Eat To Win: Nutrition for Swimmers by Tim Wierman (1996)


Tim Wierman is a nationally recognized speaker on nutritional education. He been a speaker at the National Soccer Coaches Convention, United States Lacrosse Coaches Association, Canadian Athletic Therapists Association, Eastern States Swim Clinic, and numerous schools, high schools, colleges and universities. He earned his undergraduate in Business Management and his master’s degree in Nutritional education in 1990. Tim is a published sports nutrition author and the creator of Eat To Compete, “The Athlete’s Sports Nutrition Program.” He is a competitive triathlete and a member of the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

I am president of Nutrition Education Services which is located in Westchester, Pennsylvania. I have a masters degree in nutrition education. I promote myself as a nutrition educator. I travel around the country and speak to student athletes and coaches at all different levels from high schools through NCAA Division 1. I do not promote any one product over another.

A lot of young athletes do not have a clue as to what they should be doing nutritionally and how it can enhance performance. It is no wonder. They are inundated every day with different topics in the media as well as hearing it from different coaches and friends. It is really difficult for them to decide what is good and what is bad. I take a lot of pride in being able to sit down and research all the information that is out there and all the different products and passing the information on to the coaches and young athletes. I want to emphasize how important it is to take these basic principles back to the athlete.

I did a survey at a Division III women’s swim program. I went there to do a seminar. I asked them some basic questions about the basics of nutrition and what they might be doing. One question was, “Based on your total body weight and activity level how many total calories per day do you think you need in order to maintain your present body weight?” So basically what I was asking them was how many calories do they need each day to give them all the energy they need, to get their butts out of bed in the morning, to go to class, to do the training and so on. What is very surprising is that very few had any clue as to how many calories they needed. These are the same female athletes who were training 2 to 3 hours a day. Two out of the sixteen knew within 40% of what their total caloric needs where. Two out of the sixteen knew within 10% which is pretty good. I do not expect an athlete to know they need exactly 3,428 calories but rather within a 10 to 15 percent range they should know how many calories they need each day. The other 12 out of sixteen, or over 75% of the swimmers, did not have a clue as to how much fuel they needed each day to get them through that 24 hour period.

Another question, “What percent of their total calories should come from carbohydrate, fat, and protein?” Only three out of the sixteen girls knew within the recommended ranges.

Another question, “Based on the total daily calorie needs, approximately how many grams of carbohydrate do you need, how many grams of fat do you need, and how many grams of protein do you need?” Not one of the athletes knew the answers. What was real surprising was that a lot of these female swimmers thought they need between zero and 10 grams of fat each day. That is almost impossible. You get 10 grams of fat from three or four slices of whole wheat bread. So the misconception that these young athletes have is to get rid of all the fat. But very few have any idea as to the number of carbohydrates they need to fuel the body or the amount of protein they need to build and repair the body tissue.

Another question, “To prevent dehydration, how much fluid should be consumed during each hour of your swimming?” One out of the sixteen knew the recommended intake which was 32 ounces for every hour of training.

These are the basics that these athletes need to know. And these were smart kids but they did not know the basics. Without understanding the basics how can you expect any athlete to weed through all this information that is out there? Take some of these principles back to your athletes. Let’s get back to fundamentals.

I developed this Eat to Compete program. This is an educational program. There is no magic potion in here that you can take back and sprinkle on your athletes heads. What is in here is an educational program of seventeen topics with 61 reproducible handouts. It is a coaches manual. It includes precompetition meals, and recovery foods, and fluid replacements, eating disorders, alcohol and the athlete, weight loss tips, the most nutritional fast foods, and more. Everything I am going to share with you today is in this manual.

Some of the topics I am going to cover today are the maintenance numbers. Then we are going to talk about the energy nutrients themselves. There are still a lot of questions about what are fuels in the body. Is it carbs or fat or protein. Then the big question among so many athletes — what should I be eating prior to a training or competition session? Then we will touch briefly on fluid replacement for swimmers. That is something that always should be addressed. In swimming, athletes don’t always see or feel the need for fluid replacement but it is important.

This is the number I would like every coach to get into the mind of every athlete. I call this the maintenance number. The number of calories the swimmer needs to maintain their energy level throughout the day. For males it is body weight times 15 plus the training and for females it is body weight times 13 plus the training. This is not an exact fixed number but it gives a good estimate. It gives the athlete something to work from.

What are the training needs? Here is the energy expended for different strokes. If you have a 150 pound male swimmer times 15, that swimmer needs 2,250 calories without any of his training. If he trains two hours a day doing mostly freestyle, using this chart it says he needs about 522 calories per hour so that is 1044 calories expended just in the workout. Add that to his 2,250 he needs about 3,300 calories. I weigh 185 pounds and need about 2700 calories on days that I don’t train. On days that I train for an upcoming triathlon I am working out about 2 hours a day so I need another 1400 calories. I need around 4000 calories each day. If I maintain 4000 I maintain my present body weight and I have enough energy to get through my daily activities and my training. The caloric requirements vary depending on different body weights. Too many athletes scrutinize what each other are eating rather than look at their own personal needs. There is no one universal program for all swimmers.

