Off the water: Nutrition Etc for Swimmers and Rowers

Background

I am a competitive swimmer with the Cambridge University Team and rower with Hughes Hall College.  In high school, I was quite serious in swimming, with my top finish 7th in Canadian Nationals for 17&18 year olds.  I retired from the sport for seven years before coming back when I came to Cambridge.  Part of this process was losing 35lbs (16kg), partly from training but a lot from nutrition.

A lot of sports performance is individual – people respond differently to different techniques.  It is important to experiment, collect data, and think critically to find what works for you.  Most of the suggestions are anecdotal – your mileage may very.  This goes for in training as well – the best athletes try to make every single stroke perfect, and are self-aware and proactive on their technique, fitness, and weaknesses. This article is focused at regional to national level student athletes, but others may find it useful.

Things that happen outside the water/gym are very important to final performance.  I would say success is 40% training, 40% looking after yourself, and 20% mental.

Measuring

Buy a digital scale and weigh yourself everyday at a comparable state.  Your weight can fluctuate several kg throughout the day, so aim to measure repeatably.  I usually measure just before breakfast.  Think critically about the result – particularly if you’ve changed something.  It can serve as a good early warning that you are training/eating too little/much or getting ill.  Try to anecdotally see if weight correlates to training times and energy levels. Your average weight shouldn’t change by more than about 1kg/wk.  But don’t be too hung up on weight – short term changes can mean a lot of things and weight itself is a poor analog for fitness.

Supplements

I take 3-5 supplements a day including a multi-vitamin, Vitamin C, fish oil, and often a protein shake or bar.  I think daily multi-V’s are a good idea for everyone – other choices should be tailored to what you think you need.  Example: I have asthma, and don’t eat fish, so fish oil is good for Omega 3’s.

Water/ Drinks

You probably aren’t drinking enough water.  Aim for 2L/day when resting, PLUS whatever you lose from training (probably 0.5-1L/hr).  Limit pop and fruit juices.  Don’t drink diet soda!

Chocolate milk is becoming popular as a post-training recovery – it has a good blend of protein and carbs.  Sports drinks can be useful in long sessions to keep energy up without becoming bloated.

I find often when I think I’m hungry, I’m actually thirsty.  If you’re looking to lose body fat, drinking more water is one of the first things to do. Weight loss is difficult when training – eating too little impacts performance. If you’re looking to lose weight, do it slowly and make sure you eat before training to keep fueled.

Meal Timings

I try to eat 5-6 smaller meals a day.  Try to eat a small meal ~2 hours before training and within an hour of finishing.  The pre-workout meal should be light on the stomach, and more focused on carbohydrates.  Experiment on timing – the balance is between feeling bloated in a session and running out of energy.  This can be hard in morning sessions – consider bringing a sports drink instead of water if you can’t eat before.  On race days, I often have a large dinner, very small breakfast, and fuel morning races on sports drinks.

The post-workout meal should have protein and carbohydrate.  Chocolate milk and protein/ recovery bars are good choices.

Try to cut down on snacking between meals – being hungry sometimes is ok (but not during a training session).

What Should I be Eating?

I would say most amateur athletes eat too many carbohydrates and not enough protein.  Probably 3-4 of my meals have a considerable amount of protein in them.  Protein shakes can be an easy and economical way to get more protein.  There seems to be evidence that the body absorbs protein better in smaller doses through the day than one big meal.  Lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish, eggs) are better choices.  Protein will leave you more full and help muscle recovery.

Carbohydrates you do eat should be denser and complex.  Simple carbohydrates are basically sugars – sweets, cakes, white bread.  They don’t give a lot of long-term fuel.  Aim for whole grain pasta, brown rice, cous cous, and beans.  I don’t eat very much bread, and when I do its usually with protein (eggs on toast, ham baguette).

Fruit and veg is good for the vitamins and anti-oxidants and to fill you if you’re hungry, but they don’t really fuel performance or recovery.  The exception would be beans which have a fair bit of protein.  I eat a bean salad or baked beans almost every day.  One of my favorite snacks is a tin of chickpeas or bean salad with a bit of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and thyme and dill on top.  Super easy and quick, lots of complex carbs, protein, and fibre.  And about the right size for a pre-training meal that won’t overfill.

In general, eating simpler is better.  I usually season with spices and herbs rather than sauces.  Cooking at home is easier to control what you’re getting compared to eating at hall or takeaway.

Consider alternatives.  I like crips/chips, but a lot of that is a crave for the salt or crunchyness.  Rivita or rice cakes are a good alternative.  High cocoa dark chocolate is actually quite good for you in moderation.  Fruit and berries if you’re craving sweet.

Read labels on food to develop a feel for what different things mean and guide choices.  Is 5g of protein a lot? Is 50g? Is 400 calories a snack or a meal?   Fat and salt are ok but try to reduce saturated fats.  Is a chicken caesar or fried chicken wrap a better choice for lunch? (answers: a chicken breast is about 20g of protein – at 50g your body might not be able to absorb all of it. 400 calories would be a small meal if eating 5-6 a day.)

Sleep and Time Management

We’re all here first as students.  Cambridge is a lot of work, and part of being an athlete here is staying on top of your work so you don’t miss training and get enough sleep.  There is a big difference in recovery, energy, and focus from getting enough sleep.  Having time also lets you prepare for training sessions and have good foods in the fridge.

Balancing

Moderation is important.  Avoid absolute rules of “never eat X” – you will eventually break them and give up completely.  Stay social and sane – being a student athlete can be a grind when it feels like all you are doing is eating, sleeping, training, and working.  Make time for fun!

Alcohol

Generally not good for performance – alcohol dehydrates and there’s quite a lot of empty calories.  Big nights out often include missed sleep and poor eating choices.  Try to moderate, especially when approaching a competition.  Rehydrate when you get home and try taking an anti-oxidant like vitamin-C.

Wine (red) and spirits (without mix or with something like water or tonic) are better choices.

Stretching and Massage

Aim to stretch ~10 min before and after each training session.  A foam roller is a good idea for knots in the back and legs that develop in heavy training.  A tennis ball works too.  A deep massage/ rolling session can take a few days to recover from – don’t do it too close to a competition.

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