One of the easiest ways swimmers can combat fatigue, protect their immune system, and optimize performance is by creating a swimmer diet plan!
Are you feeling stuck and unsure how much to eat? Stick with us to learn how to build a swimmer’s performance plate personalized to your training load.
We will teach you how to create your own swimmer diet plan that doesn’t revolve around the removal of fun foods or labeling foods “good” or “bad.”
Our swimmer’s diet plan was created to educate and empower swimmers on how to fuel by incorporating more balance, variety, and moderation.
Keep reading for the ultimate swimmer’s diet plan.
Table of Contents
The swimmer’s dilemma
Unlike other sports, swimmer’s training sessions can last 2+ hours and occur twice a day. These practices are primarily in the pool and often with minimal breaks between sets making it difficult to refuel during training sessions.
Beyond that high volume of training, these intense workouts leave many swimmers with little to no appetite after practice.
This is because the hunger hormone, ghrelin “think grumbling ghrelins”, gets suppressed during exercise, thus blunting your appetite (1). However, swimmers still need to eat after a workout to recover even if they are not hungry!
Higher risk for eating disorders and disordered eating
Beyond those nutrition hurdles, swimmers are at a higher risk for developing disordered eating and eating disorders (2).
There are many factors that can cause or lead to any eating disorder. For swimmers, it is believed that wearing minimal clothing and tight swimsuits so frequently may be one factor.
Swimming also tends to thrive in a mentality that suffering is good and necessary in order to be the best in the sport. This can become a dangerous mentality for those who also struggle with mental health.
If you are currently in eating disorder recovery or feel that you are currently struggling with an eating disorder reach out for help!
Focus on adding to your plate
Because of the high risk of disordered eating and the failure rate of restrictive diets, we do not recommend swimmers restrict calorie or food intake.
In our experience working one-on-one with swimmers, we have found that the most common nutrition problem is that swimmers do not eat enough.
This is why our swimmer’s diet plan focuses on adding to your plate versus what a swimmer “can’t or shouldn’t” have. With the high energy demands of swimming no foods are off limits.
However, we do recommend and support fueling with foods that make you feel good!
And keep in mind, Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic Athlete in the world eating 10,000+ calories a day consisting of fried egg and cheese sandwiches, chocolate chip pancakes, a pound of pasta, a whole large pizza, extra mayo on sandwiches, and more (3).
The media tends to demonize calorie-dense foods that athletes may need to meet daily energy requirements for high-level performance. Focus on eating enough; Michael Phelps won many gold medals while eating French toast, pizza, and much more!
Most swimmers do not eat enough carbohydrates which are key for optimizing performance, improving recovery, and where the bulk of a swimmer’s energy should come from.
Carbs are your brain’s main source of fuel, they also prevent your body from breaking down muscle and proteins for energy.
How many carbohydrates do swimmers need?
In season, competitive swimmers should aim for 7-12 g/kg of carbohydrates per day (4). For a 150lb athlete that is 476- 816 grams of carbohydrates per day. This can vary depending on your training load.
Try our swimmers’ carbohydrate calculator to calculate how much carbohydrates you may need each day and our pre-swim carbohydrate calculator to find out how many carbs you need before practice.
Check out our carbohydrate content of foods table to get an idea of good sources of carbs.
|Carbohydrate food (with serving size)||Grams of Carbohydrates|
|Bread (2 slices)||30 g|
|Tortilla (6’)||15 g|
|Corn (½ cup)||15 g|
|Mashed potatoes (1 cup)||30 g|
|Rice (1 cup)||45 g|
|Popcorn (3 cups)||15 g|
|Raisins (4 tablespoons)||30 g|
|Orange juice (1 cup)||30 g|
|Grapes (15)||15 g|
|Milk (1 cup)||12 g|
|Apple (1 small)||15 g|
|Baked potato (1 medium)||40 g|
These high carbohydrate demands can be achieved by eating enough carbohydrates at meals and snacking more frequently.
A swimmer diet plan should be loaded with carbohydrates before practice, after practice, during long workouts, and during swim meets.