I would like to see every coach calculate for every swimmer their maintenance number and help their swimmers get the number of calories they need.

Energy needs. What fuels the body? Is it fat or protein or carbs? It really depends on the type of athlete, the duration of the training, the duration of the event, and the intensity of training and competition. As a triathlete, when I go out and do a 90 minute bike ride I am not going at 95 or 100 percent of my max. I am not capable of doing that for 90 minutes. I am training at around 60 to 70 percent. I am in that zone where I can be using half carbohydrate stores and half fat stores. But when I am out on the soccer field and I am going 100 percent every time I go for the ball or when a swimmer is going 25’s, 50’s and 100’s at full speed, those are carbo burning activities. Anytime you are going above 75% of your maximum aerobic capacity you are using primarily the anaerobic system which can only be fueled by carbohydrates. That’s textbook.

The athletes that are benefiting from more fat stores are those who are doing longer, lower intensity activities in the 40 to 60 percent zone. In the warm-ups in swimming practice or competition a lot of their energy is coming from fat stores. But if they are competing they are burning carbs. So you don’t want them reloading with French fries and hamburgers. They are putting back fat in the system when they are burning carbohydrates. Above 80 percent of max you are using all carbohydrates.

For adults like yourselves walking around this big complex, that is a fat burning exercise. Going out for walks, that is fat burning. Getting on a life cycle or treadmill or stairmaster, those are fat burning.

These are the numbers I recommend: a carbohydrate intake of 60 percent, a fat intake of 25 percent or maybe less, and a protein intake of 15 percent. A small adjustment of these numbers is not going to have a major effect.

Unfortunately, this is what the typical swimmer is doing: 46 percent carbohydrates, 38 percent, fat, and 16 percent protein. Too little carbos and too much fat. Remember, if they are doing high intensity activities they are burning carbs but many are not ingesting enough carbs.

The total caloric intake is related to weight loss or weight gain. If your maintenance requirement is 3000 and you take in 4000 you are going to gain weight. If your requirement is 3000 and you take in 2000 you are going to lose weight. The type of caloric intake is related to your ability to supply energy for different types of activities.

How does your body respond to 4000 calories from carbohydrates versus 4000 calories from fat? Your body will utilize calories regardless of what the source but it will be at the expense of performance level. If calories are from fat, then the ability for anaerobic activity will be limited. You cannot produce the energy fast enough from fat breakdown. Fat breakdown is much slower than carbo breakdown.

What if you consume 2000 carbohydrate calories and your needs are 1500? Anything over your maintenance number, anything not utilized by the body is going to store as body fat. That’s a problem with a lot of young athletes. They give up all fats because they think they only need carbohydrates then they eat more carbohydrates than they need and gain weight.

The way you enhance your ability to use more fat in the body is not necessarily through manipulation of the diet alone, but rather through aerobic training. At the beginning of a swim season you are less likely to use more fat for more energy than you are at the end of a season. As you become more aerobically trained you increase density of mitochondria and increase capacity to burn fat.

Why do we need to take in more fat when most of us in this room store anywhere from 50 to 150 to 200 thousand fat calories? I store roughly 80,000 fat calories. What do I need to take in more dietary fat? Why don’t I tap into the 80,000 first, then when that gets down to 1,500 I’ll start worrying about fat intake? Because what happens is that when you are doing high intensity training and your carbohydrate stores tanks — you store roughly 2,000 carbohydrate calories, 1,500 in the muscle and 500 in the liver, these are your two fuel tanks — you need to maintain and the fat store supply the maintenance. A diet of 46 percent carbs, which is the typical swimmer diet, is an intake of only about 300 carbohydrate grams, not nearly enough to maintain the 2000.

The other main function of the carbohydrates are the vitamins and minerals you need to convert this food into energy. I am referring to your spark plug to convert carbohydrates into energy. That is the big difference between simple carbs and complex carbs. Complex carbs such as pastas, cold cereals, pancakes, waffles, bagels, English muffins, rice and such have vitamins and minerals which serve as spark plugs. Simple carbs like soft drinks and candies lack the vitamins and minerals. One popular soft drink has 150 calories but not vitamins or minerals. There are ten teaspoons of sugar in this soft drink. Yes that can contribute to that 2000 calorie fuel tank but it lacks the spark plugs of vitamins and minerals.

