High Performance Nutrition for Swim Meets

Nutrition is an important area of successful performance in any sport. Swimmers need to eat nutritious foods to compete and train to the best of their ability. Coaches need to ensure that swimmers are eating well and re-hydrating to complement their training program.  Parents want to help their kids achieve their goals and are keen to support them in every possible way.

Swim Clubs and swimming organisations, selling food and drink at Swim Meets need to ensure that a variety of highly nutritious healthy options that can still generate income and raise funds are available to the swimmers.

Swim Meets, Swim Competitions and Swimming Championships are the places where all the vested interests in swimming nutrition come together: swimmers, coaches, parents and administrators. Everyone is looking for the same thing: how can we maximise the opportunity presented by the competition?

Swimmers want to maximise the opportunity of swimming fast at the Meet. Coaches want to maximise the opportunities for the individual swimmers and team to compete successfully. Parents want their kids to make the most of the competitive opportunity and swim well. Administrators want to maximise the opportunity to generate income from the fund raising activities at the Meet. Is it possible to develop an overall nutrition strategy to meet the needs of everyone?


A feature of successful athletes in any sport is how they take responsibility for their own performances. As swimmers get older and approach open level competition they should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own diet and nutrition program – to become coach and parent independent as far as food preparation and consumption are concerned.

On Meet day, swimmers should check their own bags to make sure all the fuel they will need over the day has been packed. This includes not only an adequate supply of food and drinks for the Meet day but enough nutritious snacks to cover the crucial post race recovery period. If for example, the last race of the day is 4:00pm and the swimmer is unlikely to eat dinner before 7:00pm, it is important that foods like fruit, sandwiches and other nutritious snacks are available to munch on between 4 and 7pm. (It is unlikely you can “ruin the appetite” of a competitive swimmer!).

Athletes, by their actions, are above average people. They choose to push themselves to their limits and in doing so are “high performance” human beings. Just as High Performance motor vehicles use a high grade, high octane fuel, “high performance humans” need the best possible fuel to perform at their best. However, athletes do not need to live a hermit type existence and abstain from all Take Away Foods, snacks, nibbles, lollies etc. The pressures of advertising and their peer group will make a totally junk food free existence near impossible for kids in the current times. The goal should be to practice sensible nutrition habits the majority of the time, to understand the basics of high performance eating and to be aware of the link between good food and fast swimming.

Immediately after racing, drink. Water is perfect, or try other fluids such as sports drink, cordial or fruit juice. Also eat something light within 10 minutes of finishing the race. This is the time when your body is best able to absorb and utilise new fuels.

If the Meet is two days or longer in duration, Recovery Nutrition is an important part of racing successfully. Recovery nutrition is about planning an eating and drinking strategy that helps your body:

  1. Recover from the physical stresses of racing.
  2. Prepare for the racing to come.

This is also called the Repair-Prepare approach to Swim Meet eating. Recovery nutrition is a technique which provides the swimmer’s body with what they need to recover (eg carbohydrates to replace used up energy, proteins for muscle building and repair) and prepare for the next day of competition. In between races, recovery nutrition is about replenishing energy stores quickly and effectively so that the next race can be completed at maximum speed.

Foods that aid in a recovery nutrition program between races include fruit, blended fruit packs, tinned fruits and sports drinks – things that are easy to digest and absorb into the body. To maximise the impact of these “recovery foods” they need to be eaten or drunk as soon as possible after racing.

A key element of a successful Swim Meet nutrition program is Eating Timing. Swimmers need to ensure that their eating program is as finely tuned as their training and racing schedule. If competing early in the morning some swimmers may find it necessary to rise early (3-4 hours before warm up) eat, then go back to bed for a little more rest. Other athletes may chose to eat, then go for a short walk or jog to start the warm up / race preparation process going.

Competition Schedule - What to Eat / When to Eat

Early Morning Heats (8: 00am – 10:00am)

Breakfast – Light meal Complex Carbohydrates the focus 6:00am-7:00am

Afternoon Heats/Semi Finals/Finals (2:00pm-4:00pm)

Light lunch – Salad and Sandwiches. Cooked lunch of rice or pasta. 11:00am - 1:00pm depending on start time.

