By Tasija Karosas, Swimming World College Intern
There are many conflicting views about protein needs for athletes. Bodybuilders believe they should be eating only protein for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Endurance athletes think they have a very small protein requirement because they are not trying to build muscle. The truth is, neither one is correct. Protein is crucial for our body to survive, but there is a limit on how much protein you should consume. That goes for everyone – even if you are trying to build muscle.
Swimmers (more commonly, male swimmers) believe they should stock up on protein in order to put on muscle, or in other words, they want to “get jacked.” In reality, excess protein is not the key to building muscle, and excess protein can even be damaging to a swimmer’s performance. Whether you are a sprinter or a distance swimmer, carbohydrates will always be your main source of fuel. That being said, too much protein can prevent carbohydrate fueling, which could be very damaging to your training and racing. Your body will only utilize 20 to 25 grams of protein at one time. If you have an increased intake of protein, you will either store it as fat and use it later for energy, or it will be discarded as waste.
How do you know how much protein to eat?
When determining this number, it is important to be aware of your training in the water and in the weight room. A sprinter, who is spending more time in the weight room, should be eating 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. A swimmer who swims the mile and does more circuit training in the weight room should be eating 0.6 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. The lower end is for females, the higher end is for males. For example: if you are a 150-pound female and your best event is the 200 freestyle, and you do moderate work in the weight room, calculate 0.7 grams of protein per pound to find your magic protein number (150 x 0.7 = 105). You should try to eat 105 grams of protein a day.
There is a whole list of different types of protein sources. It is important to try to incorporate many different sources into your diet in order to meet your nutrient needs.
1. White Meat
Take advantage of white meat sources. White meat is reasonably priced and is rich in zinc. Zinc promotes healing which results in muscle repair. White meat is also low in fat and extremely satisfying to your stomach.
Here are some great examples of white meat sources:
2. Red Meat
Red meat is concentrated with iron, which is absorbed in higher amounts than plant-based iron. For this reason, adding red meat to your diet one to two times a week can be extremely beneficial for swimmers. Red meat can be high in saturated fat, so when choosing red meat, choose lean cut meats:
Dairy is another great source of protein. For people who prefer to eat less meat, dairy can be a great alternative. Dairy is also your main source of calcium, which is optimal for bone strength. Dairy can be controversial because it can be high in fat, so choosing low fat or zero percent dairy products can prevent this excess fat intake.
Here are options for high protein and low-fat dairy products:
- Greek yogurt
- Low-fat milk
- Cottage cheese
- Cheddar cheese
4. Plant Sources
Plants are a huge source of protein, especially for vegans. A common myth is that swimmers cannot perform at their best while also being vegan. Yes, it more difficult to meet protein needs if you are vegan, but it is definitely possible! A diet high in nuts and beans can help an athlete who wants to decrease their meat consumption and still meet their required protein needs.
Some great examples of plant-based proteins:
For swimmers, the main use of protein is to repair and build muscle. No matter what type of swimmer you are (sprinter or distance), it is crucial you meet your protein requirements. Failing to do so or even exceeding these requirements can result in hindered training and performance. Remember to spread out your protein consumption throughout the day and do not overload! A balanced diet is key, and can make a dramatic and positive change to your swimming!