike
6 years ago

Thanks for the comments and thanks for sharing the link!

6 years ago

From: Wikipedia
An essential nutrient is a nutrient required for normal human body function that either cannot be synthesized by the body at all, or cannot be synthesized in amounts adequate for good health, and thus must be obtained from a dietary source.

No carbohydrate is an essential nutrient in humans.
From: Ketogenic Diet Seminar
Brief relevant video:
You’ll be reassured to know that you don’t have to eat carbohydrates to live. It’s not an essential nutrient.
It’s one of the first things we learn in nutrition is what does the body… Read more »

Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
6 years ago

@ The Screaming Viking- as athletes it seems imperative to provide your bodies with the best quality fuel sources, hydration, as well as recovery food sources. The medical and nutritional sciences have established a real need for carbohydrates (CHO) -the high quality kind. The need can be taken out of context if carbohydrates are confused with sugars, sweets, and low nutrient density CHO’s. The mere fact that the brain requires CHO’s to function is proof enough. Sure you can eat other foods to force your body to utilize these foods in exchange. However, as elite athletes, swimmers who want peak performance will wisely use high quality carbohydrates, proteins and fats to maximize their overall health and performance. The demand on… Read more »

Reply to  ARC
6 years ago

Sorry but 720 grams of carbohydrate is insanely high considering we can do without them. Also, the difference between a whole grain bagel + orange juice breakfast versus a bag of m&m’s and a coke is minimal. It all becomes glucose down the road. I am not trying to be a jerk but I am exhausted with swim sites always regurgitating the status quo, opposing the idea that there might be a better way and warning people against the idea that we can safely and even more efficiently burn fat for fuel. There are a lot of endurance athletes out there having world-class success with a low-carb high-fat diet, but for some reason swimming is behind the times.
The… Read more »

Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
6 years ago

@Viking. I appreciate your comments and it is apparent that you have spent a considerable amount of time and effort into nutrition of which I applaud you for! Though I am happy that a high-fat/low-carb diet has worked for you, I respectfully disagree with your argument. I do believe that a consistently high-fat diet is feasible and that your body will make necessary adjustments to get by, I don’t believe it is the best option for maximizing performance. Additionally, health risks from a high-fat/low-carb diet are still relatively unknown. Eating a diet consistently high in fat (with variables, such as carbohydrate intake taken into consideration) has been associated with insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and obesity. There are thousands of articles… Read more »

Reply to  Aaron
6 years ago


Thanks for the reply. First, any study that ties fat intake to obesity or insulin resistance is not a low carb study. I guarantee it. Often there are studies that claim to be low carb but actually increase fat intake while maintaining a 30-60% carbs as well. This is a cocktail for disaster as carbohydrate changes the way we metabolize fats. Very few studies have been done with appropriate carb restriction to truly be called low carb but the ones that have been done show it is superior in regard to all indicators of heart disease with the exception of an occasional often temporary increase in ldl cholesterol, which isn’t really a cardiovascular risk in the absence of other… Read more »

Forever Learning
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
6 years ago

It is a bit disconcerting that your post begins with a Wikipedia reference. While you have clearly put a lot of time into trying to educate yourself on the topic of nutrition specific to athletes, I will be sticking to the certified professionals findings and recommendations. While I am not aware of your educational background, the way that you interpret the findings in a study is most likely different than what a registered and licensed professional will gather from the results.

I applaud you for trying new ways to optimize your body’s performance through your diet, but a 40 year old athlete may have different needs than a 16-24 year old elite athlete. Also, I am a firm believer… Read more »

6 years ago

So what exactly are you trying to say, Viking?

Reply to  coacherik
6 years ago


Swing Away, Viking...
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
6 years ago

Paleo/Keto is GREAT if you are someone who works out and wants to look and feel better but TERRIBLE for most college kids and younger swimmers BECAUSE It just isn’t feasible to eat 4000+ calories per day without carbohydrates and they will never recover properly. Won’t. Will. Not. Most people cannot stick with it due to convenience, cost, will power.

