Creatine for Swimmers

Take Home Points on Creatine for Swimmers:
1. Creatine monohydrate is the most effective and most researched form of creatine supplement
2. 20% of athletes do not respond to creatine supplementation
3. May improve competition performances in shorter races (i.e. 50m, 100m, 200m)
4. May aid in training intensity during dry-land training and ultra-short race pace training
5. May hinder competition performances in longer races

You have probably heard of creatine before.  But do you know what it actually is? How it works? Or the possible role it can play for swimmers?

First, it is important to know that creatine is not prohibited by WADA.  It is also widely accepted as an ethical performance-enhancing supplement, and is in no way, shape, or form associated with steroids. It is also important to know how creatine works in the body so that we can start to understand the concepts and uses of a creatine supplement.  The following are the basic facts that you or your athletes need to know about creatine’s role in the human body.

Internal Creatine (In The Body)

Lets start with phosphocreatine, or creatine phosphate (CP).  CP is a naturally occurring energy store in the human body. Creatine is a peptide containing a high-energy phosphate. CP’s role is to donate its phosphate group to form ATP (our body’s primary source of energy).  This occurs as our muscular ATP stores become depleted, typically within the first 10 seconds or so of maximal intensity exercise (e.g. 25m sprint).  This is often known as our ATP-CP energy system. 

External Creatine (Supplements)

Does it actually work?

In short, yes, creatine supplementation works.  Resting CP levels are typically around 125mmol/kg of muscle.  However, the body seems to be able to store around 160mmol/kg before hitting a ceiling where it will not store any more.  About 80% of athletes who supplement creatine will experience an increase in ATP-CP related performance.  This is due to a rise in resting CP stores from around 125mmol/kg to the 160/mmol/kg limit.  (20% are considered “non-responders” wherein they rest closer to their ceiling or their ceiling is below average, or more likely a combination of the two).  For “responders”, the almost 30% increase in muscular CP directly translates to increased duration of the ATP-CP system function.  Simply put, more creatine means more energy for muscles.

CP is the body’s internal form of creatine. Like I said above, CP is creatine bound to phosphate.  Creatine monohydrate is THE basic form of supplemental creatine.  Wherein a creatine molecule is bound to 1 water molecule.  And, with so many variations of creatine on the market, it would take quite a while to find the research and compare each and every type of creatine.  So, instead of getting into all of this, I am going to focus on the supplementation of creatine monohydrate, as it is the most researched and proven to work (You’ll have to take my word for it).

Dosing Protocol

So bottom line, creatine monohydrate does its job of increasing CP stores.  Next lets talk about how to use this supplement.  The following is a typical, well-researched procedure for supplementing with creatine:

·      Loading phase (5 days) – 20g of creatine monohydrate, taken in 4 separate servings throughout the day (4x5g). 

·      Maintenance phase – 5g of creatine monohydrate taken once per day. Realistically, even 3g/day would probably do fine for maintaining saturated CP stores.

Typically creatine monohydrate will come with a 5g scoop.  If yours doesn’t have a scoop, 1 tsp is approximately 5g.  Now the loading phase is not necessary to maximize creatine phosphate (CP) stores, but it will allow you to do so quicker (approximately 5 days).  Without a loading phase, a maintenance dose will eventually maximize creatine phosphate stores, but will take much longer (20-30 days). 

Some research indicates that taking a serving of creatine following a training session may be the most effective way of absorbing it.  However, the reality of it is this: when you take your creatine probably won’t make a difference since you will be maxing out your CP stores regardless. 

The take home message here:

Don’t get too anxious about timing your creatine ingestion.  Just try and get 5g/day.

If you miss a dose one day, carry on as if it never happened, it takes 4-6 weeks for CP stores to return to normal levels. It won’t happen to you in a day!

Uses for Swimmers

Remember which energy system creatine is fuelling.  The ATP-CP system lasts seconds, not minutes!  Creatine supplementation will improve performance in shorter races (i.e. 50m Freestyle) rather than longer ones.  It is interesting to note that when CP donates its phosphate to form ATP, it binds up a H+ ion.  H+ ions are responsible for muscular acidosis, which decreases muscle contraction strength.  You may know this better as that “lactic acid burning”.  So, swimmers competing in races than venture into a few minutes’ duration (e.g. 100m, 200m races) may benefit from increased CP stores as a result of creatine supplementation.

