Are you a swimmer or swim parent looking for the best foods to eat to improve swimming performance? Then keep reading!
As a Registered dietitian and swim coach, the most common nutrition problem I see with competitive swimmers is undereating. Often undereating is unintentional because swimmers and swim parents do not know how much energy their swimmers need.
Underfueling can lead to swimming plateaus, daily fatigue, and even injuries.
In addition, many swimmers are also not consuming enough energy or variety which can lead to deficiencies in beneficial nutrients like Omega-3’s, antioxidants, calcium, and iron that help to optimize performance and improve recovery.
Disclaimer: This post was written and reviewed by Katie Schimmelpfenning, registered dietitian and swim coach. It is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Consult a doctor or dietitian about supplement questions.
Table of Contents
Best Protein Foods For Swimmers
Protein foods are essential for swimmers to build and gain muscle without supplements.
Swimmers want more muscle! This helps with more strength in the pool and greater distance per stroke. Try these protein foods below to help boost your strength and stamina in the pool.
If you are looking for more plant-based protein-boosting ideas; grab our plant-based swimmers meal plan HERE!
An affordable protein source packed with all 9 essential amino acids to help with muscle repair and development. Eggs are tasty scrambled, over-easy, or on-the-go hard-boiled! If you are a plant-based athlete try tofu for your egg scramble substitute!
A lean meat packed with protein! 4 oz, roughly a deck of cards size of chicken provides ~20-30 g of protein depending on the cooking method. For swimmers with busy schedules, try canned chicken in wraps and sandwiches to boost your protein intake.
Red meats like beef, pork, and lamb are rich in iron. Iron is a nutrient key for athletes, especially female swimmers. Iron carries oxygen from the lungs to other body parts, including your muscles! Pair iron with vitamin C-rich foods like bell peppers and tomatoes to increase absorption.
This fatty fish is a great source of omega-3 and creatine which helps to decrease inflammation and soreness to help expedite recovery between swim meets and swim practices. Swimmers should aim to eat fish at least 2x per week.
This is one of the most underrated but best food for swimmers. Sardines are a fish low in mercury, and loaded with omega-3s and vitamin D. We recommend trying the skinless, boneless canned sardines in olive oil by Season Brand.
Dairy Foods Swimmers Should Eat
All swimmers, but especially young swimmers need calcium for strong bone development. Dairy foods are a great source of calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins which help to support bone health and energy levels!
Swimmers, this is one of the best foods to add to your diet! Kefir is rich in calcium, protein, and probiotics. Start your morning with a cup of kefir or pack it in your lunch to boost your gut health and support strong bones.
Milk is a great food to help swimmers boost calcium consumption. Swimmers need 1000-1300 mg of calcium depending on age. Adding a cup of lactose-free milk or regular milk to a meal or snack adds 300 mg of calcium in addition to protein, phosphorus, potassium, and more!
Both Greek and regular yogurt are great foods for swimmers. Greek yogurt is higher in protein and lower in lactose for those with more sensitive stomachs. However, regular yogurt has more calcium! Add either to a smoothie or enjoy on their own.
Adding a sprinkle of cheese to your salad or an extra slice to your sandwich is an easy way for swimmers to add extra protein and calcium to their diet. Cheese can make for a great addition to swimmer’s snacks!
We love String cheese, mini Babybell, and mini Tillamook cheeses paired with fruit, a granola bar, or nuts!
- Cottage Cheese
Along with being rich in protein and calcium, cottage cheese adds sodium and flavor! You do sweat when you swim so make sure to restore electrolytes like sodium to help prevent cramps.
Carbohydrate Foods To Boost Swimmers Energy
Most swimmers we work with feel sluggish and fatigued because they are not eating enough carbohydrates. Swimmers need at least 3-10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight daily to optimize performance, enhance recovery, and prevent injury.
We recommend competitive swimmers consume at least 5 grams of carbs for every kilogram of body weight. For a 150 lb athlete that is ~340 g of carbohydrates per day!
