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Nutrition Training : “Fuel in the tank”

Training is more than the hours in the pool.  The athlete and coach have to plan for the work in the pool to be successful. That success includes a nutritional plan or “nutrition training”. Please remember that all the recommendations may be affected by chronic disease states, medications, cultural norms and requirements.

Over-Training or Under-Nutrition?

Articles abound on technique in our five aquatic sports – this swimming recovery, that throwing technique, this clean entry, that routine – endless. How does any of this become possible? Despite sophisticated training cycles, does everyone have a nutrition training program? The best coaches in the world will conduct clinics for a specific stroke or technique. Do they also address the topic of being nutritionally sound so the new aquatic technique will actually build the athlete?

All of our sports are very demanding for training time, technique mastery, attention to detail and both aerobic and anaerobic fitness. There is a close relationship between the ability of the muscle to respond to training and the energy supply or fuel that it has available to it. Power, coordination and endurance are all in jeopardy if there is not a ready supply of energy to the entire body. Great training without great nutrition is not likely to be successful. So, plan to be a champion!

While the focus of this article is on nutrition, remember the other basics — hydration and sleep. The amount of time needed for restorative sleep is widely variable between individuals, but for most there is an eight hour requirement.  Hydration is also variable both between individuals and for the same athlete, dependent upon ambient temperature, humidity and intensity of training. Remember the rule cited in Maintaining Health – “The Best Prevention of Chronic Injuries” appearing in the Jan. issue of FINA Aquatics World Magazine 2010/1. In that article I noted that by mid-day the athlete’s urine should be completely clear in color. Using that rule, hydration can be guaranteed unless there is an underlying medical condition that could influence urine color.

Muscle needs fuel in ready supply. It needs fuel continuously in a mixture that matches the demands under which the muscle is performing.  Sounds simple! A well-conceived training program is designed to challenge muscles and athlete physiology to result in adaptation to the stresses of training.  Positive adaptation results in enhanced performance potential.  Negative adaptation has a negative effect on eventual muscle/athletic performance. Nutrition training matches the fuel supply to the physiological needs of the athlete under the stress of training.

Let’s use an example to think about the relationship between training and nutrition. If an athlete is in the midst of the season, training six days per week with three days of two practices per day, this would be nine training sessions per week. What is the nutritional plan on the days of two per day practices versus those days with one practice per day?  Are there adjustments for the increased fuel needs and differing times of fuel demands? Now imagine that the athlete’s federation holds an elite level camp and our athlete is chosen to attend. Meters per day skyrocket. Do the nutritional supplies increase also? Is this camp a positive experience? Or, is the athlete sore from a week of under-nutrition while the muscles were under advanced levels of stress? What happens when our athlete returns to the home club and training picks up at a higher level than ever before? Is there a nutritional plan?  If not, the camp may actually be a negative experience in the athlete’s development. How many athletes are suffering from “over-training” which is actually under-nutrition?

There are many signs of nutritional failure.  Suspect nutritional failure if the athlete has muscle soreness beyond what should be expected for that level of exercise.  Also suspect a nutritional cause if the athlete shows poor recovery from a training session, as exhibited by early muscle fatigue in the following workout session (or performance). Finally, suspect a nutritional source if the athlete has an elevated heart rate when at rest compared to usual, assuming that there is not an illness or other medical cause.  Once again, is the athlete experiencing over -training or under-fueling?

Nutrition – Before, During, and After

Now, let’s fix this common problem. First let’s look at why we eat and how that differs from why we should eat. Typically, athletes (just like the rest of us) eat for reward, frustration, or boredom. They may eat due to how a food tastes or what that food may mean within their culture or cultural ceremony. For the training athlete, nutrition needs to be balanced and provided to them to meet their physiological needs.

Good nutrition includes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats supplying the exercising muscle to allow for rapid repair and refueling.  Before considering what the athlete needs before, during and after training or competition, we need to understand how these three energy sources are utilized by muscle.

Muscles burn carbohydrates consistent with the amount and intensity of exercise. So, the muscle needs more carbohydrates the longer and more intense the exercise set. Great examples of healthy carbohydrates include basic (without additives) fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates can be divided into many different categories but are easiest when thought of as simple and complex. Complex carbohydrates are time- released and good for muscle fuel supply. Simple carbohydrates can be refer to basic suga r- containing compounds, resulting in quick rises and falls in energy. Fats are also an energy source. However, fat is burned at a fairly constant rate, which is less affected by the intensity of exercise. As energy requirements increase per hour, fat does not increase in its availability to meet that need. We would like to think of protein as a last resort source of fuel. It will fill in the gap from what the athlete needs and what has been provided by carbohydrates and fats. The problem is that the protein used to fill unmet energy needs translates to muscle breakdown. That protein is coming from the muscles, and guess which muscles are selectively broken down first? The ones that the athlete is using in the sport! Thus, if an athlete is not properly fueled  and proceeds on a vigorous training session, the muscles that are most likely to be broken down are those that are being trained, which seems to defeat the purpose of the training session.