However, even swimmers that don’t compete in 50m, 100m, 200m races may still benefit from creatine supplementation in their high intensity training (e.g. ultra short race pace training USRPT).  Additionally, if these athletes are doing weights in dry-land training with the goal of producing some nervous adaptation, then creatine will help them hit those last few reps with speed. Keep in mind that the harder a swimmer can go in practice or training, the greater their adaptation will be.  This will translate to improved competition performance. 

A typical side-effect is weight gain of several pounds.  It happens quite rapidly.  This is fine, safe, and expected.  With increased CP stores in muscles comes increased water retention as well.  Now, this creates an interesting issue from the propulsion/drag standpoint.  For athletes that compete in 50m, 100m, 200m races, having loaded CP stores probably “outweighs” the weight gain, because of the improved power output in those races.  Athletes who compete in longer events may want to utilize a creating supplement in training to elicit greater adaptation, but cycle off before a competition to lose the additional water weight.  If this is the case, the athlete should cease supplementing creatine for about 4 weeks before the competition.  This should be adequate time for CP stores to return to normal levels, and the body to shed the excess water weight.

By Kevin Iwasa-Madge BASc, CISSN owner of iMadgen Nutrition, and as a former top-5 finisher in the world as a freestyle wrestler, Kevin embodies the lifestyle of an elite athlete. Kevin completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in the Applied Human Nutrition. This clinically focused program allowed him the opportunity to address a range of diseases from a nutritional approach. After graduation Kevin attained his certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 

Athletically, Kevin has been an elite wrestler for over 10 years, competing for both the University of Guelph and Team Canada. Kevin is a former First Team All-Canadian, Academic All-Canadian, and Canadian Champion. As a varsity athlete, Kevin was short-listed for the prestigious Student-Athlete of the Year award. He currently trains with and competes for the Guelph Wrestling Club and National Team. Over the years, Kevin has worked with a range of individuals, from those looking to improve their overall health, to rugby player, football players, swimmers, professional fighters, wrestlers, endurance athletes and more.

Is Chocolate Milk a Good Recovery Aide for Swimmers?

Take Home Points on Is Chocolate Milk a Good Recovery Aide for Swimmers?
  1. Milk has a beneficial protein to carbohydrate ratio for aiding recovery.
This question was received from one of our readers. If you have a question for the
Swimming Science team, e-mail us today or tweet @swimmingscience #swimsciq! What are you waiting for? Send us a question today!

[Editors Note: A recent research article [which is available for free] was just released about milk compared to Casein].

What is up with chocolate milk? Is it a good recovery aide? If so, how much does a 120
high school female need after a workout? What other supplements/nutrients are helpful after practice? Thanks!

Short Answer: Yes.
Extended Answer: Chocolate Milk has been touted as a performance enhancer/ recovery aid largely throughout the sports community since at least the new millennium.  The basis in this comes from the idea that chocolate milk has an ideal ratio of carbs to protein, which helps deliver protein to damaged muscle tissue.  This thought is based around the fact that the sugary additives in the chocolate milk create a higher insulin response (which is the body’s nutrient ‘carrier’).  In theory this is great, higher carb levels lead to higher protein/nutrient content being shuttled to skeletal muscle to promote healing—so far so good.

One area that is overlooked in this debate, however, is the breakdown of types of protein in milk.  The two major types of protein are casein, commonly found in supplements which advertise ‘time-released formulas’ or ‘overnight recovery aide’, as well as the more known whey protein.  Whey is the type of protein which receives the majority of the media hype, as well comprises most protein supplements.  You may be able to tell a whey protein product from the phrases on its package saying things similar to ‘rapidly digesting’ or things of this nature. 

One idea recent scientific evidence is pointing to, is that types of protein, and release patterns may not relate to recovery as significantly as we previously thought.  But one other benefits of whey protein is that is highly insulinogenic; this means that the whey protein in itself releases a large surge of this insulin that we’ve been talking so much about (whey protein causes about a 1:1 spike in insulin when compared to simple sugars).  So what does this mean?  The current idea in nutrition is that insulin caused by the sugary additives in the chocolate milk creates releases a surge in insulin, which can then shuttle the protein to skeletal muscle which has been damaged by vigorous activity (in this case a swimming practice or meet), but this new research suggests that whey releases enough insulin itself to do the job of the sugar, making the sugary additives obsolete.