Keep reading to learn more about the two types of carbohydrates.
These carbohydrate foods are easy for the body to break down for energy. These are the type of carbohydrates that should be consumed within one hour of swim practice and during workouts.
Examples of these foods:
- Fresh fruit (bananas, grapes, pineapple)
- Fruit juice
- Fruit smoothie
- White bread (less fiber than whole grain “brown” bread)
During meals 3-4 hours out from swim practice or a competition work on prioritizing more complex carbohydrates. These are more slowly digested and slowly raise blood sugar levels.
Complex carbs include:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain bread
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grains such as oats, barley, quinoa
- Granola bars
- White potatoes
And many more!
Protein is what helps your body build muscle! It also helps with cellular repair, the production of hormones, enzymes, hair, and nails. Protein helps you look good, feel good, and recover faster!
Eating excessive amounts of protein will not make you grow muscle. Instead, try to eat protein every 3 hours while you are awake. Aim to pair protein and carbohydrates 1 hour after exercise for optimal recovery.
Check out our blog post What To Eat After Swimming to learn more.
How much protein do swimmers need?
Swimmers should consume 1.2-1.7 g/kg per day of protein (5). For a 150lb athlete, this is 82 – 116 grams of protein per day. Try out our Swimmer Protein Calculator to see how much protein you should aim to eat each day.
This may vary if you have kidney issues or any other underlying conditions. Meet with a registered dietitian for more personalized protein recommendations.
Check out the protein sources below to help nail your protein-rich diet.
|Protein Food (with serving)||Grams of Protein|
|Beef, chicken, fish, pork, or turkey (3oz)||21 g|
|Cheese (1 stick)||7 g|
|2% milk (1 cup)||7 g|
|Egg (2 eggs)||14 g|
|Greek yogurt (1 cup)||17 g|
|Black beans (½ cup cooked)||7 g|
|Peanut butter (2 tablespoons)||7 g|
|Tofu (½ cup)||14 g|
|Cottage cheese (½ cup)||14 g|
|Nuts and seeds (2 tablespoons)||7 g|
|Protein bar (varies per brand)||~20 g protein|
Dairy products are a great source of carbs, protein, and calcium and are one of the many reasons we promote chocolate milk for recovery!
When possible we recommend swimmers aim for more lean protein coming from whole foods versus a protein shake.
In addition, we recommend:
- Fish 2x per week to boost healthy fats
- Red meat at least 1x per week to boost iron levels
- Eat protein every 3 hours
- If you are not able to eat enough protein through whole foods, try the best protein powders for swimmers
Fats are very important for swimmers and can be found in foods such as avocados, olive oil, nuts, and more.
Healthy fats are necessary for:
- Absorbing fat-soluble vitamins K, A, D, E
- Producing hormones
- Building brain cells and neurotransmitter receptors
Fats also help add flavor to meals and help swimmers to feel more satisfied after eating!
How much fat should swimmers eat?
This is highly variable, but a good rule of thumb is 1g/kg body weight per day!
For a 150lb swimmer, this is roughly 150 grams of fat per day.
Rather than focusing on the specific amount of grams of fat in foods, we recommend swimmers prioritize eating foods with heart-healthy omega-3s.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
What are omega-3 fatty acids and why should swimmers eat them?
Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in fish, eggs, and plant sources. They help to decrease inflammation and soreness and promote faster recovery.
We recommend at least 2 servings of fish weekly and aim to eat plant-based sources of these healthy anti-inflammatory fats daily.
Incorporate the following into your diet daily for a boost in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid:
- Flaxseed oil
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Mixed nuts
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
- Navy beans
- Kidney beans
Color: fruits and vegetables
Aim to eat 5 different fruits and vegetables per day.
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that help to decrease muscle soreness. They are also packed with fiber which helps to keep your digestive tract working well and your bowel movement more regular.
Athletes who are struggling to eat enough may need to rely on more pureed, dried, and lower-fiber fruits to eat and get enough carbohydrates each day without taking up too much volume in their stomachs.
