Supplements can be very useful at supporting increased demands on the body, such as during intense activities. They can help to supply adequate nutrients in order for you to perform optimally and recover more quickly and efficiently from physical exercise.
This could be anything from vitamins, minerals, amino acids, or additional protein and carbohydrate sources to support energy, recovery, and performance.
Ultimately these nutrients can help you to not only improve your own performance but also feel your best and avoid the risk of injury, soreness, or other complications.
Though dietary supplements are often needed and recommended for more elite athletes and active individuals, a healthy diet should always be the foundation. Remember, supplements are meant to supplement and not replace a balanced diet.
Five essential nutrients to fuel your swimming
1. Vitamin B
B vitamins are essential for energy production as well as breaking down carbohydrates and transporting oxygen throughout the body, which makes it an important vitamin for any active individual, including swimmers. These vitamins are involved in the metabolism of macronutrients transforming food into vital energy that is needed during strenuous exercise but also for general growth and development.
B vitamins are also often referred to as the anti-stress vitamins as they support adrenal gland function protect the immune system, and help to balance cortisol levels.
Individuals experiencing deficiencies in the B vitamins may report fatigue, lowered performance, poor focus, muscle cramps, and even mood imbalances (2).
As B vitamins are water-soluble this means they are excreted more easily through the urine and deficiency can be common. A B complex can help to sustain sufficient levels of the B vitamins when dietary intake through food alone is not adequate.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin, and also hormone, needed for many bodily functions such as immune function, fertility, cognitive function, mood balance, bone health, muscle function, blood pressure regulation, and blood sugar control among others. It is also involved in chronic disease prevention.
Deficiency in this vitamin is quite common, especially in the Northern Hemisphere and during the winter months. Research now confirms that there is an association between vitamin D and sports performance and that vitamin D insufficiency in athletes may negatively affect fitness levels (3).
It is also involved in heart health. Research has found a significant positive association between vitamin D levels and VO2 max, a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness (4)(5). This refers to the ability of mitochondria to utilize oxygen as well as the efficiency of the heart, lungs, and muscle cells to extract oxygen, reflecting total body health but also exercise fitness.
Vitamin D is also a key micronutrient modulating the function and health in skeletal muscle and its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may help to support muscle recovery and improve energy levels (6).
Though vitamin D seems to play an influential role in exercise performance, supplementation is not always required. The best way to assess if a vitamin D supplement is a right for you is to test your serum levels with a health professional. Vitamin D screening is recommended as part of an annual routine examination.
3. Vitamin C
One of the antioxidant vitamins, vitamin C is water soluble and used up quickly by the body, especially during times of stress, illness, or intense exercise which is why regular intake is recommended. This vitamin may influence athletic performance by reducing oxidative stress and damage in the body while promoting healing and repair (7)(8).
As a powerful antioxidant it can help to counteract free radical damage in tissues of the body and even reduce exercise-induced muscle damage (9).
It may help to speed up recovery from intense exercise while supporting cardiovascular health and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease (10).
Let's not forget the important role that vitamin C plays in regulating stress levels, and remember exercise is a stressor! Vitamin C is needed for the adrenals to function optimally and helps to keep stress hormones in balance.
Vitamin C is also an important collagen builder, meaning it helps to build connective tissue, supporting muscle, joint, and ligament health (8). It can help to relieve soreness but also contribute to repair and healing in the body. Collagen has an anabolic effect on skeletal muscle tissue, promoting growth and strength (11)(12).
Iron is an important mineral for athletic performance and fitness as it plays a key role in energy metabolism, oxygen transport, and acid-base balance (13). As a component of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells, it supports the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues.
The brain is also reliant on oxygen transport facilitated by iron and low levels can mean poor concentration, irritability, and impaired focus (14).
Cycling women aren't the only ones at an increased risk of experiencing suboptimal iron levels, athletes are as well (15). Deficiency is more common among women than men.
For many with low iron status, fatigue is a common associated symptom and testing blood levels of iron as well as other markers such as ferritin, hemoglobin, vitamin B12, and hematocrit, will help you to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment.
Supplementing with iron is not always the best route to go as many supplements are inefficient and absorption issues such as gastrointestinal problems must also be addressed as they are common among the general population.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is involved in more than 300 metabolic reactions in the body. How can it help athletes such as swimmers? Magnesium's role in energy production, bone mineral density, muscle function, and blood glucose control has made it an ideal ergogenic aid for athletes (16).
Endurance activities in particular, such as swimming, require specific attention on electrolyte consumption. Magnesium is a key electrolyte that is lost through sweat but also with increased stress.