So as of this point in the article, it seems like I’m making the case for regular milk, over chocolate—but both of which, have their place.  While the caloric reduction, as well as the insulinogenic benefits from the whey may seem to do the job in white milk, the extra calories of the sugar might be more beneficial for athletes (in this recovery setting).  Because the body uses primarily muscle glycogen (sugar stored in the muscle) during intense swimming bouts, restoring this as soon as possible after exercise is important, and chocolate milk just happens to be a convenient way to do so. 

For amount of chocolate milk, a 12-16 oz. container, which you may find at the store is perfect.  You don’t really need to worry about specific volumes, or calorie counting, until your diet is already extremely regimented.  Of course there is the issue of lactose intolerance, which is extremely common, and grows more prevalent as we age.  Under this circumstance, obviously it varies by the individual.  Many can get away with a single serving of milk, but others cannot.  If you experience gastrointestinal upset from milk, it should be avoided; however, if you are capable of digesting this with no adverse effects, it can be very beneficial.

One thing I find very commonly with athletes is that, when they pick a chocolate milk product, they go for the low fat.  This is also not what you want, as I said before, this post workout period is a great time to consume more calories to recover.  Fat is no exception to this rule.  For years fat has been vilified as a main cause of heart disease, inflammation, and a laundry list of other problems, but fat appears to just be a scapegoat.  Fats, including some saturated fats (like the kinds in milk), are extremely beneficial for hormone regulation, and therefore recovery. 

So when it comes to choosing between milk for recovery, I suggest full-fat chocolate milk.  If you are however, looking to watch your calorie intake, I first suggest eliminating the extra calories in the form of artificial sweeteners in the chocolate milk—so go with white, whole milk, in this situation.  And although you may be gaining some extra calories from this fat initially, you will be recovering better, and feel more satiated from the fat content for longer, making it easier to decline other foods later on.

As far as other supplements are concerned, none work as well as whole, minimally processed foods.  As I do understand your diet may not always be ideal, I do suggest a complete multivitamin taken daily.  I know in this specific case we’re talking about a 120 lb. high school female, so I would just suggest maintaining a high level of protein intake (making sure to get a full serving of protein-rich food per meal), which can be a large problem with the young, female demographic.

As far as other nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and the fiber you need will come naturally with a healthy diet. And as I stated earlier, we can’t really vilify anything, a good balance of healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates will be a huge key in injury prevention, recovery, well-being, and your athletic success.

Written by John Matulevich a powerlifting world record holder in multiple lifts and weight classes, as well as a Head D-2 Strength Coach, and previously a nationally ranked college athlete. His concentrations are in sports performance, powerlifting, and weight training for swimming. To learn more about how John trains his athletes, check his Twitter page: @John_Matulevich. He can also be reached at with inquiries.

Friday Interview: Dr. Vassilis Mougios Discuses Nutrition for Swimmers

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.). 

I am Professor of Exercise Biochemistry at the School of Physical Education and Sport Science at Thessaloniki, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh), Greece. I am a chemist by training and did my PhD in muscle biochemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I have been a faculty at the AUTh for 25 years, teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, mentoring, doing research on exercise biochemistry and physiology, as well as writing scientific papers and books.

2. You recently published numerous articles on swimming and nutrition. What do we know about swimmers and their nutrition? 
Research on swimmers’ nutrition has yielded many interesting findings. Swimmers are, in several cases, not meeting their macronutrient requirements (for example, excessive intake of fats in place of carbohydrates) or micronutrient needs (for example, suboptimal intake of iron). Nevertheless, energy intake, as a whole, seems to balance energy expenditure. Another finding is that swimmers use dietary supplements that are frequently excessive and unnecessary. 

3. What are some myths about swimmers’ nutrition?
Extremely low-energy, or crash, diets, aiming at rapidly reducing body weight, are unsafe and usually accompanied by a drop in performance. Energy intake should just be individually tailored to meet energy demands and nutrient needs of the swimmer during each training phase. If weight loss is needed or desired, energy balance should be moderately negative so as not to compromise health and hamper performance.

Dietary supplement use among swimmers is, in many cases, scientifically unjustified. Swimmers should not give in to nutritional trends before seeking advice from a qualified professional.

