Performance Boosters for Swimmers

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By Allie Clark and Wilson Josephson, Swimming World College Interns

Conference championships are almost upon us! As they draw closer, we’ve taken a look at some interesting foods athletes have adopted as ways of getting the most out of their bodies. These super foods for swimmers may surprise you.


BEETS

The nitrates in beets change our bodies in two important ways. First, they can cause blood vessels to dilate, increasing the flow of oxygen to an athlete’s muscles. Second, they improve the efficiency of the mitochondria in our cells, meaning our muscles need less oxygen to function.

In this way, nitrates have a profound influence on endurance. Athletes who need less oxygen and can make more available to their muscles are going to be able to function at maximum capacity far longer than their competitors before going into “oxygen debt.”

The greatest difficulty with using beets to improve your performance is that they’re beets. They honestly taste like sweet dirt, and it can be hard to find a recipe that properly masks their powerful flavor. If you can adjust to the taste, or even convince yourself you like it, beets could be the edge you need at championships this year.

CAFFEINE WITH LIMITS

hot coffee
Note: The editors of Swimming World modified this original post. Excessive caffeine consumption can be harmful to the body and illegal at certain levels. Some LSCs in the United States have banned certain caffeinated products during competition.

Many athletes depend on a daily dose of caffeine just to get themselves out of bed in the morning. The American College of Sports Medicine has found that caffeine can improve athletic performance. This is especially true for bursts of a few minutes that demand 90 to 100 percent of an athlete’s maximum effort – just about the perfect window of time for most races.

They say the jury’s still out on caffeine’s effect on sprints, which they define as largely anaerobic efforts that last from five to ninety seconds. Perhaps this is one for the mid-distance swimmers among us.

The ACSM hasn’t yet pinpointed just what it is about caffeine that makes it beneficial for athletes, though the current theory is that caffeine affects the way the nervous system perceives effort, rather than affecting muscular function.

The NCAA has a substance ban on caffeine if it’s taken in abnormal levels, so be careful when measuring out your dose. That said, the current ACSM recommendation is three milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (that’s just less than two cups of coffee for an athlete who weighs 160 pounds), which is less than half of the NCAA’s limit.

Some athletes refuse to take caffeine near competition based on caffeine’s diuretic effects. We all know dehydration can limit your performance potential, and staying hydrated can be tough enough at a long and busy swim meet. But have no fear – the ACSM has declared that caffeine’s dehydrative effect is negligible. So drink up, coffee fans!

BAKING SODA

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Photo Courtesy: healthfoods.com

 

Baking soda or, as the scientifically-inclined may insist on calling it, sodium bicarbonate may not just be an innocuous baking ingredient. Recent studies have suggested that sodium bicarbonate may improve athletic performance. It does this by negating the effects of lactic acid in our blood.

There’s a lot of pretty cool chemistry that contributes to baking soda’s effects, but we’ll spare you for now (in case you aren’t huge nerds like us). Basically, sodium bicarbonate is basic, and lactic acid is, well, acidic.

By ingesting sodium bicarbonate, an athlete can raise the pH of their blood, so that lactic acid is neutralized as soon as it is released by their muscles, reducing feelings of fatigue and allowing them to work harder for longer.

The greatest hurdle for athletes who want to use baking soda to improve their performance is pretty much exactly what you’d think it is. You’re eating baking soda, and you’re eating a lot of it.

The common recommendation is that an athlete will get the greatest results from consuming 0.3 grams per kilogram of body weight. This means our 160-pound athlete must find a way to ingest 22 grams of baking soda – almost a quarter of a cup!

We used ourselves as lab rats, and can unhappily attest to the fact that a quarter cup of baking soda can cause some serious gastric distress. Evidently eating a heavy dose of carbs before downing your baking soda can help alleviate your stomach’s suffering, but even so, it may be best to begin experimenting with small doses of sodium bicarbonate.

CARBO-LOADING

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Photo Courtesy: JeffreyW via Flickr

 

This is perhaps the most hallowed of all of swimming’s traditions. Not sunburns on training trip, not morning practices, not even shaving before championships – the giant trough of carbohydrates consumed by almost every swimmer before their big meet is a bond deeper than any of these. But is it actually a good choice?

According to the Australian Institute of Sport, loading up on carbs for three or four days prior to competition improves athletic performance by around three percent. That figure is huge! For a swimmer specializing in a 100-yard race, a properly managed loading phase could improve their time by a full second.

Unfortunately, sprinters aren’t likely to experience such a drop. The AIS suggests that carbo-loading is actually most effective for athletes who are competing for 90 minutes or more.

This is because a loading phase is meant to increase our body’s glycogen stores, and the body’s usual glycogen stores are sufficient for the kind of short races that make up a swim meet.

If you want to use carbo-loading to prepare for your next off-season triathlon or open-water swim, though, here’s something to keep in mind: the density of the food you eat is critical to a successful loading phase.

The AIS recommends that athletes stick to foods with a higher content of natural sugars, since athletes will need to eat less in order to get the same carbohydrate benefits. In order to avoid feeling heavy or bloated on race day, try to emphasize foods like honey and fruit over pasta and pancakes.

Finally, and most importantly…

YOU DO YOU

Like so many other aspects of your championship meet – your warm up, your pump-up music, your tech suit – your competition diet needs to be something you choose for yourself.

Some folks give up sweets for months in advance of their championships, while others can be found pounding chocolate behind the blocks for a last-minute glycogen boost. Neither athlete is wrong. Each one of us is unique, and each one of us is going to need to eat differently to perform at our peaks.

Perhaps the most important key to having a successful championship meet is remaining comfortable and confident. This can be tough to do, given the high-pressure atmosphere. Any ritual you can engage in to help fight off stress will likely improve your racing.

It may be best to stick with your giant pasta dinner the night before championships if that’s what helps to get you in the zone. Or if pasta doesn’t do it for you, try to find something else. For me, it’s Raisinets – almost certainly not a good choice for my body, but a great choice for my mind.

Try some of these nutritional tricks in training before you try them in competition. It’s possible that tweaking the status quo won’t help you. But if you feel like they work for you, congratulations – you’ve just found a way to bring your racing to the next level!

27 comments

  1. Catherine Barry

    Still trying to figure out how you eat baking soda

    • avatar
      Wilson Josephson

      I’ve seen it done three ways: by mixing it with water; by using gelatin capsules; and just…with a spoon. Of these I think the gelatin capsules are probably the most pleasant, as you can skip your tastebuds, though they’re probably also the least convenient and most expensive method.

  2. Asa Mansannant

    Marie le number 1, again ! 😉

  3. Brenda Reyes

    I love beets I used to eat them like candy after morning practices 🙂

  4. Helen Hynd

    Ollie Hynd

  5. James Scully

    Ellen Amy Keane you have your silly purple things, I have my CARBS (

  6. avatar
    Tyler

    Please, for the love of God, do NOT tell people to eat baking soda

  7. Bruce Bearden

    Brianna Bearden I can bring the beets and baking soda.

  8. Sandra Shaw

    and if you think I am going to get a 15 year old to slurp a beet smoothie…..nope nope nope……

  9. Sandra Shaw

    luckily she cleans her teeth with baking soda!

  10. Ellen Amy Keane

    Beetroot ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  11. Jose Neumann

    Christian Mayer mira la parte de la cafeina

  12. Gabriel Danese

    Sebastian Monterrubio Léon de Perrot-Kopilas

  13. Aya Sarhan

    Ahmed Moubarak Balata