Eating for Success: Fail Proof Tips for Pre-Season Training

by Surf Life Saving World Champion, Laura Quilter

*Honesty Disclosure! I’m not a qualified nutritionist or dietitian. My suggestions and ideas come from personal experience and observation of other athletes. Nutrition is complex, there are two sides to every idea / study / claim, and I would suggest seeking professional guidance for any major queries or issues.

Purposeful training doesn’t begin and end with kilometres in the water, or lifting weights in the gym, diet also plays a key role in ensuring we’re at our best for the coming season.
But nutritional advice is a modern-day spiderweb of information! Every day a new health craze or food fad crops up in the pages of magazines or in online articles (think turmeric lattes and decorative kombucha bottles). Some advocate high fat, others warn against it. Some rave about packaged health products and others swear by natural foods.

When you’re training for an event, it can be hard to wade through the constant wave of opinions and expert recommendations.

Food has never seemed so complex!

I’m not a nutritionist, but I have been a competitive swimmer for over 14 years and have experienced, first hand, what it’s like to get nutrition right and wrong. The way my body responds to foods has played an important role in my success. After over a decade of competitive aquatics I’ve learned what works for me, what doesn’t, and the pitfalls I’ve fallen into in the past.

So, what key things have I learned about my nutrition over this time?
1. Play!
2. Prepare and Adapt
3. Find your Favourites

1. Play! Experiment with types of food that work for you

Whether you prefer a bowl full of oats, a boiled egg or smoothie, finding the type and quantity of food that suits you best will help fuel your body effectively.

If there’s one truth I’ve learned about nutrition, it’s individual.
I’ve known athletes that would down a large ‘Up&Go’ with coffee and toast before swimming training, while others couldn’t even stomach a banana.

I’m the kind of swimmer who can’t function without something substantial in the tank, so I’ll eat 60-120 minutes before a session. For me, hunger during a session means I lose focus and become quickly frustrated. (Hangry is a very real thing, just ask my teammates!)

I now know that I need to eat at least a bowl of oats before a session, but I also know that if I add a crumpet as well, I’ll feel sick.

When it’s time to get out of the water, protein packed foods are my favourite. Having a small handful of nuts or a protein bar after training simultaneously helps recovery and reduces my likelihood of grazing before dinner.

Training is the time to play around with food and quantities, so don’t be afraid to play with your training nutrition.

2. Prepare and Adapt

Swimming training can be deceptive.
Unlike the gym, where we can see and feel the sweat coming off us, swimming sweat disappears in the water.
It doesn’t matter if I have a recovery session, a long slog or intense training on the menu, I will always bring a bottle of water or sports hydrate with me. Every single time.

Staying hydrated is really important for training as it reduces the likelihood of feeling dizzy, helps to transport nutrients around the body and, most significantly for sea swimmers, it can help prevent cramp.

Being prepared is probably one of the most important aspects of training nutrition- especially for mums and dads who juggle work with kids and finding time for sessions.
The best habit I ever cultivated was keeping nutritious foods in my training bags and car.
Having healthy snacks on hand helps me to improve my mood and keep the sugar cravings at bay!

3. Find your Favourites.

Just like experimenting with type and quantity, what you like may not be the same as what others like. Once you have played around with different options, stick with your favourites. This helps to reduce time spent fretting over what to eat or whether it’s right- you already know it works for you!

Here’s an example of my 5 favourite go-tos for pre and post-training foods:

1) Pre: ½ Cup rolled oats with boiling water, a heaped tablespoon of peanut butter and sliced banana (sometimes I’ll add almonds if I’m extra hungry)
2) Pre: Boiled Egg and carrots with hummus
3) Pre: Two rice cakes with scrambled eggs, salt and pepper
4) Post: Hand-full of nuts
5) Post: Small chocolate milk

So remember, the start of a season is an exciting time to play, experiment and find your favourites. Once you know what works, then introducing new things in small quantities can also be an option.

Happy training!


Laura Quilter: 3x Surf Life Saving World Champion, World Record Holder, and former NZL Swimmer with a weakness for good coffee and terrible dad jokes.

Instagram / Twitter / Facebook: @lauraquilternz