4. How can swimmers nutrition be improved? 
Nutritional education can help swimmers implement good dietary habits, which, in turn will help them meet their nutritional needs. The need for nutritional education targeted at athletes, their parents and coaches is often highlighted in the literature. Dietary analysis and evaluation, along with hematologic and biochemical testing, as well as anthropometric evaluation, are indispensable in order to estimate individual needs and pinpoint possible inadequacies. Regular re-evaluation should also be in order.

As a general guideline, swimmers should incorporate a great variety of foods (such as vegetables, fruits, pasta, red and white meat, dairy products, cereals and fluids) in a carefully planned daily schedule (encompassing 5-6 meals) and adapt this schedule to the particular demands of training phase and goals.

5. Many athletes are attempting a Low Carb High Fat diet, what do you think of this idea for sprint and distance swimmers? 
Such diets seem improper for swimmers from both a health and performance standpoint. Surely, sprinters do not rely on fats for success in their events. Distance swimmers use more fats (compared to sprinters), mostly during prolonged training sessions; however, these too draw more energy from carbohydrates than fats. Low carbohydrate availability, although it may facilitate some training adaptations in some cases, has not been tested in a competitive environment, more so in swimmers. Low Carb High Fat diets can have negative effects on performance, recovery, body mass, body composition, immune system and lipidemic profile of swimmers.

6. If an athlete could afford any testing or consulting on nutrition, what should they do?
They should have their diet analyzed in conjunction with hematologic/biochemical testing as a first step towards better nutrition. A qualified professional could use this information to assess possible inadequacies and suggest corrective measures. Such procedure can improve training adaptations, recovery, performance and the overall health of swimmers.

7. What supplements do you think are helpful for swimmers?
Creatine can enhance the yields of power training and performance in events relying on the ATP-phosphocreatine system. Sodium bicarbonate has been found to enhance performance in events relying on the anaerobic breakdown of carbohydrates. Caffeine has been found to enhance performance in events lasting longer than 4 minutes by decreasing the rate of perceived exertion. Nitrates have been found to increase exercise economy, although data on swimming performance are scarce. Sports drinks (containing carbohydrates and electrolytes) are suggested during training and prolonged events to prevent carbohydrate depletion and dehydration. Micronutrient (such as iron and magnesium) or macronutrient supplements (such as carbohydrate and protein) can be helpful in cases of inadequate or imbalanced nutrition. Supplements should only be used under expert supervision and should be tailored to the specific needs of the swimmer. Always bear in mind that supplements are, well, supplements; they can’t substitute for a well-balanced diet.

8. How should supplement use be improved in swimming?
Primarily, through nutritional education of swimmers, their parents, and coaches. All these should be thoroughly informed about best nutritional practices, optimal food selection, as well as the pros and cons of the various supplements on the basis of available scientific evidence. Second, through the implementation of dietary analysis and hematologic/biochemical testing in order for inadequacies to be spotted and remedied. An expert on sport nutrition should always be the one to recommend supplements and the way they should be used. Adverse health effects or doping outcomes are a real danger of sloppy supplement use.

9. If someone is on a budget, what are the easiest nutritional tips for elite swimming performance?
A wide variety of foods can improve a swimmer’s dietary status and performance. Foods that are inexpensive in most countries can easily supply swimmers with all the nutrients they need. Fruits and vegetables are rich in micronutrients; pasta, rice and potatoes are rich in carbohydrates; chicken and dairy products are rich in proteins, minerals, and vitamins. All these foods are rather low-cost. Use the highest variety possible; it’s the best recipe against nutrient deficiency and the need for expensive supplements.

10. What are some emerging ideas/hypotheses about elite athlete nutrition? 
Nutrient timing, especially around training sessions or competition, seems to be a promising concept regarding swimmers’ nutrition. Optimal energy supply, recovery, and adaptations, all leading to increased performance, might be achieved through proper timing and control of dietary intakes.

11. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
Over the past few years, our attention has been attracted by a rather overlooked biological specimen in exercise science: urine. Our data from running and swimming studies show that urine possesses certain advantages over blood in terms of the information they provide about exercise metabolism. We plan to publish such information from swimmers’ urine analyses in the very near future. 

Swimming has also been an attractive exercise model to apply on laboratory animals. We are currently examining the effects of life-long exercise (daily swimming) on metabolism and frailty status of rats. Naturally, it would be preferable to conduct such a study on humans but this would take a lifetime (literally). In contrast, it’s easier to do it with rats that live about two years. Hopefully, the results of this study will be applicable to us humans.

Multivitamins for Swimmers? Do They Work?

