Diet therapy

Swim for your life

Whether you are swimming for fun or competition this sport has many health benefits that can be enhanced with good nutrition.

Knowing what to eat and when can also greatly improve your enjoyment of swimming as well as your level of performance.

Health benefits for all ages

Weight control

Swimming and water based sports can help overweight and obese people find an enjoyable way to increase their activity levels. The excess body fat that they carry not only provides insulation against the cold but can also provide extra buoyancy. These factors can help to reduce the stress on knees and hip joints that would otherwise be experienced with land based exercises.1


Water based exercises can improve the use of joints and decrease pain from osteoarthritis.2

Mental health

Water based exercise can improve the mood of both men and women and has been found to reduce anxiety in people with fibromyalgia.3


Swimming is a safe way to exercise during pregnancy. It can help a woman to not only improve her mental functioning but also build up her core strength important for child birth.4

Bone density

Studies of postmenopausal women has found water based exercise helps to improve and maintain their bone density as they age.5

Heart health

Recent research reports that swimming training can help to lower blood pressure and improve the circulation in previously sedentary older adults (>50 years).6

Competitive Swimming

Family Commitment

Good results depend on a great deal of time and effort which can put a lot of stress onto families. This is particularly so when young children become serious swimmers and their parents are required to be on hand to transport their children from the pool to home or school. Balancing work, homework and mealtimes is not for the faint hearted.

Age range

Preparation for elite swimming usually begins at around the ages of 10-12 years and some people continue their swimming careers often competing in Masters Competitions well into their 30’s.

Training sessions

Training sessions are usually held between 5-7am followed by late afternoon sessions from 4-6pm. This allows people to fit their swimming training around work and school commitments. Usually training increases with age and to suit up and coming events with around six to twelve sessions per week.

Training focuses on the development of style and technique and according to the distance of competition. For instance a sprinter may swim 1000 – 2000 metres during a tapering phase of training while a long distance swimmer may clock up 10km. School children seldom train to this level.

A training program usually includes a mix of aerobic (e.g. running or cycling) to help burn body fat and anaerobic exercise to help improve strength, speed and power (e.g. weight bearing and swimming with interval training.

Common nutritional problems facing swimmers

Body weight

Girls tend to have completed most of their growing by 14 years of age so they often have difficulty balancing their need to develop muscle verses their increased tendency to lay down body fat. Often they struggle with weight gain and are therefore more likely than boys to try fad diets in order to control weight gain.

Boys, on the other hand, who experience puberty between 12 – 17 years generally tend to easily burn off their energy swimming and developing muscle and so are often likened to “eating machines” as they seem to be constantly hungry and eating yet remain lean.

Dental care

In an effort to keep up with their high energy needs swimmers often resort to eating lollies and drinking sports drinks and gels. As these have a high sugar and acid content they can quickly erode tooth enamel. Children who find tooth cleaning challenging (such as those who wear braces) need to take particular care.

Snacks and meal times

Children require a great deal of energy to fund the physical demands of swimming and growth as well as the mental demands of keeping up with school work. Balancing the need for protein and carbohydrate around the practicality of meal preparation can lead to meals being eaten on the run with a lot of snacking and eating in the car en-route to the pool or school.


Competitions in the form of carnivals and tournaments can take up whole weekends. This can necessitate children sitting around while they wait for their heats to take place. It is very important that children do take a lunchbox, healthy snack foods and a drink bottle if they are to have sufficient energy to achieve their best performance.


Although surrounded by water the swimming environment can be a very hot one and additional fluids do need to be taken as any loss of hydration can greatly reduce performance.

The need for good recovery

Individual training sessions take a considerable amount of energy which must be replaced if the whole process is to be repeated day after day. This can require the consumption of large amounts of carbohydrate however as these foods are also very bulky the practicality of doing this can prove quite a challenge.

Iron stores

Young male athletes who are growing rapidly and female athletes who are menstruating or on weight loss dietary programs are the two groups of swimmers most at risk of iron deficiency. As a lack of iron contributes to fatigue it can greatly impair performance and so should be routinely tested by those involved in heavy training schedules.

Restricted lifestyle, limited social life

The life of a swimmer can become highly regimented and with early starts and swimming after work or school there is little time for a social life. As a result when time is available for social activity it is more likely to involve takeaway foods and (often) extra alcohol. For those athletes conscious of trying to balance out the needs to be “normal’ with friends verses the need to produce good results in the pool, going out can be quite a stressful exercise.

Nutrition tips for swimmers

Weight loss

if you need to lose weight in order to enhance swimming performance then consult a sports dietitian first as they who will be able to calculate your specific energy, protein and carbohydrate needs according to your varying levels of activity.

Training meals and snacks

If you are undergoing morning training sessions you will improve your performance if you have two breakfasts. One before and another after training (i.e. before work or school)l. Choose high GI foods for the first breakfast such as a banana and cornflakes or toast with honey and then ensure that your second breakfast contains low GI foods and protein such as cereal, fruit and yoghurt.

For afternoon training sessions you need to ensure firstly that you have a balanced lunch such as rolls filled with cheese, or egg or fish with salad. Then around 3pm have another roll or sandwich with low-fat protein or fruit and yoghurt. This will provide you with sustainable energy for at least four hours.

If you are tapering your training before a competition then you may need to reduce your food intake to avoid unwanted gains in body fat.


Training sessions should finish with a snack of high GI food such as a banana or honey sandwich followed by a meal containing low GI and protein foods. In the morning this could be a second breakfast while for the late afternoon session this would be the main meal of meat, fish or poultry and vegetables.


Even if you are just out for a day and swimming or enjoying water sports for fun remembering to stop for a lunch break or snack can keep up your energy levels to fuel that fun. Just remember that alcohol and water do not mix well and can increase risk taking and injury. For more information visit Lea’s article on alcohol and sport.

If you would like specific help then contact us for a nutritional assessment and dietary program.



1. US Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. Arts, Recreation, and Travel: Participation in Selected Sports Activities 2009 [PDF – 2 pages]

2. Berger BG, and Owen DR. 1992. Mood alteration with yoga and swimming: aerobic exercise may not be necessary. Percept Mot Skills. 75(3 Pt 2):1331-43.

3. Tomas-Carus P, Gusi N, Hakkinen A, Hakkinen K, Leal A, and Ortega-Alonso A. 2008. Eight months of physical training in warm water improves physical and mental health in women with fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial. J Rehabil Med. 40(4):248-52.

4. Gowans SE and deHueck A. 2007. Pool exercise for individuals with fibromyalgia. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 19(2):168-73.

5. Mactavish JB and Schleien SJ. 2004. Re-injecting spontaneity and balance in family life: parents’ perspectives on recreation in families that include children with developmental disability. J Intellect Disabil Res. 48(Pt 2):123-41.

6. Sato D, Kaneda K, Wakabayashi H, and Nomura T. 2007. The water exercise improves health-related quality of life of frail elderly people at day service facility. Qual Life Res. 16:1577-85.

7. Rotstein A, Harush M, and Vaisman N. 2008. The effect of water exercise program on bone density of postmenopausal Women. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 48(3):352-9.

8. Nualnim.N,ParkhurstK,Dhindsa M, Tarumi T, Vavrek J, Tanaka H.2012. Effects of swimming training on blood pressure and vascular function in adults >50years of age. AM J Cardiol. Apr 1:109(7):1005-10.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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