Open Water Swimming Race: A Comprehensive Nutrition Guide for Swimmers

With so many open water swimming championships coming up, it is very important to have nutrition & hydration plan in place for both training sessions & for the race day. Although the training volume of open water swimmers is similar to swimmers competing in the longest pool events (800 m, 1500 m), race distances in open water swimming are significantly longer (5 km, 10 km, 25km) and require specific nutritional strategies for optimal performance. So to kick start your healthy nutrition guide, try & follow below rules:

Training Nutrition

A swimmer needs to consume adequate calories to support training requirements. Include a diet comprising of fruit and vegetables, low fat dairy products, breads, cereals, and lean meats and other protein sources. Two important components of a diet are Carbohydrates & Proteins.

  1. Carbohydrates are necessary especially for ultra-long events. Energy & Carbohydrates requirements will vary over the training programme. Carbohydrate containing foods include breads and cereals, fruit and dairy products. They are important for topping up glycogen stores which is the primary source of energy during long races. So, try not to neglect carbs during training.
  1. Proteins are equally important as they help in muscle building & repair. Include good quality proteins in the form of eggs, lean meats, sprouts, beans, legumes, nuts & dairy products.
  1. Fluid intake during training should be adjusted according to the swimmer’s individual sweat rates and environmental factors. During training, the fluid may contain 30 – 60 g carbohydrate per hour, while race specific practice for longer events may require greater intake (up to 90 g/h from multiple transportable carbohydrate sources). Race nutrition strategies should be well-tested in training.

Training & Eating

It is very important for swimmers to prepare their stomach for the ocean conditions by eating before training and then training with the food in their stomachs. Majority of swimmers train with plain water or Sports drink kept at 1 end of the pool but during the swim it is very important to eat something. A swimmer can’t expect to perform well only by consuming sports drink for hours while exercising. So stopping for a snack break during training sessions will help swimmers to get adjusted to eating & swimming.

So during swimming, a swimmer can consume cut fruits, energy/protein bar, fruits blended with juice or milk etc.

Pre-Race Nutrition

  1. Carb loading (10 – 12 g / kg body weight / day) needs to be done at least 3 days prior to the event. During carb loading do not ignore vegetables, fruits & proteins, a common mistake made by majority of athletes
  • Pasta/Noodles carb loading is fine but if they are accompanied with vegetables & chicken/eggs, then it’s a well-balanced dish.
  • A night before the race try to avoid tomatoes or tomato sauce as tomatoes are acidic & can give stomach upset.
  • Stay away from hard & heavy vegetables like broccoli, carrot, cauliflower etc, instead opt for water rich vegetables like bottle gourd, zucchini, squash etc as they are easy on stomach.
  • Try to avoid uncooked vegetables before a long swim
  1. Maintain protein intake to support daily endurance turnover (1.2-1.4 g protein /kg body weight)
  1. Intake of heart healthy fats like nuts & oil seeds etc should be consumed in optimum to maintain body weight, without replacing the intake of carbohydrates.

Race Day Nutrition

a. Before the Race

  • 3 – 4 hours before
  1. On race morning high carbohydrate breakfast (3 – 4 hours before race) is very important irrespective of the race timing. This can include oatmeal, muesli with milk, smoothie with toast etc. Be careful with fruits & vegetables as they can cause stomach upset in few individuals.
  1. Small amounts of proteins along with high carb meal balances a pre-race meal.
  1. Few swimmers may consider pre-race hyper hydration strategies. Intake of carbohydrate salty beverage will increase body fluid stores as sodium increases water retention
  • 1 Hour before – Some quick digesting carbs like fruits, handful of cereals - needs to be consumed
  • 15 – 30 min before – Additional carbs like raisins, dates can be consumed along with a carbohydrate drink or gels (containing 30 g of carbs)

b. During the Race

Longer events depletes glycogen stores. Gels and chews, powders mixed with water (or juice depending on the concentration of carbohydrate and your tolerance), and wafer snacks are good carbohydrate sources.

c. Post Race

Post the race, grab some food with carbs to replenish glycogen stores & also proteins to help tissue repair & enhance muscle protein synthesis. Few options are fruit in yogurt, chocolate milkshake, protein bars etc. Fluids are also important for recovery. So consume fluids containing electrolytes (like sports drink) around 500ml / hour until urine is pale in colour.

Important Points to Consider

Majority of swimmers often make the same mistake but with sufficient time for preparation, common mistakes can be avoided with the below tips:

  1. Eat enough
  2. Always eat breakfast
  3. Don’t neglect proteins
  4. Focus on nutrition & hydrations during training and don’t just depend on race day nutrition.
  5. Allow your body to recover
  6. Don’t neglect taper or resting phase
  7. Plan for fueling & re-fueling during race & training
  8. Do not follow same nutrition strategies as the other swimmers are following. Develop your own unique nutrition plan with the help of a qualified sports nutritionist.

Before trying out any new food it is always advisable to get used one set of food, an athlete is going to eat on race day.

Getting fit for the race day is only half the preparation. Getting food and diet right is the other half.

Top Nutritional Challenges & Combat Strategies during an Open Water Swim

Author: Rashmi Cherian

Registered Dietitian (License No 61/08), Certified Sports & Exercise Nutritionist

Founder, Wellness Vows


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SwimIndia does not guarantee results of any sort, before making any changes to your diet plans, please consult an expert

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