Macro…what? A Swimmer’s Cheat Sheet to Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates

By Dana Monsees | Real Food with Dana

At some point, we’ve all heard from friends, parents, or even thought ourselves that it doesn’t matter what you eat when you’re a swimmer training at high volume, because you’ll just burn it off, right? So why do we need to talk about nutrition? Michael Phelps eats 12k calories a day worth of McDonald’s burgers and fries and can still win 8 golds at one Olympics, right? WRONG. First of all, Phelps doesn’t do that, and if he did, he would probably swim like garbage compared to what he would be able to do eating a healthier diet. Food is energy, and at this high of a training volume, you’re probably going to burn it all off. But that doesn’t mean putting all kinds of junk food in your body is going to be doing you any favors, in the pool or out of the pool. If you eat tons of junk food, you’re going to 1) feel like junk and 2) swim like junk, compared to what you could do if you were fueling your body with real, healthier foods.

To understand how to best fuel your training, you need to understand the basics of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

If you look in the media, you might hear something along the lines of: protein is to get you huge muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger, carbs make you fat, and fat makes you fat. But for women, protein helps you lean out. Right? WRONG. What you have to remember is most of those (garbage) headlines are 1) scientifically incorrect, 2) aimed at the majority of the adult American population – who sit on the couch and eat junk food all the time, and 3) not directed at athletes, especially not athletes who are still growing.

In reality, protein is a part of every single one of the cells in your body. When you exercise, you are making tiny tears in your muscles, which then repair and grow with the help of nutrition (protein), especially when eaten in the meals after training and recovery (sleep), which makes you stronger. Protein also helps you stay full for longer, as it slows down the digestion of carbohydrates and fats. Some examples are meats and fish, beans and legumes, and protein supplements (like protein powder).

Carbohydrates are the body’s favorite (and fastest) source of fuel, both for when you’re exercising, and doing everyday things like breathing, digesting and sleeping. For athletes, carbohydrates provide quick energy to your muscles before training or a competition, and are the quickest (and best) way to re-fuel after training or racing. Athletes’ diets should have two kinds of carbohydrates: simple carbs to provide fast fuel (sports drinks, dried fruit, GU’s or chews) and complex, slow-digesting carbohydrates for long-term fuel (sweet potatoes, rice, etc.).  Eating carbs (or healthy dietary fat) does not make you fat. Eating junk food and sugar all the time makes you gain body fat.

Consuming healthy fats is extremely important for both health, to provide long-term energy, and to help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E & K), which help all the good stuff like your hormones, healthy skin and hair, and to support your brain and nervous system function. While carbohydrates provide immediate energy, fat can provide sustained energy during longer practices and training sessions, since it takes longer to break down. Some examples of healthy fats are avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut, olive oil and butter (yes, real butter!).

You want to eat better, feel better, and swim faster? Focus on real, natural foods for the majority of your diet. If it came from a plant, animal, or the ground, it’s real. Think meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and unprocessed grains. If it came from a factory, a package, or pizza delivery guy, not so much. The key is to understand what balance of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins works best to fuel your training and energy throughout the rest of the day so you can feel and perform your best.

5 thoughts on “Macro…what? A Swimmer’s Cheat Sheet to Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates

  • May 2, 2016 at 1:57 am

    Inquiring minds want to know… where does dairy fit into the equation?

    • May 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      Hi Inquiring Minds,

      Dairy products are a combination of protein, carbohydrates and fats. All dairy products start as whole milk, which has a higher fat content, and contains all the fat-soluble vitamins mentioned above. If the fat is removed to produce a skim milk or low-fat product, the percentage of fat goes down, and therefore the percentage of carbohydrate and protein goes up. However, the vitamins found in the fat are also removed. The main carbohydrate molecule in milk is lactose (milk sugar), and all sugars are digested in the body as carbohydrates. There is also a protein component, which makes chocolate milk an ideal post-training snack because of its ratio of carbohydrate to protein, which is about 3-4:1. Hope that helps!


      • May 5, 2016 at 1:40 pm

        Using whole milk the best choice moderation?

  • May 5, 2016 at 6:04 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Yes, whole milk would be the best choice in moderation (in most situations). Low-fat chocolate milk is okay for after practice, because we want the protein and carbohydrate in chocolate milk to get to the muscles as fast as possible to speed up the recovery process. Fat (and the fat in whole milk) slows down digestion, and will slow down this process. But at other times, whole milk is the best choice to make sure you’re getting the beneficial fat-soluble vitamins from this least processed form of milk.

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