Cut the simple carbs(except before during and after workouts), up the healthy fats and proteins and vegetables and you’re golden. I loved being on my keto-style diet this year and need to get back on it, but 90% of people should just eat “better”.

Also,(in an evolutionary sense) ethanol is probably processed so quickly because it is incredibly… Read more »

Carter Brzezinski
6 years ago

Dear Aaron,
My name is Carter Brzezinski and I am a high school junior from SC and will be completing research on nutrition / diet for endurance athletes for my senior thesis research project. I have a couple in-depth questions for you that would really help me out with my research, what is the best way I could get in touch with you regarding this? Thank you so much!

Reply to  Carter Brzezinski
6 years ago

I would be happy to help!

6 years ago

Super article. Simple and easy to follow for the average swimmer. I like that you mentioned vitamin D. A lot of good research coming through in that area. It is also excellent at boosting/strengthing one’s immune system. One area worth discussing for the next article… Iron. Many swimmers, male and female are deficient. This can really hamper performance. Again, really super article. Loved it!

Reply to  Andrea
6 years ago

This. I was genuinely surprised that iron wasn’t on this list. Carbs can be argued, but I don’t think there’s a viking alive who would say growing athletes shouldn’t have iron.

Gina Rhinestone
Reply to  Sven
6 years ago

Touché. For the vitamin D ( & A) give them your recipe for norse fermented cod livers . Anglo Saxon descendants learnt from your friendly visitations & routinely lined up for fathers to sternly dish out their spoonful of cod liver oil. No gagging or wretching allowed . It was understood ‘it is good for you!’ Now of course all that , including stern fathers are child cruelty .

Andrea is right on the rethinking of vitamin D levels . (One of the Nordic nations launched a review in 2012 ) . In human history just when did people have only 15 minutes of exposure ? If prisoners in solitary confinement are mandated 1 hour daily then why not… Read more »

Reply to  Sven
6 years ago

I completely agree, iron is incredibly important and relevent today, especially among female athletes. There may be more info to come!

Indie coach
6 years ago

Viking , I knew you were smart but had no idea how smart . Great job laying it all out .
Dr Tim Noaks who has been an advocate for carb consumption for like thirty years is taking heat for having an about face and now teaching that it’s a high fat diet that the body needs.
Great Job.

Reply to  Indie coach
6 years ago

Thanks. I am very familiar with Dr Noakes work. Some of the things I hope to write about soon ties some of this stuff to Dr Rushall’s work as well. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it.

wave rider
Reply to  The Screaming Viking!
6 years ago

I’m very interested in what you have to write if it ties in to Rushalls work. I’m a masters swimmer and have been using USRPT for about four months. I hadn’t been in the pool 2 years prior to starting USRPT. I have also been focusing and trying to learn about nutrition. I have been improving steadily over the past four months but I have noticed if I don’t eat healthy, it has a huge impact on my progress. Over Thanksgiving and Christmas I ate whatever, christmas cookies, pie, candy, and all of that good stuff. It took me a week to recover after thanksgiving. Looking back at my training log, the 2 days before Thanksgiving my fails for 100… Read more »

Reply to  wave rider
6 years ago

Haven’t seen Joel Wallach but I will be sure to look it up. I wrote this one last year not too long after I changed my diet: http://www.swimbrief.net/2014/02/training-is-for-kids-or-how-viking.html?m=1
I planned to post more at the brief (although my work schedule makes it tough). I will chat with Braden to see if he thinks enough people would be interested in my posting a journal or something here.

About Aaron Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz

Aaron Schwartz Aaron Schwartz has been swimming since age 10 at CCAT Club Team. Although he's dabbled with many events, he prides himself as being a sprint breastroker and freestyler. He has always been interested in technology, and wants to attend the Goizueta Business School At Emory University. At Emory, Aaron …

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