Take Home Points on Multivitamins for Swimmers? Do They Work? 

  1. Multivitamin supplementation for 7 - 8 months does not increase performance.
  2. Coaches should reconsider their travel and team meals, stressing healthy options for long-term nutritional health. 

Having minimal mineral and vitamin levels is likely a prerequisite for elite performance. Many feel athletes undergoing heavy training volumes and intensities require different vitamin/mineral consumption for maximal performance. In fact, some feel it is difficult for many to maintain certain mineral and vitamin levels due to the demands of training. 

Combine this with other factors which alter vitamin/mineral levels like age, sex, season, and vitamin/mineral supplementation seems imperative.

Telford (1992) split eighty-two subjects (23 swimmers, 24 gymnasts, 21 basketball players, 14 rowers; M=49, F=32; ~18.95 years) into an experimental or control group. Both groups were supplemented with iron (ferrous sulphate) if their plasma ferritin concentrations fell below 30 ng/ml (measured throughout the study). 

The experimental groups took a daily vitamin and mineral supplementation tablets. The controls received a placebo. All participants received nutritional education. Performance tests were taken before and after the 8 week intervention. 

Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation on Body Composition

The results noted similar nutrient intake between groups. The basketball players had a significant increase in body weight for the experimental protocol. There was also a significant increase in skinfold for the supplement group of basketball players. Iron intake dropped below 100% in the control group of gymnasts. 

Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation on Performance

No significant effects of performance were measured in the swimmers, gymnasts or rowers. There was another significant improvement in vertical jump in the supplement group of basketball players. 

The diets in these athletes reached the recommended dietary intake (RDIs) for vitamins and minerals). In athletes meeting the minimum RDI did not alter performance. The weight gain in the basketball players is surprising, potentially by increasing the B6 status and increasing power development.

Supplementation in athletes already reaching RDIs of vitamins and minerals does not improve performance. However, many will question if RDI is the best method for measuring nutrient adequacy. Certainly, many methods of measuring micronutrients has improved since 1992, requiring more recent review. Also, many will agree the nutrient profile has greatly changed for swimmers (and the general population since 1992). 

No matter if achieving RDIs of vitamins and minerals occurs, coaches should strive for adequate nutrition for each of their swimmers. Also, blindly supplementing is likely a waste of money. Instead of supplementation, set a healthy nutritional plan for their future. Too often teams ignore nutrition, especially during travel, impairing their nutrition for an entire life! 

Coaches quit stressing supplement intake and stress a well-rounded diet! This implementation may not improve performance, but can increase health and weight management for a lifetime! Remember, children's brains are highly plastic, ensure you're molding them correctly!

  1. Telford RD, Catchpole EA, Deakin V, Hahn AG, Plank AW. The effect of 7 to 8 months of vitamin/mineral supplementation on athletic performance. Int J Sport Nutr. 1992 Jun;2(2):135-53.
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, Strength Coach Consultant, Creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Brief Swimming Review Edition 13

In an attempt to improve swimming transparency, a brief swimming related literature review will be posted on Saturday. If you enjoy this brief swimming review, consider supporting and purchasing the Swimming Science Research Review for complete monthly article reviews for only $10/month! 

Short-term Creatine Improves Repeated Performance

Creatine is a highly sought supplement and one we've discussed in great detail previously (see related reading). A recent study analyzed the effects of creatine monohydrate supplementation or placebo on repeated bouts of 50-m departing every 120 seconds in sixteen non-elite (trained) swimmers (~19.4 years). The 50-meter pace corresponded to 68% of the 100-m maximum velocity. The creatine group supplemented 5 g of creatine (Cr) 4 times a day for 6 days.   

"These results suggest that Cr supplementation may improve swimming performance and reduce increased blood lactate levels following intermittent sprint swimming bouts. In conclusion Cr supplementation in trained swimmers may improve anaerobic performance and heart rate variations independent of the effect of intensive sprint swimming bouts (Dabidi Roshan 2013)."

Take Home Points:
  1. Short-term creatine supplementation appears to decreased performance decrement in repeat performances.
  2. This improvement may be from a decrease in lactate formation and anaerobic stress.

Related Reading

Creatine and Swimming
Supplements for Swimmers
Does Creatine Improve Swimming Performance?