Cold cereals such as Wheaties, Total, Cheerios, and all the cornflakes have all the vitamins and minerals needed. On the other hand all the fruit loop and coco krispy type cereals are high in sugars and lack the spark plugs. That’s why you are not going to see all the gold medal winners on the Fruit Loops box. If you want the nutritional value of the complex cereals but the taste of the simple cereals eat a big bowl of Wheaties and top it off with your favorite fruit loops type cereal. Use that instead of a teaspoon or tablespoon of sugar.

Carbohydrate requirements are individual. They are based on body weight, sex, level of fitness, and type of activities. The recommendation is anywhere between 300 to 700 grams of carbohydrate. My target intake is 600 to 700 grams of carbohydrate a day. For the smaller 110 to 115 pound swimmer it would be close to 300. That 300 is going to promote, based on their maintenance number, their 60 percent carbohydrate intake. The 700 I intake would be reflective of a 60 percent carbo intake for my 4000 daily needs.

Nutrient dense foods — the ones with the spark plugs — the minerals and vitamins–are a lot of the more popular foods you will find on the family dinner table: breads, bagels, waffles, pancakes, Wheaties. These foods should be complemented with protein. I am not suggesting that all you eat are carbohydrates.

Should you regulate your carbohydrate intake based on the glycemic index of foods? The time spent evaluating each individual food makes it difficult, especially for young people. The pastas and white bread have a greater response of insulin than some fruits so I suggest having a combination of foods. Have your pasta, have your piece of chicken or fish, compliment it with fruit and a desert. The total combination of all the carbohydrates from the different foods are going to help you control the glycemic index response. For example, butter (a fat) on your baked potato, or salad dressing (also a fat) on fresh vegetables slows down the glycemic index response.

The Fat Issue. Just because you put fat on the lips doesn’t mean it runs directly to the hips. Many of the swimmers are benefiting from a fat intake because they are training much of the time below that 75 percent of their maximum aerobic capacity. Still, why don’t we tap into more of our fat stores rather than eat high fat diets?

Types of fat. There are unsaturated and saturated. The unsaturated include all the vegetable oils, lipid fats. Saturated facts are solids at room temperature such as the fats in bacon and hot dogs. The difference between unsaturated and saturated is not the core density or the amount of grams but rather the type of fat. Saturated increased your chance of heart disease. Unsaturated helps reduce your chance of heart disease. Promote the use of vegetable oils and stay away from the saturated fats in a lot of the meat products. I am not saying to stay away from meat products as there is a lot of value to meat including protein, iron, and zinc. But be cautious. In the Philly area we have Philadelphia Cheese Steaks. A lot of young people in the Philly area survive on these. They’re loaded with saturated fat. A better choice would be peanut butter.

But remember, when it comes to energy, a fat is a fat. A cup of peanuts is over 800 calories, over 60 grams of fat.

How much fat do we need each day? Most athletes do not have a clue. There is a lot of debate over this issue. I recommend 25 percent or less. I don’t recommend going below 15 percent. My rule of thumb is one half gram of fat for each pound of body weight.

It’s tough to know if the energy you are burning today comes from the olive oil you ingested yesterday or the adipose tissue you have been carrying around for a long time.

In your two carbo storage tanks, the 1500 calories of carbos stored in your muscles is used for muscle energy. The 500 stored in your liver is held primarily to feed the brain with energy. This is accomplished through blood glucose. If you deplete your liver stores the muscle stores cannot back that up. But if you deplete your muscle stores you can use the liver stores. The total carbo stores are usually eliminated around the 75 minute to 90 minute mark. That is way it is so important for athletes to snack on complex carbohydrates; to maintain the blood sugar levels. It is better to have 4 or 5 small meals rather than one or two main meals.

Many athletes with the typical 46 percent carbohydrate diet will deplete their carbo fuel tank half way through the meet. Then they are at risk for hypoglycemia.

Protein intake. More and more athletes are consuming a diet higher in protein to use some of that protein as an energy source. My opinion is that the primary function of protein is to build and repair body tissue. At rest, at night time only about 2 to 5 percent of our energy needs are coming from protein breakdown. During activity 5 to 15 percent of our energy needs come from protein. That is only true if you have an adequate amount of carbohydrates.

Complete proteins come from animal sources. Vegetarian athletes need to eat the right combination of incomplete proteins to get all the amino acids they need. For example a flour tortilla and beans are two incomplete proteins which together make a good complete protein.

I recommend 15% or your total maintenance number be protein. Current research shows that endurance athletes need more protein than the average couch potato. Sedentary people need about .8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Endurance athletes need 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. That is 150 to 200 percent above the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance). Strength athletes need 1.4 to 1.8 grams. But most athletes are already consuming more than they need. The need for protein supplements, in my opinion, is not necessary. The typical athlete is consuming anywhere from 100 to 125 grams of protein each day. That’s 2 to 3 times the amount of protein they actually need. A 3 ounce piece of beef, chicken, poultry, or fish is about 21 grams of protein.