Allow approx 2 hours between eating and racing

Evening Events (6:00pm-9:00pm)

Late Afternoon Meal (Early dinner) - Small quantities of rice, pasta, vegetables. Bread, bread rolls. Fruit. 4:00pm – 5:00pm.

For a Medal winning Meet morning breakfast try some of these suggestions:

  • Cereals (not the popular Chocolate or sugary ones). Try WeetBix, Vita Brits, Sustain, Just Right, Sports Plus.
  • Reduced fat milk – e.g. Shape, Physical, Rev, Hi-Lo
  • Low fat fruit yoghurt. Selection of fresh and/or tinned fruit (in natural juice).  Sliced banana goes great on Weetbix and Vita Brits!
  • Selection of bread, toast, crumpets, muffins, and spreads such as margarine, jam, vegemite and honey.
  • Drinks – fruit juices, water, and milo.
  • Spaghetti, baked beans or creamed corn on toast.
  • Poached eggs or grilled tomatoes on toast.
  • Pancakes or pikelets (with small amounts of syrup).

If travelling to a Meet where you are likely to be arriving early in the morning or late in the evening have swimmers carry their first two meals with them. This reduces the temptation to seek Fast Food for dinner or breakfast.

Arriving in a competition venue in the evening means that the only food outlets open will be Home Delivery Pizza and the Hamburger chains.

Arriving at the competition venue early in the morning means coffee and donuts or the Fast Food chains.

Weeks of hard work and tough training may all be for nothing if the final two meals before competition are high fat, high salt and high sugar food choices.

Have swimmers follow a set nutrition and re-hydration routine around every race. Try the R-D-T-E-R routine (Race-Drink-Talk-Eat-Rest). Swimmers race, then grab their drink bottles and take a sip, go the coach for the post race review, have a bite to eat then rest.

Lastly, swimmers don’t always notice it, but sweating occurs when training and racing – even though the activity happens in the water. It is vital that a good supply of cool water, cordial, sports drink or juice is on hand at Swim Meets.

Fuelling your Body for Swim Meets

It is important to plan what food you will eat, and when, to ensure you have the energy required to perform your best at a swim meet.

Meets may last for 2 to 7 days, with races anywhere from 20 seconds to 20 minutes depending on the stroke and distance being raced. In some competitions, swimmers may compete multiple times per day, and have as little as 20 minutes to recover between races, while in other situations there may be several hours between races.

What to eat before swimming

Have a high carbohydrate meal 2-4 hours before the first race of a competition. Fluids (mainly water) should be sipped regularly in the lead up to the first race. To avoid stomach discomfort foods should be relatively low in fibre and fat. The pre-competition meal should be planned and practice during training (don’t try new foods or fluids on competition day). Suitable pre-competition meals include:

  • Wholegrain breakfast cereal with milk + fruit (e.g. Weet-bix)
  • Fruit salad with yoghurt and nuts
  • English muffin with jam or cheese
  • Sandwich/roll with salad + lean meat/cheese
  • Porridge with banana and cinnamon

A small snack can also be eaten in the 1-2 hours before a race to top up energy levels. For example:

  • Muesli or sports bars
  • Fresh fruit
  • Rice cakes with nut butter
  • Dried fruit & nut mix

If solids don’t sit well before swimming, or swimmers are very nervous, a liquid source of protein and carbohydrate such as a fruit smoothie may be a good option.

What to eat and drink during swim meets

Swimmers need to make sure that they take advantage of opportunities to eat and drink between events. An eating plan should be developed that fits in with the individual competition schedule and includes familiar foods. Competition eating should be practised during training sessions or intra-club lead up competitions before major events to help identify food choices that will suit best.

If less than 60 minutes between races – keep options light and easy to digest. Carbohydrate-rich liquids may be preferred as they are rapidly digested from the gut.

  • Juice
  • Flavoured milk tetra packs
  • Yoghurt pouches
  • Dried fruit (e.g. banana chips)
  • Small pieces of fresh fruit (e.g. grapes/banana)

If more than 1 – 2 hours between races – a more substantial meal can be eaten to top up energy needs and avoid getting hungry.