Swimming is an endurance sport that requires a lot of food for sustained energy. If you are training for a couple of hours per day at the elite level your carbohydrate and daily energy needs will be even higher.
Add more carbs to your diet to start swimming faster today! Check out our pre-swim carbohydrate calculator to see how many carbs you should eat before swimming. Keep reading for some of the best high-carb foods for swimmers.
- Regular Potatoes, Purple Okinawa Potatoes, or Sweet Potatoes
As a college swimmer, I can remember having a strong conviction that sweet potatoes were “healthier and superior” to regular potatoes. I now know that is incorrect! While sweet potatoes are more rich in beta-carotene, all potatoes are excellent complex carbohydrates.
- Pita bread
Are you getting tired of regular tortillas and whole-wheat bread? Spice up your lunches with regular or whole-wheat pita bread. Plus two slices of standard pita bread is double the amount of carbs so you get more energy with not much more volume!
These are a delicious mid-day sweet treat or pre-practice snack loaded with carbs and B vitamins. This is one of the best foods to eat before swim practice. Try 2-3 dates with a smear of peanut butter before your next swim and grab more pre-practice snack ideas here.
- White and Brown Rice
Both types of rice are a good option for swimmers! Whole grains like brown rice have slightly more fiber. If you are within 1-2 hours before a workout white rice can be an easier-to-digest option.
The clients I have worked with in Hawai’i tend to love “hapa rice” which is a blend of brown and white rice. This is a great way to introduce brown rice to your swimmer’s diet.
- Honey and Maple Syrup
We highly recommend using honey and maple syrup in yogurt bowls, oatmeal bowls, smoothies, teas, and more to boost your swimmer’s carbohydrate intake without adding more volume.
Some swimmers have a difficult time eating larger quantities. 1 tablespoon of honey will give your swimmer 17g of easy-to-digest simple carbohydrates. This snack is perfect between events on race day or during a training session.
Best Fruits For Swimmers
Another great way to keep blood sugar levels up and energy stores full is to eat more fruits.
Fresh fruit, fruit cups, and even frozen fruits are also loaded with antioxidants that help to decrease inflammation and soreness after a workout, fiber to keep your bowel movements regular, as well as fluids to keep you hydrated.
We recommend all fruits to swimmers but here are our top 5 must-have fruits for swimmers.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, acai berries, and blackberries are loaded with antioxidants such as anthocyanins and phenolic acids. These powerful antioxidants neutralize free radicals in the body to keep your body healthy and reduce the risk of diseases.
- Citrus fruits
Oranges are one of the best foods for swimmers because they boost fluid and vitamin C consumption. In the winter months when it’s cold out swimmers may feel less thirsty so eating foods packed with fluids can help.
Support your immune system by adding an orange (which is ~86% fluids) to your lunch.
This is a great easily digestible food with carbohydrates and potassium.. For a tasty dessert try freezing your bananas and blending with chocolate chips and a splash of milk to make banana ice cream.
- Tart cherries
Tart cherries contain powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that speed up post-workout recovery times.
Best Vegetables For a Swimmer’s Diet
All vegetables are great for a swimmer’s diet but here are 5 you should incorporate into your diet starting today. To learn more about how much vegetables you should eat during your training cycle check out our post on Optimizing Performance with a Swimmers Diet Plan.
- Bell peppers
Red, green, yellow, and rainbow bell peppers are some of the best vegetables for swimmers because they are rich in vitamin A and vitamin C. Try the baby bell peppers dipped in hummus or cooked bell peppers added to your breakfast scramble or burritos.
Swimmers, do not skimp out on kale! It is one of the best foods for swimmers because it is high in fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin K (it has even more than spinach!). Try it massaged with salad dressing, added to a smoothie, or cooked up in a main dish.
The orange coloring in carrots comes from beta-carotene that gets converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A supports immune health and vision among many other benefits. We recommend swimmers pair carrots with hummus, nut butter, or ranch for an extra boost.
