Nutrition for Young Swimmers

Performance Now, Lifelong Health

Research over the last twenty years documents that what an athlete eats and drinks affects their performance by affecting their overall health. Good nutrition leads to healthy body weight and composition, improved immunity, makes energy more available during exercise and shortens recovery time after workouts and races.

We also know that childhood eating habits follow children into adulthood so it is important to educate our kids about nutrition and encourage them to make the right choices. Americans eat too much junk food – high-calorie, low-nutrient, low-fiber food that does not have what growing bodies need, much less the folate, calcium, iron, and vitamin D athletes require. Early familiarity with healthy foods can pay off in better health and performance now and good habits that last a lifetime.

Wondering what to feed your athlete? START HERE with Power Back Diet, an excellent summary of nutrition for athletes. Don't miss the example of good eating before, during, and after a meet. As student athletes get older they will need to continue to learn more about how nutrition fuels performance and recovery. For a more in-depth look at what to eat and drink before, during and after a workout


It's Not Just the What, It's the When

Before Practice (1-4 hours) Young athletes should have a snack that is low in fat, fiber, and protein to minimize gastrointestinal distress (especially swimmers, who exercise horizontally.) High-water content snacks will help with hydration. Carbohydrates will help maintain blood glucose levels. Experiment to learn which snacks they tolerate well. Start with familiar foods, and adjust upward during growth spurts or sudden increases in practice intensity.

During Practice Most young athletes need only hydration. WATER is the best choice. Encourage several generous sips each water break. An occasional small sip can satisfy the feeling of thirst without replacing all the fluid lost through sweating. This can result in a potentially dangerous condition called "voluntary dehydration".

Many swimmers bring "sports drinks" to practice. Studies show that the only athletes who benefit from them are already low on calories, or are practicing intensely for over an hour, more than once a day, or in extreme heat, cold or high altitude. It appears that relying on these drinks, or on sugary fruit drinks or sodas, may undermine a child's taste for water, building habits that follow them into their post-teen years. Ban "energy" drinks - excess caffeine is detrimental to young athletes.

After Practice (Recovery) Eat a small snack of carbs, protein, and fats within 30 minutes of the end of practice. Glucose and protein can concentrate in depleted cells immediately after exercise, but that drops off quickly. After that the food and drink gets used throughout the body, including being stored in fat cells. Muscles that can get what they need shortly after a workout build and repair. Hungry muscles breakdown instead – not only reducing muscle development but increasing cellular waste that causes slower recovery for more discomfort and less effective future workouts. Many swimmers rely on chocolate milk because milk has a good ratio of carbs and protein that is easily accessed by muscles. See other good choices below.


Your Swimmer is Probably Dehydrated

NAAC has a training plan for your child. Your swimmer needs a hydration plan to support it. As many as 75% of young athletes in America come to practice already dehydrated. An athlete who is a little dehydrated can expect cramping, nausea or headaches during and after workouts. Severe dehydration can be life-threatening. You can access complicated charts to predict your child's needs, but the easiest measure is the urine test. Bright yellow urine means your swimmer is dehydrated. Healthy urine is a very pale yellow. Can't get your teen to share that information? One study shows that asking a young athlete, "How thirsty are you on a scale of 1-9?" is a fairly accurate indicator. An answer of 3 (a little thirsty) to 5 (moderately thirsty) translates to mild - moderate dehydration.

How do you get your athlete to hydrate?

Reminding them that hydration improves performance may help. Let your swimmer know that hydrated muscles are like grapes, but dehydrated muscles are like raisins - dry, stiff, and shriveled. Shriveled muscles cannot react quickly and they can get stuck - or cramp - easily.

Water-rich foods are important to hydration. Try kid-favorites like watermelon, apples, peaches, strawberries and oranges. Your veggie-lovers will do well with carrots, cucumber, celery, and tomatoes. Young athletes who crave pickles may be both thirsty and low on sodium - making them a good low-calorie two-for-one solution for some swimmers. For lunch, pack milk or milk substitutes, yogurt and soup.

Require them to pack their own swim bags - we are all about them owning their sport, but maybe go ahead and provide the water. Studies show supplying clean, fresh-tasting water is the best way to get young athletes to hydrate, particularly if they get regular, mild praise for finishing the provided drink. Just can't get them to drink water? Try making a diluted, whole-fruit based choice at home. This will be healthier than commercial products.

Obstacles to Healthy Eating

Nutrition Know-How  In recent surveys, fewer than 25% of parents know what their children should be eating, 28% of adults don’t know how to cook and 77% of parents feel they cannot limit their kids’ exposure to junk food.  They often believe young athletes can eat whatever they like and “burn it off” and that if their child is a healthy weight they are getting the nutrition they need. Parents are susceptible to misinformation and media hype when it comes to what foods and fluids to give kids who play sports. This is particularly dangerous when they try to apply recommendations for adult athletes. For example, energy drinks designed for professional adult athletes may cause caffeine toxicity when consumed by children. Or well-meaning parents or coaches may encourage kids to eat too much protein, which can cause dehydration and injure the kidneys of growing children.

