If you have a young swimmer in your house, a recent article on usaswimming.org may shed some light on the importance of their eating habits, particularly signs to watch for if they’re aren’t getting what they need out of their diet. Written by Jill Castle, MS and RDN, she lists 7 signs that your young swimmer isn't eating enough. These include weight loss, lack of growth, decreased concentration, chronic fatigue, frequent illness, trouble sleeping, and poor performance in the pool. Here is a further breakdown of each symptom as illustrated by Castle.
Symptom 1: Weight Loss (or lack of muscle gain)
While this may be a priority for an adult taking up swimming as exercise, for a competitive swimmer under 18 this is usually a bad sign. This means the body isn’t getting enough fuel to burn before practice and races and is instead using valuable fat and muscle as a means of energy. In a growing athlete, this is a major red flag. Be familiar with how much weight your swimmer should be gaining each year. For instance, a 7-year-old should gain 4-5 pounds annually and that number doubles for a 10-year-old.
An adolescent swimmer will need to eat a lot during growth spurts. They may seem like a bottomless pit at times, but it’s just their body telling them to eat more so that they can grow. If you’re not seeing this weight gain occurring, it may be time to examine their eating habits.
Symptom 2: Lack of Growth
Just like weight loss is a red flag in development of a young swimmer, so is a lack of normal leaps in height. If a young athlete is getting far too little food or not sufficient nutrition, the body can’t then follow proper growth patterns for their age. Be sure to act on it before it progresses toward what Castle calls an “irreversible outcome.”
Symptom 3: Decreased Concentration
I think most parents would be disturbed to think that something that helps their child excel in athletics may inhibit them academically. Your child may have enough to get them through a rigorous 90-minute swim practice but are then left with their tank on empty, leading to lack of concentration in the classroom. The brain needs glucose and other nutrients gleaned from a healthy and adequate diet in order to effectively operate. If your child complains that he or she cannot stay focused in class, try to feed him or her every 3-4 hours and see if that makes a difference. This may help them concentrate in class as well as stay more energized in competition.
Symptom 4: Chronic Fatigue
Maybe your child or teenaged swimmer isn’t lazy—maybe he or she has just used up any remaining energy their diet has provide and they then complain that they’re “always tired.” Poor food intake can amplify fatigue and it’s difficult to sufficiently catch up on sleep when the real culprit is diet. Swimming is physically demanding and burns a ton of calories. Not only does the body need to replenish those calories but the body needs good nutrients to facilitate growth and proper recovery.
Symptom 5: Frequent Illness
My mom always told me that being consistently sick meant that I either wasn’t getting enough rest or was too stressed out. Turns out, kids who are frequently ill often have nutritional deficiencies that affect their ability to fight infection/fend of sickness. A lack of a healthy diet can also keep you from getting over unavoidable ailments. You want your child to be eating enough (and well enough) to help their bodies fight off sickness and recover quickly.
Symptom 6: Trouble Sleeping
This one may seem to be in direct opposition to what you’d think would be synonymous with vigorous exercise. However, a recent study conducted in 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that poor nutrition is linked to shorter durations of sleep. Researchers found that people who slept four 5-6 hours a night had diets that missed out on certain nutrients and had less variety overall. Those who slept longer (8-9 hours) had better diet quality.
Symptom 7: Poor Swimming Performance
Training hard and not improving on race day? Times are flat? Race times are increasingly going in the wrong direction? These are all signs that your swimmer’s amount or quality of food is somehow off. Never forget that food is your body’s fuel. If the diet is off, the performance will be too. Take heart! These things are a relatively easy fix!
It is widely accepted in the athletic community that diet is a major focal point for anyone training for some significant competition. Your number one priority as an athlete or as someone in the care of an athlete is to emphasize the consumption of carbohydrates. We all know to carbo-load before a race but it’s also important to make carbs a large part of your diet if you’re an athlete—up to 70% of one’s diet should consist of carbs if you’re constantly competing. This includes breads, cereal, pasta, fruit, and veggies.
Protein is an important part of a diet because it helps to retain muscle even though it doesn’t provide fuel for energy. The average person needs about 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. An athlete may need up to 1.7 grams per kilo. Milk is really good for recovery after an event because it’s a good balance of protein and carbs.
Drink lots of water. This should be something you remind your swimmer to do throughout the day beginning as soon as they wake up. Make sure they’re also drinking before and during an event. Helpful hint: cold fluids are more easily absorbed in the body than room temperature water. It also helps you cool down your body after an intense practice.
It may be instinct to try and inhibit food intake when someone is training hard for a race but in young swimmers, that’s about the worst thing you could do. You may have a kid/trainee who listens to their stomach and eats a lot. This is probably their body telling them they need more fuel. In other instances, you may need to encourage a swimmer to not only eat more food but to improve their diet’s nutrition. Swimming is a high calorie burning and demanding activity. While they may put in the work at the pool, it’s equally important to make sure the right choices get made in the kitchen and cafeteria.
Make sure you check out our other swimming blog posts like this one about what to eat before a swim meet!