Fueling for Success: What and When to Eat For Optimal Performance


Fueling for Success: What and When to Eat For Optimal Performance

As swimmers, we require a significant amount of calories to fuel ourselves properly for many hours of training. It’s easy to come home from practice and scarf down the entire kitchen’s junk-food supply. But, in reality, these foods simply do not provide us with the energy we need to perform at our best. I once heard the analogy: “Your body is like an expensive sports car. You wouldn’t want to put bad fuel in a high-performance car. Instead, high-quality, nutritious foods are the best fuel possible.”

The world of sports nutrition can be overwhelming at first. However, when you break it down, it is actually a science. Our bodies require different nutrients at different times of the day depending on when our training sessions are. Let’s take a look at the timing of what to eat, and when to eat it.


Eating before practice is extremely important. Being properly fueled allows us to swim fast and avoid injuries. It also leads to faster recovery after workouts.

During exercise, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Therefore, it is important to eat a significant amount of carbs before your training session. Starchy foods such as rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, and cereals are great sources of this critical nutrient.

The pre-practice meal is different depending on when you are consuming it. If you have 2+ hours before your training session, then it is okay to eat a somewhat larger meal. Consuming a hefty amount of food within the two hour window, however, could lead to an upset stomach while you’re swimming. There are many examples of pre-practice meals that can be consumed at different times before your training session.

If you have 2+ hours before you jump into the pool, it is recommended to eat a larger meal. This meal should consist of mostly carbs, but also a portion of protein to keep you full throughout your practice. A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, pasta with meatballs (aim for lean meat such as venison or pork, as fattier meats will take longer to digest), grilled chicken and rice, or pancakes with natural maple syrup are all great options. These meals will give you the energy you need to perform your best, while also keeping you full for a significant amount of time.

If you have between 1-2 hours before your practice, a smaller meal will do for proper fueling. Some options include: a fruit smoothie, pretzels with hummus, and toast or a bagel with peanut butter. These items are lighter on the stomach than the previous meals mentioned, but will provide the body with the necessary nutrients for success in the pool.

If you only have less than an hour before your training session, have no fear! There are many options to choose from that can provide the body with quick carbohydrates. Granola bars (avoid ones that have a notable amount of nuts, as these take very long to digest and can lead to stomach discomfort while training), graham crackers, dry cereals, and rice cakes are all fantastic choices. These foods are nearly all carbohydrates with a very minimal amount of protein and fat. They will digest quickly, so the muscles will be able to access them quicker and use them for energy.


It is also critical to fuel during practices, including staying hydrated. We rarely feel ourselves sweat during practice because we are in the water. However, as we expend ourselves in order to swim, we are losing water. It is especially important to stay hydrated, making sports drinks a great option for in-practice fuel. These drinks contain water and electrolytes to maintain proper hydration levels. Additionally, they contain carbohydrates to replenish those being burned off. Due to their high amounts of added sugars, sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade should not be consumed outside of workouts. 


The post-practice meal is extremely important. You must replenish the calories lost during exercise to avoid unwanted weight loss and muscle deterioration. Post-practice nutrition begins immediately after the conclusion of the workout. It is important to have a snack while on the way home from the pool. Protein shakes and bars, bananas, or Greek yogurt (with minimal added sugars) are a great choice. These foods will provide your body with the nutrients to recover while you wait for a more fulfilling meal.

Post-practice meals should be hefty and contain a large amount of protein and carbohydrates. The protein will help rebuild muscles that were worn down during the workout, and the carbohydrates will replenish those that were lost. Examples of these post-practice meals include: a chicken burrito stuffed with vegetables, an egg omelet with toast, oatmeal with fruit and nut butter, grilled fish (salmon is a great choice) with roasted potatoes, or a meal replacement shake made with bananas and nut butter. 

It is also important to rehydrate yourself after your workout. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, to restore hydration levels.


It is key to recognize that all foods can be incorporated into a swimmer’s diet, as long as they are consumed in moderation. Diets and nutrition plans differ from athlete to athlete, and it is important to find a strategy that works for you.

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