  • Pasta/noodle-based dishes
  • Sandwiches with simple fillings
  • Sushi or rice paper rolls

Competition and training venues do not always have suitable food and fluid options available so swimmers must arrive at venues with food and fluids prepared. A cooler bag with drinks and food options should be packed and kept easily accessible for topping up with fuel and fluids throughout the day.

Post-race recovery

Recovery nutrition is especially important during competitions that are held over several days.

Recovery meals and snacks should contain carbohydrate (fuel), some protein (for muscle repair and development) and plenty of fluids and electrolytes to replace sweat losses.

A recovery meal or snack should be consumed soon after the final event of the day, particularly when the next race is the following day. Fluids (mainly water) should also be consumed, based on estimated losses.

Some recovery food suggestions include:

  • Ham, cheese and salad roll or wrap
  • Dairy-based fruit smoothie
  • Omelettes or poached eggs on toast
  • Homemade pizzas with chicken, cheese + veggies

Hydration needs

To stay hydrated, swimmers should drink fluids before, during and after events. 

It can be difficult to identify sweat loss because of the water-based environment, and pool areas (especially indoors) are often warm and humid which increases fluid losses. Water bottles should be taken to competitions and placed in an easily accessible location to ensure fluids are consumed regularly.

What to eat during swimming competitions

When preparing to compete at a swimming competition you need to pay careful attention to nutrition. Here are some tips about what to eat during swimming competitions.

The day before

When competition time comes round, you’ll have plenty on your mind. So the day before the event keep exercise to a minimum – if anything at all – and eat meals and snacks high in complex carbohydrates. You need to keep those glycogen stores topped up.

  1. Drink fluids little and often to stay properly hydrated.
  2. Eat little and often – every two to four hours to keep your blood sugar levels steady and fuel your muscles in preparation for your event.
  3. Avoid big meals or over-eating in the evening – this will almost certainly make you feel uncomfortable and lethargic the next day.
  4. Try to stick to familiar foods. Curries, spicy foods, baked beans and pulses (unless you are used to eating them) can cause gas and bloating, so avoid eating anything that may cause stomach discomfort the next day. It’s best to stick to foods that you are familiar and compatible with!

The morning of the event

Don’t swim on empty. Even if you feel nervous, make breakfast happen. Stick to easily digested foods – cereal with milk, porridge, banana with yoghurt, some fruit or toast with jam.

If you’re really struggling, try liquid meals such as milkshakes, yoghurt drinks or a smoothie.

It’s a good idea to rehearse your competition meal routine in training so you know exactly what agrees with you.

Snacks between heats

Try to eat as soon as possible after your swim to give yourself as long as possible to recover if you have to swim again.

High fat and simple sugar foods will do you no favours in competition. Instead search out complex carbohydrates again.

If you can’t stomach anything solid try sports drinks, flavoured milk or diluted juice that will help replenish your energy supplies and assist the recovery of aching muscles.

The list below offers great food options to be snacking on in and around training for a competition. Remember to keep eating healthy foods from your regular diet though, such as fresh vegetables, nuts and fruits.

  • Water, diluted fruit juice with a pinch of salt or a sports drink
  • Pasta salad
  • Plain sandwiches e.g. chicken, tuna, cheese with salad, banana, peanut butter
  • Bananas, grapes, apples, plums, pears
  • Dried fruit e.g. raisins, apricots, mango
  • Smoothies
  • Crackers and rice cakes with bananas and/or honey
  • Mini-pancakes, fruit buns
  • Cereal bars, fruit bars, sesame snaps
  • Yoghurt and yoghurt drinks
  • Small bags of unsalted nuts e.g. peanuts, cashews, almonds
  • Prepared vegetable crudités e.g. carrots, peppers, cucumber and celery

Swimming Nutrition

Nutrition is an important area of successful performance in any sport. Swimmers need to eat a variety of nutritious foods to compete and train to the best of their ability.

Greg Shaw, AIS Sports Dietitian, talks about a balanced diet for a swimmer, and the types of foods they should be eating and why.