If you swim, you’ve probably experienced that familiar hunger that sets in right after your workouts. Sometimes, you feel like you could eat everything in sight and still be hungry! You may have even baffled friends and family with how much you need to eat to maintain your training routine.
We’re going to explain exactly why swimmers eat so much, how the pros eat and how you can calculate your caloric needs based on your activity level.
Swimming Burns a Lot of Calories
Swimming is a full body workout, and while it may seem fun and easy to swim back and forth in the pool for a few laps, you’re actually burning tons of calories! There are a few factors that play into how many calories you burn swimming:
- Bodyweight: A larger person will naturally burn more calories than a smaller person.
- Workout Intensity: The faster you swim, the more calories you burn. For example, a 155lb person swimming freestyle for 1 hour will burn about 704 calories swimming fast and 493 calories swimming slow.
- Workout Volume: The longer your workouts, the more calories you burn. Many athletes will swim twice per day during peak training. If our same, 155lb person had two, 2-hour swim practices in one day, they could burn nearly 3,000 calories!
Calculating Your Caloric Needs
Whether you’re swimming for performance or weight loss, it’s important to understand how many calories your body is burning each day so you can plan your food intake accordingly. Here’s how to calculate your daily calorie needs:
BMR x Physical Activity = Caloric Needs
Let’s break down this formula, using a 30-year-old man as our example. He is 155lbs, 72 inches (6 feet) tall and trains hard 6 days per week.
BMR is your Basal Metabolic Rate, which signifies the calories your body burns while maintaining bodily functions, such as heartbeat and digestion. To calculate BMR, use one of the following formulas, depending on your gender.
Adult male: 66 + (6.23 x body weight in lbs.) + (12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age in years) = BMR
Adult female: 655 + (4.35 x weight in lbs.) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age in years) = BMR
Our sample swimmer’s BMR is 1,742 calories.
Physical Activity Factor
This number will vary depending on your activity level. Use the following numbers to determine your physical activity level:
- Sedentary (Little to no exercise): 1.2
- Lightly Active (Light exercise/sports 1-3x/week): 1.375
- Moderately Active (Moderate exercise/sports 3-5x/week): 1.55
- Very Active (Hard exercise/sports 6-7x/week): 1.725
- Extra Active (Very hard exercise/sports, physical job or 2x training): 1.9
Our swimmer in this example is training hard 6 times per week, so his physical activity factor is 1.725.
Now, let’s plug his BMR and physical activity factor into our formula to calculate his caloric needs.
1,742 x 1.725 = 3,004 calories per day
He needs about 3,000 calories per day just to maintain his current fitness level!
If weight loss is your goal, you should strive to maintain a moderate caloric deficit (about 300-500 calories) each day. This means that the amount of calories you eat should be less than the amount of calories you burn. Learn more about how to lose weight swimming >
What is a Swimmer’s Diet?
Now that you know your caloric needs as a swimmer, it’s time to get your diet in check! You may feel like you can eat whatever you want when you’re training hard, but that is not the case!
When it comes to building your swimmer diet, think about eating for performance and recovery. What you put in your body makes a huge difference in how you will perform in the water and contributes to your recovery.
Before your swim, focus on eating a snack that is high in carbohydrates. Crackers, toast, fruit and juice are great options.
Within an hour after your workout, focus on refueling with carbohydrates and protein. Fill your plate with lean meats, tofu, dairy or beans for protein, and rice, potatoes, whole grain bread or pasta for carbs. And of course, add some vegetables to your plate, too!
In general, try to avoid eating too many processed foods and refined sugars. Focus on lean protein, fruits, veggies and complex carbs!
Different Diets for Swimmers
Many swimmers choose to eat a special diet that helps them feel their best. Whatever diet you choose, we recommend consulting a doctor or registered dietitian to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
- Mainstream Diet: This diet incorporates meat and animal products, along with grains, dairy, eggs and vegetables. The majority of people eat this way.
- Vegetarian: Vegetarians don’t eat meat, but may still eat dairy and eggs.
- Vegan: Eliminating all animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs, from your diet.
- Keto: Keto focuses on low carb intake and high fat intake. Some studies have shown eating Keto can help with recovery and brain function.
- Paleo: This diet is based on what our ancestors would have eaten thousands of years ago. People on the Paleo diet avoid processed foods, dairy, grains and sugar.
Whatever your diet, what matters most is eating enough calories and getting the right balance of carbs, protein and fats. When you don’t eat enough, you will feel sluggish in the pool and can increase your risk of injury.
Pro Swimmer Diets
Now let’s take a look at how some of the world’s top swimmers eat! In general, most elite swimmers avoid processed foods. Junk food isn’t going to help them swim faster!
Beyond his incredible medal count, Michael Phelps is also famous for his insane training diet. He ate 8,000 to 10,000 calories per day to fuel his 30 hours per week of training. He said in an interview that maintaining his diet felt like a job!
Related: Should You Eat on an Empty Stomach?
So, what did a full day of eating look like for Michael? According to a 2012 interview with Men’s Health, he would eat a large ham and cheese omelet, a big bowl of oatmeal, fruit and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was often a hearty meatball sub. For dinner, Phelps piled his plate high with lean meats, whole grains and lots of veggies. He usually went back for seconds!
American swimmer Michael Andrew goes against the grain with both his diet and his training. He fuels his USRPT workouts with a Keto diet. He cut out almost all carbs and focuses on a solid protein and fat intake instead, so that his body uses fat for fuel instead of carbs. Check out our interview with Michael to learn more about his diet >
American breaststroker Cody Miller follows the Paleo diet most of the time, focusing on a high carb intake, good fats and lots of lean protein, mostly from plant-based sources. He avoids most junk food, candy, fast food and soda. He treats himself with a cheat meal every Saturday night, usually opting for pizza or chicken wings.
Check out this video on Cody’s YouTube channel for an in-depth look at what he eats each day.
Team USA distance queen Katie Ledecky needs lots of fuel to swim as fast as she does! For breakfast, she typically opts for oatmeal with banana and berries. For lunch, she’ll whip up some scrambled eggs with veggies and toast. She always keeps fruit and granola bars on hand for healthy snacks on the go. At dinner time, she loads her plate with chicken or steak, veggies, and rice or pasta.
Let us know how you fuel your swim training in the comments! Share your tips and tricks for keeping that post-swim hunger at bay.