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The Best Carbs to Include in the Training Diet

posted Feb 24, 2015, 6:40 AM by Pat Windschitl   [ updated Jul 13, 2015, 5:29 PM ]

Carbohydrate-based foods are a swimmer’s best buddy when it comes to fueling for competition. Carbohydrate-containing foods can offer a quick burst of energy, or they can load up the muscle with a lasting source of fuel. A swimmer’s training diet should contain two types of carbs: simple carbs to provide a fast source of carbohydrate (think sports drink or dried fruit) and complex carbohydrate foods to offer sustained fuel (pretzels, bread, potato).


Carb loading is the idea that eating a high carbohydrate diet prior to competition prepares the muscles with a ready source of glycogen (carbohydrate that is stored in the muscle) so the swimmer will avoid early muscle fatigue, low energy, and experience superb performance in the water. Although a popular concept, carbohydrate loading is not proven to be effective in young swimmers. 

For one, carbohydrate loading is an approach based on what we know about the adult metabolism of carbohydrate. The reality is there is little scientific evidence supporting the benefit of this practice in the younger athlete (pre-pubertal or pubertal children and teens). Additionally, young swimmers don’t store carbohydrate in their muscles as well as adults. Females, because they have less muscle mass than males, store less. It’s not until teens reach adulthood that they may see the benefits of carb loading. 

Instead, researchers advise a daily high carbohydrate diet for young athletes so they have a readily available fuel source for their working muscles.

The healthiest and best way to get optimal amounts of carbohydrate is to eat a diet that is loaded with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products. Some of the best carbohydrate-based foods the swimmer can incorporate into daily meals and snacks are starchy carbs. 

Despite the media spin that carbs are “bad,” starchy carbs are a good fuel source for the swimmer. Here are some starchy carbs to incorporate in meals and snacks, along with some of their nutritional benefits:

Sweet potato: A baked sweet potato is full of fiber and vitamin A. Nix the brown sugar to keep it a healthy option.

Potatoes: Potatoes are high in fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Eat them baked, not fried, most of the time.

Rice: Rice is low in fat, and if you chose brown or wild rice, you’ll get a kick of fiber as well. 

Quinoa: Quinoa offers a good source of fiber, potassium, healthy fats, protein and magnesium. Cook it like you would cook rice.

Pasta: A classic pre-competition meal inclusion, pasta is a favorite among youth athletes. Bump up the fiber by opting for whole wheat versions.

Corn: It may surprise you to know that corn contains protein and iron. It’s also a good source of vitamin B6 and magnesium.

Peas: Peas enhance the diet with potassium, fiber, protein and vitamin C.

Beans and lentils: Beans and lentils are a nutritional powerhouse. They are low in fat, high in protein, fiber, potassium and iron. 

There are many more carbohydrate-rich foods swimmer’s can include in their training diet. Try whole grain breads, cornbread (made with cornmeal), shredded wheat cereal, cornflakes, pretzels, bagels, English muffins, and oatmeal. 

Which carbs will you add to your diet?



Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (www.fearlessfeeding.com) and author of the upcoming book, Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete (July 2015). She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Find out about Jill at www.JillCastle.com