My perspective on nutrition and swimming

How I ate 12 years ago

When I was a swimmer (or at least when I pretended to look like a real one) more than 12 years ago I didn’t pay much attention to nutrition. I didn’t eat crap, but I didn’t select my food very wisely either. If you ever swam laps back and forth for 9~12km a day, you know already that the last word you want to listen is “diet”. You also know that your instinct bring you to simply throw down into your stomach pretty anything, at pretty anytime. I didn’t care about food intake and selection because I thought that all those kilometers were going to take care of it. As I am Italian and I grew up in Italy, you can easily guess that my diet was mainly made up of pasta in all its forms, with a good amount of dairy, meat and plenty of veggies and fruits. But, mainly and above all, pasta. I know that this kind of diet is not considered that much wrong for a swimmer. I am not going to regret about how many seconds I could have drop off my PB if I had been more carefull about calories quantity and macros intake, because now that more than 12 years passed it’s pointless. I prefer to think about how I eat at present, and see how I can adapt my eating lifestyle with my swimming now that I am a master swimmer.

So, what is food for me…

First, I should also stress that when I say “food” I mean “real food”, that can be turned by your body into something useful, spendible for “workout” (the concept I hold of “food” has been influenced by Pollan). Not processed stuff. I am lucky enough that my parents are a of a “eat mainly what you can cook with your own hands” style, so processed food has never really been a part of my culture. And now that I have my own family, I realize that I am even more orthodox, and it’s really hard for anything with more than 2 ingredients on the label to find its way into my kitchen. Actually most of what I eat hardly has a label. There has been times when I used to make my own yogurt, my own cheese (growing the culture myself from scratch) and even roast my own coffee. Today I regularly ferment my own sauerkraut and kimchi and sometimes I cure my own corned beef. Recently I experimented with reducing beef tallow, but my wife was so upset by the smell that I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to try again.

…and how I eat now

Today what I eat is different from what I used to. I have not been making any kind of pasta dish for more than 5 months now and more important than this, I have been following a low carb eating style for more than 3 years. I am happy with this and a change is not on my agenda. What does it mean low carb? Depending on the people, the term “low carb” has many different shadows. To somebody it means less than 120gr of carbs a day, to somebody else less than 30gr. My personal low carb developed out of Dr Di Pasquale’s diet, even if I am aware that I am not doing quite exactly as outlined by him. I had to adapt it to my training, lifestyle, needs and tastes. Until very recently I ate about 30~40gr of net carbs (without counting fibers) a day, which means 70~80gr of total carbs. However in these days I am experimenting with less, which means 22~27gr of net carbs, 52~57gr overall. My daily macros are at present 10~15% carbs, 55~60% fat and 35~37% proteins (all real food of course). I am usually low on calories intake during the weekdays but I do a kind of carb up (sometimes more similar to a super carb cheat day) on Saturdays or a carb load a day or two before a competition. My shopping list looks like this: my sources of protein are mainly beef (fat cuts are welcome, skirt, ribs, brisket but also lean cuts as topside and girello sometimes), eggs and salmon; for fat I have avocados, olive oil, butter, double cream, nuts (walnut, almonds, macadamia, brazil nuts…) and seeds (flex, chia, sesame, pumpkins, poppy…). Then veggies, as much as seasonal as possible: plenty of lettuce, cabbage, celery, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus (when they don’t cost an arm and a leg), eggplants or whatever else. Last but not least carbs for my carb up days: fruit (I like bananas, mango, strawberry, blueberry, peaches…but here again, whatever is season is fine) and grains like brown rice, oat (steel cut and rolled), teff and wheat berries.

For me the point of my diet is not whether it can be called low carb or not, whether it is more of a carb cycling, whether it’s sound fine or not. I feel well eating like this, I don’t have any problem. It looks like it works for me, and with this diet and weight training regimen I got quite good results in physical improvement for the last 3~4 years without any health issue (until now at least, fingers crossed) and this is enough to me to keep sticking with it.

Is low carb ok for swim training?

When I took up swimming again last August, and when the idea to go back doing swimming meets was born in my mind, I seriously questioned whether my low carb eating could work also for swimming. I found some sources confirming that carbs should be part of a swimmer diet, but I found other sources saying that using mainly fat as fuel makes a lot of sense for (long distance) swimming. Due to their muscle fibers composition, it looks like long distance swimmer are better than short distance swimmer at using fat as fuel. It has also been confirmed that a carb load before a competition can improve performance and that a low carb diet can benefit endurance athletes.

What should I do from now on?

I am a believer that everybody must find what works best for themselves, as we are all different and nothing is absolute. N-1 experiment, or case study, is the way for me. I am aware that I am not 21 years old and I am not swimming 9~12km a day anymore. Instead I am 34, lifting weights early almost every morning for 1h and 30′ and swimming 20~25km a week. During the last 3 months I also saw that I can do this by sticking to my usual eating routine. Thus by now, “if ain’t broken, don’t fix it”. What I am going to do from now on is a more “reasonable” and less “cheated” carb up before swimming meets. I will see how the first meet goes, then I will consider whether to make some adjustment. Try it first, do your own personal case study, look how it goes, and make your small adjustments. Of course, don’t jump suddenly into something, do your research homework first. Enjoy the endless process of always trying to find a better solution for yourself.

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