SANTA CLARA, California October 30. “EXPECT problems and eat them for breakfast.”
-Alfred A. Montapert
“Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.”
Diet is a frequently neglected aspect of sports improvement in the swimming community. Due to the significant time in the pool, early mornings, and amount of caloric expenditure, many swimmers feel simply consuming foods in large volumes are beneficial for success. However, a proper diet is not only important for improving in-water strength and performance, it's vital for keeping swimmers healthy and looking ripped (let's be honest physique is important to many swimmers).
Everyone has heard breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but many swimmers throw this notion out when 5 a.m. practices become a regularity. However, providing your body with the fuel for a grueling day of training is necessary for ideal results. Swimming is a catabolic (breaks down muscle) exercise and without adequate nutrition and recovery, practice gains can be negated. Simply put, athletes need proper breakfast nutrition for peak performance.
It is well established America has an obesity epidemic, which is largely a result of poor nutrition. Let's take a quick glance at the typical American breakfast:
Average American breakfast:
First, wake up and scramble around the house, getting ready for work. Because they've either gotten up too late, have chosen to read the paper or watch the news instead, or insist that they don't feel hungry in the morning, they either skip breakfast or eat a small breakfast that's usually a bowl of cereal, half a cup of milk, coffee, orange juice or some yogurt, a bagel, or something sweet.
Then, they're off to run their day. After a few hours at the office, they have another coffee (or three) and are starting to get hungry. If there are cookies or donuts around, they might snack on one. If there are candies on a colleague's desk, they'll eat a few. If they don't find any snacks around, they simply fast until lunch, building up their appetite.
This unhealthy diet is likely feeding into our obesity problem. Now, you may think this is the average American, what does it have to do with swimmers as swimmers have to take care of their body better than these average Joes, but let's take a quick look:
Average swimmer breakfast:
Wake up, get dressed, and quickly eat a small bowl of cereal with banana and milk or two pieces of toast with peanut butter. Even worse, some skip breakfast completely! This inadequate meal occurs because the athlete isn't hungry and doesn't want to eat too much before his workout.
Both groups opt for not eating breakfast or scarfing down a quick, fast digesting breakfast that's low in calories, missing a significant protein portion, low in micronutrients and phytochemicals, low in good fats, and rich in processed, high glycemic index carbohydrates.
These two diets are more similar than different!
Here is the problem:
1. Breakfast is a critical daily meal. After a catabolic overnight fast, a balanced breakfast helps to regulate blood sugar, energy balance, and control late-day cravings that lead to overfeeding on processed, high fat, and high sugar foods. In both cases above, breakfast is either a very small feeding or is completely non-existent. This needs to change.
2. The bulk of total dietary energy is distributed later in the day in both cases above. What this means for our athlete is that hourly energy balance is hugely negative in the morning, and positive in the evening.
Studies at Georgia State University demonstrate that hourly energy balance is at least as important as total daily energy balance and should remain as close to neutral as possible throughout each of the 24 hours. This means a better distribution of calories throughout the entire day — not just loading up on a big dinner.
3. In the case of our athlete, by afternoon they expended nearly 1200-1800 calories from practice alone and would be lucky to have ingested 1000 calories and 50 grams of protein so far. One athlete I assessed had only eaten 200 calories by noon! As discussed above, energy intake needs to be better distributed through the day.
Luckily, improving breakfast is one adjustment to a healthy diet for swimming enhancement. Once again, tough swimming workouts require the proper nutrition for recovery and increasing strength.
How to improve your breakfast:
As mentioned above, breakfast is a critical meal, and if you're not eating it or if you're just eating some nutritionally empty meal that's missing a good amount of protein and micronutrients, you're nutritionally handicapping yourself early in the day.
An ideal breakfast includes real foods. For an ideal breakfast meal, be sure to include a serving or two of lean protein like an egg white omelet (throw in a yolk or two), some dairy like plain yogurt or cottage cheese, or even some lean turkey or chicken bacon or sausage.
Men should be shooting for 30-50 grams of protein and women should be shooting for 20-40 grams of protein in this meal. If you don't know how much protein your food contains, check out this resource: USDA Nutrition Database.
As you'll likely be training in the next hour or two and will be sipping your carbohydrate/protein drink, you can get away with a breakfast that's a little lower in starchy carbs. So focus your breakfast meal on high quality protein, lots of fruits and veggies (make a smoothie, juice some fruits and veggies, eat fruits and veggies raw, whatever), and good fats (more on how to do this below).
Now this is the ideal situation, but waking up at 4 a.m. for a workout is far from ideal and waking up 10 minutes early for cooking a full meal may not be feasible for even the most dedicated swimmers. For those quickly rushing out the door, it is essential to have a quick, healthy option.
For these swimmers without the time for a proper, whole food meal, I highly suggest a protein shake or smoothie. This can be made the night before (so your parents do not wake up) or in the morning. In this shake, be sure to include a protein powder (I suggest Whey, with the suggested protein listed above), a Greens Supplement for micronutrients (I suggest Athletic Greens). If you are unable to make a smoothie, try mixing these in water or milk (if no lactose sensitivity is present).
At this point, most athletes offer either the “I'm not hungry” or the “I don't want to throw up during training” objection. Here's how I address these:
“I'm not hungry.” — If you've not been eating breakfast for quite some time or you don't eat breakfast until after workout, your body adjusts to this and therefore you won't be hungry. Once you start eating breakfast regularly, you'll be hungry every morning before workout. For the first week or two you may feel uncomfortable but you'll adjust; don't forget the goal and benefits. Luckily, the drink provides a simple option for feeding even when you're not hungry.
“I don't want to throw up during training.” — If you wake up 30 minutes before training and try to have a large meal just before training, of course you'll feel uncomfortable!
Instead of waking up at the last minute, wake up two hours before training, have a great breakfast, and by the time you're ready to train, you should feel fine. I know you don't want to wake up earlier than you have to — especially if you're training early (5 a.m. or so), but create a morning ritual and things will be just fine. Once again, a shake should stay down easier than a large morning meal.
Make sure you eat breakfast every morning, especially before workout! This breakfast should include protein, veggies, and healthy fats. If a meal of whole foods is not feasible, try a simple, quick protein shake.
John Mullen is not a certified nutritionist, his views are based purely on his research and experience. Also, before using any supplements, ensure they are approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the HFL (independent source of regulation).
G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.