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Getting Out of Your Nutritional Box

Dec 18, 2013  - Joanne Malar

Getting Out of Your Nutritional Box

Prior to commentating at the London 2012 Olympics for CTV, I was busy with research into all of the world’s top swimmers. It is always interesting to find out what each swimmer is adding to their program to improve their fitness levels and health. One such example was Ryan Lochte, who was proud of his more recent switch away from McDonalds and of eliminating junk food to adding more wholesome foods to compliment his training program and strong man weight program.

I have met many swimmers who would brag about how they could eat as terribly as they wanted because they trained so much. True, on the outside athletes may not “get fat” from eating badly (fast foods, refined foods, and sugary processed foods can all get burned off from hours in the pool) but that does not mean those athletes are as healthy and vital as they could be. Even if they are still swimming best times, and even breaking world records, they could have swum faster if they were fueling themselves better.

It’s not only about performance either. High performance training can take a toll on your body and leave you at a nutritional deficit if you are not adequately replacing all of the vitamins, minerals, fats, carbs and proteins that are so readily used up with training. Not to mention, symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, stomachaches, headaches and cramping can be improved by a healthier diet. Here are 5 tips for all swimmers, young and old to add to their healthy lifestyle in order to help safeguard and improve their health and ultimately, their performance.

5 Top Health Tips For Swimmers

1 Stay hydrated
2 Eat ENOUGH calories
3 Get rest, rest and more rest!
4 Be Body Aware (symptoms and action)
5 Take the time to train your brain: visualize

Although I could write an article about each of these topics, here are the Cole’s notes version on each tip:

Are you drinking enough?

As an athlete, this is one of the simplest ways to improve your health. The symptoms of dehydration can include: headaches, muscle aches and cramps, decreased motivation, dizziness, and less power. I was working with a swimmer who was about to quit swimming. When I looked at his diet, it was pretty balanced. The only major area I could find lacking was his water intake. This simple addition to his regiment quickly revitalized him and I still see him today in the finals at Nationals.

In order to determine how much water you need, first, ask yourself what you are drinking to dehydrate you? Although there are different views on coffee and hydration, I do not count the water in coffee or caffeinated drinks as hydrating. Second, the non-athlete is recommended to have between 4 to 5 liters of water per day. For athletes who train 2 hours to 5 hours a day, you need WAY more! You are sweating while you swim, and a pre-weight/post-weight measurement can measure your loss of water during workout.

In order to determine if you are drinking enough, just do an urine/pee colour check to see if you are dehydrated. If the colour is close to clear that means you are hydrated. If it is very yellow, drink more water. Simple as that! Studies have reported that as small as a 2% or more loss of one’s body weight from sweating/training can create such problems as fatigue, muscle cramps, and dizziness. Sport dietitians recommend that athletes drink 1 litre for every 1000 calories they eat, which could be water, milk, juice or un-caffeinated tea. So simply carry your water bottle around with you everywhere. To school, to workout, and in the car.

Are you eating enough?

With swimmers, when it comes to optimal nutrition, it should not be about counting calories to restrict intake or worrying about maintaining their physique. Instead education is needed about getting enough of the right foods that are nutrient rich so that their bodies and muscles can recover, repair and revitalize from their workouts.

Each athlete's needs are different, and food/caloric intake is very individual based on one's body weight, composition, metabolism, conditioning and training intensity and frequency. If you are training two times per day, 4 to 5 hours of swimming and dryland/or weights, one could easily need to eat between 3,000 and 6,000 calories per day.

As a Holistic Nutritionist, instead of counting calories, I recommend athletes listen to their bodies. If you are still hungry then eat more good food. If you are able to finish workouts, you have energy, are happy, and are not losing or gaining weight, then chances are you are eating the right amount.

The choice is yours, choose whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and limit as much sugar loaded, processed and fast food as possible. The more natural the better, regardless of the fat content. Try sprinkling your salads with pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. Add avocado to your sandwiches or salads. Cook and bake with whole wheat and gains such as spelt, buckwheat, and amaranth. You can add whole grains to your main dishes like brown rice, quinoa, barley, oat grouts, kamut and buckwheat. All these grains cook similar to rice and are nutritious toppers to salads as well to make them complete. Remember, good fat doesn’t make you fat, it’ll help keep you healthy and fast!

Rest, rest and more rest

Athletes often hyper focus on the training they do, but it is just as important to remember the training you don't do. It is during the rest phase that muscle repair and regeneration occurs. Getting to sleep in the hours before midnight is golden. It is during these pre-midnight hours that greater recover occurs. Getting 8 hours of sleep after midnight will not give you the same rest factor as going to bed at 10pm; those two pre-midnight hours are more beneficial.

We often need some wind down time before going to bed, especially in our world of television, computers, iPhones and texting. Screens do impact our brains and if you can go screen-free one hour before you go to sleep, you will find your sleep may be more restful and immediate.

Be Body Aware

Are you feeling symptoms that are making you uncomfortable? For example, if you notice that you are experiencing trouble digesting (bloating, gas, heart burn, constipation, diarrhea) or your frequency of headaches is increasing, or that you are having trouble sleeping then you may have an imbalance that you need to pay attention to. Causes of imbalances are wide and include food sensitivities, digestive disorders, stress, and organ imbalances.

I recommend consulting a Naturopathic Doctor or trying alternative natural methods to re-balance body organs systems such as acupuncture, meditation, yoga, reiki, reflexology, and holistic nutrition. Don’t just live with symptoms of imbalance; start questioning when you feel a certain way. You can try an elimination diet if you think you may have sensitivities to things such as wheat or dairy, but it is always beneficial to go to an expert that can point you in the right direction.

The body-mind connection

The final tip is for athletes to really explore and utilize the power of mental training. A great read is the book, “Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton, which shows scientifically how important our thoughts are. We put so much emphasis into our training in the pool, weight room, dryland, nutrition, physiotherapy, stretching and so on. And yet when it comes to mental training, the focus is minimal. Athletes often only work on it sporadically and not schedule it in as other disciplines for their training. I believe this needs to change.

We all have heard that in the Olympic final, most competitors are close to the same physical ability, the difference then becomes mental. Who can handle the pressure? Who can cope under stress? Who has the most confidence? Who is the toughest mentally? The person who has mentally rehearsed their desired outcome the most and visualized the result they want, will have a greater chance at attaining it. Few athletes really work on this important area and it can be the decisive factor of who gets on the podium and who does not. Working with a sports psychologist or expert in this field should be a priority. At least reading up on the mental side of sports, and working on visualizing and mental imagery for your races will definitely help give you a new perspective to empower yourself.