To suppress the breakdown of protein is having an adequate amount of total calories and an adequate amount of carbohydrates so you are sparing the protein for its function of building and repairing body tissue.

Many female athletes are so fearful of the fat issue that they cut out important sources of protein that they view as high in fat.

Vegetarian swimmers are at risk for protein, iron, and zinc deficiencies. If the diet is without dairy products then there is also the risk of calcium deficiency.

Pre- competition meals. Avoid unfamiliar foods. Don’t recommend something to your swimmers that they have not worked with in the past. Emphasize that one good pre competition meal is not going to make you but one bad precompetition meal can break you. You have to consume an adequate amount of carbohydrates, calories, proteins, and fats all week long. You can’t eat garbage Monday through Friday and then eat a stack of pancakes on Saturday morning and be set for a Saturday afternoon swim meet. Many athletes believe they can do that. What their body is using on Saturday is dependent on what they put in it the week before.

I had a collegiate female swimmer come to me and tell me she had a difficult time eating on the day of competition. We looked at her diet. She was doing an excellent job eating all the right combination of foods in the right percentages on Monday through Friday. On Saturday she said she had a hard time maintaining her mental concentration. She said she cannot have any solid food because she is too nervous and she cannot keep anything down. Instead of me telling her that she had to have the pancakes and the fruits I recommended she get a big thermos or travel mug and make up a homemade blended drink with ice, fruit, and a sports drink and sip on it throughout the day. What she was doing was taking in 500 to 800 calories which was no different than eating a big breakfast in the morning.

On Monday through Friday she was keeping her 2000 calorie fuel tank filled up. On Friday evening when she went to bed she would burn about 500 calories. (You burn about one calorie per minute while you sleep.) Those 500 calories are coming from liver glycogen which feeds the brain. So she was going into her competition on Saturday with muscle glycogen all filled. She had the ability to perform physically but she was feeling light headed and nauseous. So the homemade sports drink provided the nutrition she needed for her brain. She reported great improvement in her mental concentration. Not only was she benefiting from the carbohydrate intake, she was benefiting from the fluid intake.

Back to the pre competition meal. Be aware of the type, timing, and the amount of food. For type, take in 60 to 70 percent carbs. For timing it comes down to the amount of time before your first event. If you have 4 hours you can eat 400 to 600 calories. If you have two hours you can eat 200 to 400 calories. If know you will have very little time, concentrate on what you eat the day before and then have a small 200 or 300 calorie meal.

You want to go into competition with your fuel tank full but your stomach empty. You want your blood flow to be going to the muscles not the gut.

Fluid replacement. My advice is to drink on schedule rather than relying on the thirst mechanism. By the time you have a dehydration state where you have lost as much as 2 percent of your body weight you have lost as much as 10 to 20 percent of your performance ability. If an athlete is 150 pounds prior to a training session and swims for 2 or 3 hours and then weighs in again you might find them at 147 pounds. That’s very significant. If the athlete waits for the brain to say they are thirsty it is too late. Drink on schedule. The rule of thumb is 32 ounces for every one hour of activity. The typical athlete looses about 1,000 milliliters of fluid through sweat and urination. Unfortunately most athletes are replacing only about 500 milliliters. Emphasize drinking fluids before, during and after training sessions. The best way for an athlete to tell if they are properly hydrated is for them to take a look at the color of their urine. If the urine is clear colored it means they are in a more hydrated state. If it is yellowish or dark yellowish they are in a dehydrated state. Most athletes need to take in 12 to 16 glasses of water each day. You may have read that 8 glasses is ok but that is for non athletes.

Two to three hours before exercise, if an athlete can tolerate it, they should take in 16 to 32 ounces. With more fluid in the stomach the body can absorb more fluid into the system.

The big rule of thumb is to have the athletes drink 8 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. Allowing swimmers to have plastic water bottles on the side of the pool is the best way to get the athletes to maintain hydration. They need the big 32 ounce bottles and they need to empty one bottle every hour. If they don’t get it in their system during workout, make sure they get it in after workout.

Should you use water or a sports drink? In my opinion water will do fine for those athletes that are training for less than 60 or 75 minutes. The benefits you get from the sports drinks are carbohydrate intake which can benefit the athlete if they are not properly fueled going into the training session and the taste often encourages a greater fluid intake.

Recovery meal. The recovery meal in swimming is essentially the pre-competition meal for the next training session. If you finish at 8 p.m. what you put in your system that night is helping fuel the body for the next morning. The big thing to remember with the recovery meal is the timing. Try to eat within the first 30 minutes to two hours after competition because the body is far more receptive during that time. If it is going to be some time before the athlete can have a big meal then give them the opportunity to get at least 200 or 300 calories in that critical 30 minute to 2 hour window.

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