Bad Choices Schools and sporting venues that serve young athletes do little to encourage healthy eating. Many do not offer healthy choices, or offer them next to tempting but unhealthy choices. They also contribute to “Portion Distortion” – offering increasingly large servings of food. Young athletes need help understanding serving sizes and their calorie needs. A 12-inch Subway roll is 164 grams of bread – or almost 6 servings of bread. Parents need to recognize that children under 12 are not cognitively prepared to understand the long-term effects of the poor food choices they make. It is important to limit junk food and provide nutritional education, ideally by example, when children are young so that they will be more likely to make good choices in late adolescence and into adulthood.

Busy Schedules Take-out and processed or prepackaged food are tempting time-savers. Eating healthy takes a commitment of time and energy that some families do not make. Instead, they rely on processed foods and fast foods. These foods are often loaded with sugar, fats and preservatives and low on nutrients. They distort a child's idea of serving size and create a taste for sugar and fat. Calorie counts are suspect because companies are only required to report calories within 20% of their average count, and the samples they use are often dissimilar to what is served in actual restaurants.

What to Eat

  • Carbohydrates

    The brain needs at least 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to function well. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which is used to provide energy for all body tissues. Since the brain cannot store it, your body needs to provide the brain with a steady source of energy to help with focus and decision making. Adults more easily convert and store glucose in the muscles. They can “carbo-load” before a workout. That is not a good strategy for young athletes. They need to eat a diet of 45% to 65% carbohydrates – ideally complex carbohydrates such as whole fruit, whole-grain breads, green veggies, potatoes, corn, pumpkin, beans and peas. The bonus for complex carbs is that they are generally also high in fiber – another nutritional component young athletes often lack. High fiber foods are digestion-friendly and are filling, so young athletes feel satisfied longer and are less likely to overeat. Compare that to simple carbohydrates which are often loaded with fat and sugar. They are easy to overeat and do not provide a steady source of energy.

  • Protein

    Kids need more protein, pound for pound, than adults, to fuel growth. Athletes need slightly more, as do children with bigger builds and those who are growing rapidly. Spikes in training volume or intensity, such as at the start of a training season, add to the protein demand. Parents can expect young athletes to need between .5-.8g of protein per pound of body weight and it should be consumed throughout the day, not just at dinner.

    Fortunately, studies show that most American children - those without restrictive diets (vegans, dieters) or other health issues - get sufficient protein in their diets - consuming 2-3 times the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). In some cases, children eat too much protein. That can tax the kidneys and liver and increase urination, contributing to dehydration, and calcium loss. This is particularly true in younger children. A balanced diet is safer and more effective for healthy growth and optimum performance.

    One thing to remember is that protein is particularly important to injured athletes. Caloric demand from exercise may be reduced if the injury restricts or prevents training. However,injury recovery is taxing on the body, increasing energy consumption by up to 20 percent. Also, numerous studies show that immobilization leads to rapid muscle mass loss, and that this may be slowed by a protein-rich diet. Consider keeping an injured athlete's caloric intake the same as pre-injury levels, but shifting the balance of calories toward protein consumption.

  • Fats

    Fat has more than twice the calories per gram of carbs or protein. That makes it a good source of calories for athletes who need help gaining weight. However, most athletes who need to maintain or lose weight must have an adequate amount of fat in their diets. Fat provides essential fatty acids, helps you absorb fat-soluble nutrients, and cushions internal organs. It is also critical for optimal brain function. Did you know that your brain is almost 60% fat? Athletes with adequate fat stores can focus, think clearly, and make fast decisions. Limit saturated fats ("animal fats") to less than 10% of your swimmer's diet, avoid trans-fats (hydrogentaed oils), and include heart-healthy unsaturated fats ("plant-based") as a part of a balanced diet.

  • Micronutrients

    Vitamins and MineralsThere is a minimum and maximum amount of each micronutrient. Too much of a good thing can lead to potentially dangerous toxicities. Too little of a good thing can happen even if a young athlete generally eats well. For example, too little calcium can cause muscle cramps in the short term, or even bone density problems long term. Too little iron, a problem for all young athletes, but especially menstruating girls or vegans, can cause everything from shortness of breath to iron-deficiency anemia. A generally nutrient-poor diet will result in young athletes who fatigue easily and have poor immune systems.

    The good news is that a healthy, balanced diet will help young athletes meet most of their requirements. However, few American children are getting the recommended amount of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber. Many teens, especially girls, dieters and vegans, lack iron. These micronutrients require particular parental attention for children in high-growth modes, teens who begin making more of their own food choices, and highly-scheduled children who may skip meals or sacrifice quality for convenience. Do not assume that a young athlete with a healthy body weight is getting the micronutrients they need. Poor diets or diets that lack variety can lead to long-term health issues.