It’s hard to fuel yourself for swimming – it’s well known that you shouldn’t do it on a full stomach, and to be fair you don’t see many people shovelling down pasta in the cafe before a hard session in the pool.
But if you’re serious about being a stronger, faster swimmer, then hard, energy-sapping sessions are essential. That’s where energy gels come in.
‘They’re basically carbohydrate in a small pack,’ says Dr Mayur Ranchordas, senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition and physiology at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘There are 3g, or 100-150 calories, in a mouthful that increase energy availability, raise blood sugar levels and help stop muscle damage and fatigue. Most gels are hypertonic – higher in carbs than isotonic and hypotonic energy products.’
They’re also incredibly portable and convenient. You can keep a stash on your gym bag and leave one by the pool in case you need a mid-session boost when in the pool for an hour or more. Plus they are very quickly absorbed so deliver their carbohydrate without leaving you bloated.
Just don’t overdo it. ‘Aim for one gel every 40 minutes, but it depends how hard you’re swimming and how long you’re doing it for,’ says Ranchordas. If you take one too early, your body will crash when you run out of immediately useable energy and you’ll suffer what’s commonly known as ‘the bonk’.
Fighting Power Drain
You’ve probably noticed by now, bonk or no bonk, that swimming is hard work, and it’s also essential you get your recovery right. Whatever your favoured stroke, you’re working the muscles in your upper body hard, so you need to look after them if you want to stay strong and avoid injury.
This is where branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) can help. These essential amino acids – which are the building blocks of protein –must come from our diets because the body can’t produce them for itself. BCAAs can be found in protein-rich foods such as milk, eggs and meat, as well as supplements. ‘Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs can be oxidised and used for muscle fuel,’ says sports nutritionist Anita Bean. ‘And the theory behind supplementation is that BCAAs can help prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue during exercise.’
Research at the Nagoya Institute of Technology, Japan, found that BCAAs decreased delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – that dull ache you can feel after hard exercise – and taking BCAAs ‘may be useful for muscle recovery following exercise’. So fuel your training carefully and your arms and legs will thank you.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your GP before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.