AIS Sports Nutrition


Characteristics of the Sport


Swimmers routinely train for long hours. Typically, 6-12 sessions are undertaken each week, with the distance covered in each session varying dramatically. Sprinters typically have lower training volumes covering less distance but often at much higher speeds and intensities than distance swimmers who can travel up to 10 kilometres per session at lower speeds. Elite swimmers typically train twice a day but during heavy training camps can train up to 3 times. This can mean they spend up to 6 hours in the water. In addition, swimmers usually complete 2-3 weight sessions per week and may undertake some land-based aerobic cross-training such as running or cycling. Training commitments of sub elite or age group swimmers can still be large and it is not uncommon for swimmers in their early teens to be training 10 times per week or more.


Olympic swimming events can last from 20 seconds to 15 minutes. Swimming requires both anaerobic ,and aerobic metabolism with the latter becoming more important as the race distance increases. Although each event may be brief, swim meets are usually held over 3 to 7 days, with swimmers typically competing in heats in the mornings and semi finals and finals in the evening. In minor carnivals, swimmers may have a large program of events and be required to swim 2 or 3 times per session with 20 minutes to several hours between events. 

Physical Characteristics

Swimmers tend to be tall with pronounced upper body muscle development.  Low body fat is an advantage, since swimmers need to move their body weight through water with minimal “drag”. Although muscle mass is advantageous swimmers tend to be lanky and muscular rather than over muscular and bulky. 

Other Issues

It is not uncommon for swimmers in their teens to have similar training commitments to elite swimmers. For male adolescence this is a period of heavy growth and muscular development, requiring nutritional support. The addition of an intense training program means male swimmers can have trouble eating enough kilojoules to meet their energy needs. Adolescence for females brings hormonal changes, which promote an increase in body fat.  Despite heavy training loads, many female swimmers can struggle to maintain low body fat levels. Both male and females can achieve growth and body composition goals during adolescence with suitably planned nutrition intakes. With highly variable lifestyles swimmers can experience numerous challenges as their training evolves. Young swimmers may struggle to access suitable food choices due to availability and time issues. Older swimmers may find boredom and readily available food sources lead to over consumption. Swimmers should focus on a structured meal plan to help them overcome such challenges.

Common Nutrition Issues

Daily Recovery

Swimmers need to match their daily energy, carbohydrate, protein and other nutrient needs to their training needs. Swimmers who fail to meet their requirements will fail to recover adequately between training sessions resulting in fatigue, loss of body weight and poor performance. Additional energy requirements for growth may compound the problem, especially during the teenage years when training and school commitments can make it hard to access suitable volumes of food. Swimmers should also be aware that on days when training intensities are lower food intake should reflect this. To ensure nutrient requirements are meet swimmers should aim to consume foods containing suitable protein (for muscle tissue recovery), carbohydrate (to replace muscle glycogen stores used) and a range of required vitamin, minerals and phytochemicals (to optimise the bodies recovery processes) as close to intense training sessions as possible. This doesn’t always mean an additional snack or sports food as meals like dinner and breakfast can do the job

Fluid Needs in Training

High-intensity exercise in the steamy environment of a heated indoor pool, or outdoors in the sun, can lead to moderate sweat losses, which are not obvious when the swimmer is already wet. Smart swimmers training in these conditions bring drink bottles to the pool deck and drink during rest periods or between sets. Sports drinks may provide an additional fuel supply for those swimmers with high energy needs during long hot training sessions. Swimmers training in cooler pools in winter need only drink to thirst to maintain fluid requirements.

Iron Status

An iron imbalance may occur in swimmers undertaking heavy training who fail to consume sufficient iron. Female swimmers on weight loss diets are particularly at risk. Iron levels should be checked regularly when in heavy training. Iron-rich foods such as lean red meat and breakfast cereals fortified with iron should be included regularly in the diet. Iron-rich plant foods such as wholegrain cereals, spinach and legumes should be combined with animal iron sources (e.g. wholegrain pasta with bolognese sauce) and vitamin C sources (e.g. glass of orange juice consumed with breakfast cereal) to improve iron absorption.

Immune Status

Swimmers often worry about getting sick during periods of heavy training. Many nutritional supplements and strategies have been suggested to keep the swimmer from catching coughs and colds. To date, the most important strategy emerging from immune studies of athletes is to keep well fuelled during training sessions. Sports drink during the workout and a recovery snack afterwards help to reduce the stress on the immune system.

Competition Nutrition

Muscle glycogen stores can be filled by 24 hours of a high-carbohydrate diet and rest. Swimmers who are undertaking a long taper will need to adjust their total energy intake to match a reduced workload; otherwise unwanted gains in body fat will occur. Swimmers should focus on similar issues when recovery from training at the end of competition sessions. Supplement sports foods may be advantageous in these situations but snacks such as yoghurt, fruit, cereal bars or sandwiches are also suitable for longer gaps between races, or for recovery at the end of a session.

This fact sheet is based on National team athletes and is therefore specific to these athletes. Written by AIS Sports Nutrition, last updated October 2013. © Australian Sports Commission.

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