Magnesium is involved in muscle contraction as well as ATP production inside the muscle cell, and without enough of this mineral, cramping can occur. Magnesium has also been shown to lower lactic acid levels in the blood, a chemical produced from intense physical activity, which can result in fatigue and decreased muscle function if built up in the body (17). Magnesium can help to enhance the clearance of lactate levels, improving performance and energy levels (18).
Low magnesium status has been associated with chronic inflammatory conditions, which can not only have an effect on short-term and chronic health but also athletic performance (19).
Deficiency of magnesium is quite common and supplementation is often recommended especially among active individuals. The more active you are, the more magnesium you will need.
Supplements To Have Before Swimming
Best Supplements For During Your Swim
How can you best support yourself during your swim? Supporting yourself nutritionally before and during your swim can have many performance benefits.
We don't recommend having a full course meal before a swim, however simple carbohydrates may be a good idea to support muscle function, energy, and physical performance. Simple sugars are often recommended to avoid due to the rapid spike in blood sugar they trigger however for active individuals and athletes who partake in intense training this sugar is utilized immediately and supplies the muscles with energy. You want to avoid the more complex high fiber carbs around workouts and include them outside of physical activity instead.
Intense physical activity and strenuous exercise such as competitive swimming put significant energy demands on elite athletes.
For longer swims that require increased endurance, it's important that competitive swimmers stay well hydrated and replenish with electrolytes and sugars as needed in order to maintain a steady output of energy. Electrolytes are essential for hydrating the body for optimal performance and normal muscle function.
Protein is also important for endurance athletes as the body will use protein for fuel when carbohydrate sources run out. A little protein before workouts can help to decrease muscle tissue breakdown and prime muscles for the recovery process.
Acute consumption of a caffeinated energy drink has also been shown to increase certain aspects of performance in sprint swimmers (20).
Energy gels, electrolyte drinks, and caffeine are all popular to consume pre-race or during a race, for swimmers and athletes who require quick nutrition on the go and have increased energy demands. Of course you always want to be careful of the quality of your supplement and not overdo it.
Beetroot is another popular nutritional supplement among athletes as it is a source of dietary nitrate promoting nitric oxide production in skeletal muscle which promotes blood flow and oxygen delivery into the muscle.
Research has shown that beetroot juice supplementation among swimmers increased sports performance (21). Beetroot can help give you that extra push you need to sustain longer endurance activities. But it doesn't stop there! Beetroot has also been shown to reduce muscle fatigue associated with high-intensity exercise while promoting muscle growth post-workout (22).
For every athlete, supplementation will look a little bit different thus it is important to experiment with what works for you. Check in with your health care provider or professional trainer if you are unsure of dosing and supplementation.
Supplements To Have After Swimming
Post swimming, it's time to refuel! This is the time to replenish glycogen stores with carbohydrates and enhance muscle protein synthesis with protein sources.
Carbohydrates are an important part of recovery, especially after endurance or high intensity physical exercise to counteract muscular fatigue and maintain muscle mass from the depletion of glycogen stores. Adequate carbohydrate consumption is a key factor for optimal endurance performance (23).
Swimmers and endurance athletes need a certain amount of carbohydrates to function at their best. Intake among athletes can vary from 6 to 12 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight per day depending on energy expenditure, individual goals, training, and more (24).
Research has found that a 10% reduction in daily carbohydrate intake has been shown to lower performance in a 365-m freestyle test in swimmers, while an increase of 10% led to improvements in both tests of 91.5 and 365 m (25).
Carbohydrate intake during physical activity favors glycogen oxidation in the muscle and helps to keep blood sugar levels stable, while preserving glycogen stores and avoiding protein catabolism (26).
Now let's not forget protein!
Adequate high-quality protein intake is necessary for optimal recovery post-exercise, which supports muscle protein synthesis and muscle repair.
But that's not all. Protein is needed for general health as well as exercise performance. Low dietary protein intake increases recovery time, lowers energy levels, promotes muscle weakness, and impairs immune function.
Recommendations for protein consumption will vary greatly depending on exercise intensity, duration, body weight, and more. According to The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), endurance athletes require between 1.2 - 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are essential for cognitive function and are the main components of muscular growth and repair. The Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) are of particular interest to endurance athletes as these amino acids can quickly become depleted with extensive endurance exercise. They are often supplemented to support recovery from exercise.
Athletes who require additional protein in addition to whole food sources from a well balanced diet can obtain it from protein supplements such as protein shakes. This is also a great way to boost the nutritional status and caloric intake for those who struggle to reach their daily needs.
For any individual to perform at their best and ensure they stay in top health a nutritionally adequate diet alongside sufficient hydration are the foundations to address before adding supplementation as support.
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