Seasonal Births may Influence Performance

Most people have heard of the Malcolm Gladwell and his work on the 10,000 hour theory and influence of birth month on age-group hockey performance (Gladwell 2008). A recent study looked the age effects of the 50 best Portuguese swimmers per event in 12 - 18-year-olds. Specifically, they looked at the birth years and success for each quarter of birth (1st quarter: Jan - Mar, 2nd quarter: April - July, etc.). The results show a greater number of elite male swimmers born in the first two quarters of the year. Female swimmers did not show consistent trends. Now, these results are purely observational, but interesting, especially in the United States, where there has been a shift towards single year rankings, opposed to age groups (change from 13 - 14 to 13 and 14).

"This suggests relative age effect can influence selection and progression in elite competitive swimming, particularly in males. However, there is mostly no effect of seasonal birth date on performance differences within the top 50 swimmers (Costa 2013)".

Take Home Point:
  1. Seasonal age effects are observed in Portugese swimmers.
  2. Age-group selection meets should attempt to select kids born throughout the whole year.


  1. Dabidi Roshan V, Babaei H, Hosseinzadeh M, Arendt-Nielsen L.The effect of creatine supplementation on muscle fatigue and physiological indices following intermittent swimming bouts. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2013 Jun;53(3):232-9.
  2. Costa AM, Marques MC, Louro H, Ferreira SS, Marinho DA. The relative age effect among elite youth competitive swimmers. Eur J Sport Sci. 2013 Sep;13(5):437-44. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2012.742571. Epub 2012 Nov 13.
  3. Gladwell, M. Outliers. 2008. 
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, Troubleshooting System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

Iron Intake and Anemia in Swimmers

    Take Home Points on Dryland Mistake: Lunge

    1. Ensure that iron consumption is adequate. The best medicine for iron deficiency is prevention via a suitable diet 
    2. Iron deficiency should only be diagnosed by a medical professional, but coaches and parents must have awareness to recognize iron deficiency is a possibility when symptoms of poor performance, sluggishness, and other related feelings arise. 
    Iron is a controversial area in sports nutrition. Many studies link high exertion with iron deficiency and there’s no doubt iron deficiency will cause undesirable symptoms in competitive athletes. Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment are less clear, particularly given the time lags involved in obtaining the requisite tests. By the time an athlete progresses toward a solution, they've been in a compromised health state for days, if not weeks or months. "Iron deficiency is a possible cause of performance decline. When other analyses do not reveal problems and the swimmer is still highly motivated, it may be worthwhile to have iron analyses conducted to determine if a problem exists. Iron supplementation is a necessary dietary alteration when training at altitude" (Rushall 1989).

    Unfortunately, iron deficiency anemia is highly common in sports, with risk factors exacerbated in females and those in high impact activities where low bodyweights and bodyfat levels are common (running sports and gymnastics). Vulnerability can increase when athletes fail to consume a healthy diet.

    While the literature is vast in this area, the literature specific to swimming is more limited. All high level athletes place their bodies under high stress but do swimmers have unique needs as athletes? Further, swimming is unique because it takes place in a limited gravity environment, but intense dryland training may place swimmers into a hybrid category of both land and water athlete.

    Lukaski (1996) studied five female and five male collegiate swimmers and noted that “anemia was not present but body iron stores, assessed with serum ferritin concentration, were reduced in female swimmers who had significantly increased erythrocyte Mg and superoxide dismutase activity which suggest a biochemical adaptation to physical training.” An earlier study from the same research team Lukaski (1990) also involving male and female collegiate swimmers found that “iron [is] not adversely affected by physical training when dietary intakes are adequate.” In the males, serum ferritin levels (measure of iron) increased during the season as dietary intake increased. 

    Common food sources for iron include mollusks (clams, oysters), beef, spinach, squash and pumpkins seeds, lentils…and yes, dark chocolate is also noted as an iron source! Because meats are among the richest in iron, vegetarian athletes may place themselves at heightened risk. Nonetheless, supplementation must be undertaken with care, if at all. 

    Tsalis (2004) studied three groups of competitive adolescent swimmers including an iron supplementation group (47 mg per day), group rich in iron (26mg per day), and a control group following a non-specific diet. “The results showed significant fluctuations of iron status during the training season, including an increase in erythrocyte parameters during moderate intensity training.” Despite the fluctuations [n]o significant differences in iron status or performance were found among the three groups.” This result slightly contrasts with later findings by Kabasakalis (2009) among 10-11 year old club swimmers finding no changes in iron as a result of training when intake was deemed to be adequate.