Hydration needs vary between athletes and can increase with humidity, heat, and training length. Most athletes need at least 1.5 liters (50 oz) of water per day.
Oftentimes more than that, check out our sweat rate calculator to determine fluid needs during a workout.
A great rule of thumb is to keep an eye on your urine color. You want it to be more like a pale yellow lemonade color versus an apple juice color.
General hydration tips:
- Drink 2 cups of water 2-3 hours before practice
- Drink 1 cup of water 10-20 minutes before practicing
- Aim to consume ~1 cup of water every 10-20 minutes during your workout
Check out our ultimate hydration guide for swimmers to learn more about hydration, sports drinks, and electrolytes.
Avoid muscle cramps, and stay hydrated!
Aim for the majority of your fluids to come from water. Coffee and tea can also help give you a morning boost.
Steer clear from energy drinks that are banned by the NCAA such as Celsius. Check out our blog post on the pros and cons of caffeine for athletes to learn more and our caffeine calculator to see how much may benefit your performance.
Our number one tip for swimmers is to carry a water bottle at all times! Yes, you sweat when you swim even if you don’t thirsty you need to hydrate in practice.
Building a performance plate
We recommend keeping your swimmer diet plan easy by focusing on building a performance plate. Below we will walk you through how to build an easy day plate, a moderate day plate, and a hard day plate that applies to all daily meals.
We recommend using a 10” dinner plate for this performance plate-building approach. Keep in mind this is a guide, if you are still hungry after a meal second helpings are always allowed and encouraged!
Try to get each of your three meals to meet the plate model based on your training that day. Using this method can help you more easily navigate the dining hall and personalize your swimmer diet plan.
Easy day plate
This plate is for the off-season. If your team takes a 2-week- 1-month break from training or you decide to take a break from hard intense training use this guide.
This is good for light days such as off-season, light walking, and easy yoga or stretch days.
This easy day plate is made up of:
- 50% color (fruits and veg)
- 25% carbohydrates
- 25% protein foods
Moderate day plate
This is for a light day of training and is likely not as common for competitive swimmers. This is for the swimmer who does a light 1-hour swim session <3000 yards or a light < 1-hour strength session.
This can be a great plate model for athletes with a lighter base training load.
The moderate training plate is made up of:
- 35% color (fruits and veg)
- 35% carbohydrates
- 35% protein
Hard day plate
This is how swimmers should fuel on race day and throughout the bulk of their training.
The hard day plate is for the competitive swimmer that trains >/= 2 hours per day. This plate guides swimmers to make nutrient-dense meals to help support peak levels of fitness. Half of your meals should be carbohydrates.
The hard training plate is made up of:
- 25% color
- 50% carbohydrates
- 25% protein
During high-volume and intense training seasons, swimmers will need to aim for 3 meals and 3 snacks per day or 4 meals and 2 snacks. Even a light snack is better than nothing at all!
The key to meeting your energy needs to optimize performance and prevent injury is eating frequently!
5 Final Tips
- Even Olympic swimmers eat “fun foods.” Eat foods that make you feel good and that you enjoy! A healthy diet looks different for everyone.
- Focus on getting enough fuel by eating 5-6x per day, and eat your first meal of the day within 1 hour of waking.
- As you get closer to training focus on light meals, and eat heavy meals 3-4 hours before practice or after your training for the day.
- Eat enough calcium, aim for at least 3 calcium-rich foods per day to protect your bone health.
- The amount of food you need may change depending on your training commitments and the length and intensity of your training sessions. Use the performance plate method to help guide your day-to-day diet.
A well-designed swimmer’s diet plan is one where the swimmer feels fed and fueled. A swimmer’s diet plan must focus on consuming adequate nutrition!
Rather than focusing on media diet trends focus on what feels good and use the performance plate guide to guide your meal planning.
By incorporating sufficient carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and fluids into their diet, swimmers can optimize their energy levels, muscle recovery, and overall health.
If you are feeling stuck consult with a registered dietitian for more personalized guidance.
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.