Proper nutrition before training or competition requires that the athlete be ahead of his fuel requirements. This is frequently difficult for early morning practices. Once the training session begins, the athlete cannot catch up either for hydration or nutrition. As soon as the athlete awakens, he has to direct his attention to hydration and consuming carbohydrates, which will fuel the first part of the training session or competition. Many athletes have problems processing solids before training or competition and have to rely on liquid forms of nutrition. Pre-practice or pre-event breakfast is not an option. It is a requirement. The foods consumed need to provide simple carbohydrates with a minimum of fat, since fat reduces absorption of the carbohydrates. Pure low fat protein adds sustainability to the carbohydrates but they are much slower to process.

Nutrition during training or competition is not discussed enough. The energy that is consumed prior to the exercise will meet the athlete’s needs for warm-up and possibly the first hour of training or competition. Let’s do some math.  The athlete awakes at 5 AM and is good about hydration and consuming carbs for the competition that day, which starts at 8 AM.  Warm-ups begin at 7 AM. We are approaching two hours out from the time that the athlete ‘fueled up’. Warm-up lasts for 45 minutes. The morning fueling is almost gone if not completely gone. The competition begins with the athlete having no remaining fuel in his tank.

This situation must be addressed by the athlete fueling during the training session or competition.  This can consist of a beverage bottle with an electrolyte, carbohydrate and water mixture.  The carbohydrate can be manufactured and expensive or can be a juice mixture or piece of fruit, which is much more cost effective. The temperature, sun and humidity at the training or competition site will affect the ratio of the water component in that water bottle. As an example, the warmer the site, the more fluids the athlete will lose, so a more dilute solution will be needed. The colder the site, the more energy will be burned to stay warm so the more concentrated the calories will need to be.  Calorie consumption during a prolonged competition with trials and finals is tricky and critical.  Liquids, solids, and small ongoing quantities throughout the day need to be considered. This is not the place for large meals widely spaced. Smaller, more frequent intakes keep the athlete from feeling full or bloated and yet maintain energy levels.

There are several basic rules for nutritional needs following exercise. First eat a high carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat snack immediately after finishing an exercise session. The muscle is open for refueling for 20-30 minutes following exercise. If you are successful at consuming something within that time, the muscle remains open for another two hours so you can completely recharge your stores. The amount of carbohydrates needed is 1.2-1.5 gm/kg body weight/hour for up to five hours post- workout. Protein is also required for rebuilding and repair. The caloric ratio of 1:4 proteins to carbohydrate meets the muscle needs well. The protein also blunts insulin release by moderating the effects of the carbohydrates on glucose levels. This keeps energy steadier and less likely to plummet after a large insulin release.

Tips for Success

Based on the concepts here, including the connection between fuel and training and the body’s needs around the times of training and competition, there are several nutritional keys to guide athletes and coaches.

Tip #1 - Depleting (fad) diets do not make sense for athletes. They eventually slow the metabolic rate, which is not a good thing for athletes.
Tip #2 - Exercise sessions should be preceded by carbohydrates, often in liquid or gel form, depending upon the athlete and timing.
Tip #3 - Consume foods in balance with variety, taking into account the variable exercise demands of training.
Tip #4 - If the exercise set exceeds an hour, nutrition is needed to avoid using muscle for fuel. Also take into account the time passing since the last food intake.
Tip #5 - Plan the exercise set, taking in carbohydrates early in a training session that is planned for over an hour and mix water increasingly as the session proceeds.  (Adjust based upon the environment.)
Tip #6 - More and smaller meals of carbohydrates stimulate a decreased insulin surge and therefore less appetite.
Tip #7 - Protein and fats when mixed with carbohydrates blunt the glucose/insulin response.
Tip #8 - Excess consumption of anything results in fat storage and is a bigger problem later in the body’s daily cycle and farther away for the exercise session.
Tip #9 - Keep concentrated fat sources away from exercise times by at least two hours since that interferes with quick carbohydrate absorption and processing.
Tip #10 - Naturally brightly colored foods are most likely to be high in antioxidants, which are good for tissue repair and the immune system.
Tip #11 - Manufactured nutritional supplements do not replace good sound nutrition. They will be addressed in a future article.

Key Points

Nutrition affects training success.  There has to be a plan in advance, just like there is a plan for training. The two are dependent upon each other to include:

• Training cycles
• Daily variability of training
• Training intensity
• Competitions

The nutritional plan should take into consideration pre, during and post training or competition nutritional demands for success. This includes timing and types of fuel consumed, including carbohydrates, protein, and fat. World class athletes do not become so by accident. They plan for success and that includes nutritional training.

*Jim Miller, MD FAAFP

Family Practice, Sports Medicine
Associate Clinical Professor - University of Virgina and Virginia Commonwealth University
FINA Sports Medicine Committee
UANA Masters Technical Committee
Chair, FINA WOrld Sports Medicine Congress 2004
National Team Physician, USA Swimming
President, United States Masters Swimming 2001-2005

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