The Specific Nature of Nutrition in Swimmers

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By Ashley Illenye, Swimming World College Intern.

College level student-athletes have the epitome of untimely eating schedules. There are 5:00 a.m. practices that you can’t eat breakfast before or you’ll get queasy. There’s the 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.class that runs right into any time the dining hall offers a reasonable dinner. Sometimes there are early afternoon practices, taking place 15 minutes after class, interrupting lunchtime routines. In a sport where nutrition plays such a vital role, it is important for student-athletes to clear out time for meaningful fueling—even when their schedule doesn’t allow for it.

Christine Turpin is part of the Sport’s Nutrition staff at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. She’s a licensed nutritionist and received two bachelor’s degree from Bloomsburg University in Kinesiology and from the University of Maryland in Dietetics. She also owns her own nutrition consulting company in the Annapolis-Baltimore region called Nourish 2 Preform. With all of her experience and experience with student-athletes, Turpin has a strong hold on how student-athletes can best implement a healthy dietary routine on such out-of-whack schedules.

Pre-Morning Practice Nutrition


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Turpin says that just because it’s 5 a.m. does not mean there is an excuse for harming your body through improper fueling; or a complete lack thereof. An hour-and-a-half practice is more exercise than many college students do in an entire day, so the saying “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” takes on an entirely new meaning.

According to Turpin, fueling in the morning before practice is very important.

“We’re coming off of a night’s fast. So you’ve been sleeping, not eating or drinking. You’re waking up in the morning and you’re dehydrated with no fuel source,” the Towson nutritionist said.

To Turpin, carbs are the key to fueling at those early morning workouts. “You want to focus on quick carbohydrates right before practice. Carbohydrates are those foods that break down quickly and provide the energy that you need,” she said.

The number one mistake that student-athletes make about their nutrition is when they’re not eating at all, according to Turpin.

Many swimmers complain about nausea when they’re attempting to eat before a 5 a.m. practice. In Turpin’s opinion, it’s a trial and error process of finding the right food for you. A list of foods that she gives that tend to be lighter but still give the fuel and energy you need are:

  •  A bowl of cereal with fruit
  • Granola
  •  Piece of toast with jam
  • Applesauce
  • Yogurt
  • Raisins

When Class/Practice Interrupts Nutrition


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Picture this: a student-athlete is running on deck just barely getting their cap on as they’re about to dive in for their second practice of the day. They haven’t eaten lunch because their last class just ended 15 minutes ago. These are the situations, Turpin says, that student-athletes should be trying to avoid.

Swimmers should be going into practice with the most amount of fuel possible, especially if it’s not their first practice of the day. There are many different ways to combat a busy schedule with your eating. Turpin gives similar advice as the pre-practice snack, as it pertains to the afternoon as well. “You want to make sure you’re eating before you go into practice. Maybe if you have a sensitive stomach and you can’t really digest a lot, you focus on those quick carbs.”

It’s not only before practice fueling that is important, however. After practice fueling is a necessity, even when you’re on the go.

“Thirty minutes after you get out of the pool you want to make sure you’re focusing on whole grains, lean protein and fruits and vegetables.”

The most important thing for an athlete to keep in mind is that they’re burning potentially thousands of calories a day. Consistent snacking if you don’t have time to sit down and eat a full meal some nights is the only way to get your body the fuel it needs to perform.

“If you’re going to the pool from class, you want to make sure that you have backpack snacks. Those that have issues with their schedule want to break it down and get substantial snacks,” Turpin repeats. “Focus on carbohydrates and a protein. Make sure you’re snacking constantly.”

Besides the basic assumption that nutrition is the fuel for your body, it goes just beyond what you produce in practice. On the topic, Turpin urges,

“If you’re not snacking consistently and eating food, it’s not going to supply you energy so it will not only not get you through practice it will not allow you to recover properly. Eating on a regular schedule will help prevent injury.”

A list of said “backpack snacks” may include:

  • Trail mix
  • Beef jerky
  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter packets
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Granola bars
  • Fruit
  • Sunflower/pumpkin bars
  • Fig Newton Bars
  • Dried Cereal

Special Cases in Nutrition


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There are many different cases within the student-athlete population to consider when discussing nutrition. Specific dietary needs vary from person to person. Some of the most prominent nutrition-related complications include allergies to nuts, gluten and lactose, vegetarianism, vitamin deficiencies and diabetes.

The ideal athlete’s plate, Turpin says, is a whole grain, lean protein, a fruit or a vegetable and a calcium source. To those who are lactose intolerant she recommends that “there are plant-based milks like soy milk, almond milk and there are plenty of foods that have calcium out there such as salmon.” Calcium not only strengthens bones but helps control blood pressure and protects your cardiac muscles.

For vegetarians, Turpin says that the most important thing to keep in mind in their diet is variety. “They’re already eliminating a food group. You have to make sure that you’re getting all the nutrients you need to be fueled.”

If a student-athlete is open to it, being pescatarian allows them to eat fish which is not only a great protein source but healthy fat and calcium sources. If not, beans and nuts are optimal in getting the protein that vegetarians need to get them through their practices.

Some male and female swimmers alike find that they want to gain muscle mass and bulk a little in the height of their season. Turpin recommends consulting a conditioning coach first. After that, she swears that bags of trail mix and drinking 16 ounces of juice are the best in weight gaining.

If Turpin had to give one piece of advice to swimmer’s as a take away is make sure that they’re fueling before practice. Combating their nausea that comes with eating so close to practice is a key factor in that.

“Your stomach is just like any other muscle. Train your stomach to digest food.”

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

All nutritional research was conducted by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.


  1. Lauralee Lowrey

    Rhyann Lowrey
    Do you know this nutritionist?