This tasty vegetable adds flavor and is loaded with compounds that may help lower cancer risk and help muscles recover. When using fresh garlic let it rest for ~10 minutes after chopping to allow the garlic to form a beneficial compound called allicin.
Best Healthy Fats For Swimmers
Fats are extremely important for swimmers, we recommend that swimmers aim to consume 1g of fat per kg of body fat per day.
Healthy fats help swimmers absorb fat-soluble vitamins K, A, D, and E. They also help to increase the satiety and satisfaction of a meal since fats take longer to be digested and hang out in the stomach for longer.
Beyond that, fats help to create hormones in the body! Try adding these 5 fatty foods to your diet to help optimize swimming performance.
Avocados are loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats and are one of the best boofs for swimmers. They are a nutrient-dense energy source that adds both fiber and flavor to your healthy diet.!
- Chia and flax seeds
Adding seeds to yogurt and oatmeal is a great way for swimmers to boost their nutrition content without adding too much extra volume. Chia seeds and flax seeds are foods that help keep bowel movements regular and boost omega-3 intakes which help to decrease inflammation!
- Brazil nuts
All nuts are great for swimmers, we recommend swimmers mix Brazil nuts into their diet to boost selenium intake. Selenium is essential for thyroid health. One Brazil nut contains >100% selenium needed for the day.
- Nut butter
If you are not allergic, nut butters are one of the best foods for swimmers because they are shelf-stable and packed with vitamin E and B vitamins! Try mixing in peanut butter, almond butter, or cashew butter into yogurt, spreading on bread, or eating with fruit!
- Olive oil
Swimmers should add olive oil to their diets! The plant compounds of this oil act as antioxidants that help to decrease inflammation. We recommend swimmers try cooked vegetables, salads, and pasta with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil!
Best Snack Foods For Swimmers To Try
A common nutrition challenge for swimmers is not carrying enough snacks on hand for when hunger strikes! Another challenge is not eating before and after swim practice. Level up your swim performance by fueling consistently during the day!
- Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar
This is one of the best foods for swimmers because these fig bars come in a regular version and a gluten-free version for those who need them. These make for a great snack before practice, during practice, during a swim meet, or after practice!
- Chomps Jerky sticks
For swimmers who struggle to eat enough protein, we recommend jerky packs or sticks. We love the Chomps brand. Each Chomps beef jerky stick is ~10-12 g of protein plus a boost of sodium to replace what is lost in sweat at swim practice.
Rasins no matter if they are plain, yogurt-covered, or chocolate are one of the best foods for swimmers because they contain a large amount of energizing carbohydrates per ounce. Plus this small snack is a great source of iron. Check out more iron-rich foods on the blog.
- Bobo’s Oat Bars
We love all Bobo’s products because they are gluten-free and delicious. One Bobo’s oat bar contains ~60g of carbohydrates which is far more energy than any other granola bar on the market. Plus they have over 10 flavors to choose from!
- GoMarco MacroBars
This protein bar is made with nut butter so they are satisfying and nutrient-dense. GoMacro bars are also vegan and gluten-free. So if you are looking to boost your recovery nutrition try a GoMacro bar with a banana after practice.
The Bottomline: Best Food For Swimmers
One specific food alone will not have the power to impact your performance.
However, fueling enough, eating the right amount of macronutrients, and consuming a wide variety of foods can help!
Try adding these 35 foods to your diet to create more nutrient-dense meals and snacks to boost your swimming performance.
Food is much more than fuel! Keep your swimmer’s diet pleasurable and stress-free by continuing to incorporate fun foods. Always focus on adding versus removing foods or food groups from a swimmer’s plate.
This list could have been filled with over 200 foods we recommend for swimmers but we hope the few we provided here inspire you to add more variety to your plate to refuel and recover between high-intensity work in the pool.
Katie Schimmelpfenning RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, USA Swim Coach, and former Division 1 swimmer. She helps competitive swimmers fuel and train to optimize performance, recover faster, and prevent injury! She is passionate about spreading evidence-based nutrtion tips to help swimmers across the globe.