    The main variable in this area is ensuring an adequate diet. Though most of the research on swimmers noted in this article found limited effects on iron stores, it’s a whole different ballgame when a diet is lacking in basic nutrients and minerals (Schtscherbyna 2009, da Costa 2013), particularly for females. Always consider when basic dietary needs are being met before seeking complicated supplementation strategies.

    Though norms do exist, everyone is slightly different and it can be valuable to compare to a baseline when the athlete is feeling down. Most of the time when people get iron tested, they wait until something bad is happening, but a single test has no baseline for comparison for that particular athlete. It is always helpful to have a partnership with a sports medicine practitioner who can appreciate this importance and facilitate pre-season testing for individuals and teams. 
    1. Schtscherbyna A, Soares EA, de Oliveira FP, Ribeiro BG. Female athlete triad in elite swimmers of the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nutrition. 2009 Jun;25(6):634-9. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2008.11.029. Epub 2009 Feb 20.
    2. da Costa NF, Schtscherbyna A, Soares EA, Ribeiro BG. Disordered eating among adolescent female swimmers: dietary, biochemical, and body composition factors. Nutrition. 2013 Jan;29(1):172-7. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2012.06.007. Epub 2012 Sep 28.
    3. Lukaski HC, Siders WA, Hoverson BS, Gallagher SK. Int J Sports Med. 1996 Oct;17(7):535-40. Iron, copper, magnesium and zinc status as predictors of swimming performance.
    4. Lukaski HC, Hoverson BS, Gallagher SK, Bolonchuk WW. Physical training and copper, iron, and zinc status of swimmers. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990 Jun;51(6):1093-9.
    5. Kabasakalis A, Kalitsis K, Nikolaidis MG, Tsalis G, Kouretas D, Loupos D, Mougios V. Redox, iron, and nutritional status of children during swimming training. J Sci Med Sport. 2009 Nov;12(6):691-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2008.05.005. Epub 2008 Sep 2.
    6. Tsalis G, Nikolaidis MG, Mougios V. Effects of iron intake through food or supplement on iron status and performance of healthy adolescent swimmers during a training season. Int J Sports Med. 2004 May;25(4):306-13.
    7. Rushall, B. Iron Status of National Caliber Swimmers. Coaching Science Bulletin1989-90
    Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University. 

    Supplements for Swimmers

    Take Home Points on Supplements for Swimmers

    1. Despite the volumous options, few supplements have evidence supporting benefit in swimmers.
    2. Creatine, Caffeine, and Beta-Alanine are the few with some supporting evidence.
    3. Individualization is necessary in supplements, like all aspects of coaching.
    When speaking at any event I love opening the field to questions. No matter the topic of
    discussion, one prevalent question in, “what supplements are beneficial?” Now, I always try to preface, I am not a nutritionist and do not have any training in this area. However, when it comes to the literature, I read plenty of information on weight loss, muscle, growth, and performance. This post will discuss the supplements which have been trialed in humans and have some evidence of support for performance in the sport of swimming which I’ve read. Other supplements may be beneficial for an individual, but this review will only discuss those with research in swimming. If anyone has any other studies which have results indicating performance improvements, I'd love to see them, please add the reference in the comments section below!

    Also, with the prevalence of combination supplements (supplements with a vague name combining many substrates) it is nearly impossible to know if these costly items are beneficial, placebo, or a waste of money. For this reason, they will not be discussed in this summary and their effectiveness and costs must be questioned, but unfortunately will unlikely be researched by independent labs and be in peer-reviewed literature. Lastly, if you are a pre-pubescent swimmer, the use of supplements must be questioned, as performance improvements should occur without supplements. In these cases, be patient and let puberty take care of business, before trying any supplements!

    Creatine is a naturally occurring substrate in the body. Creatine in swimming has been discussed in detail in my STACK magazine piece and on Dr. Rushall's Swimming Science Abstracts. Now, the literature on creatine and swimming performance is mixed, but some studies do show benefits from supplementation.

    “Creatine extends the ability to continue repeated high-quality efforts for 25 meters. [1, 2, 4, 5, 8] Thus, you would think it would help you maintain a more powerful stroke. However, this may only work when efforts are extremely high-intensity and require long rest periods. [3] Conflicting evidence exists, as performance has not been improved, despite the alteration of blood markers in short-distance repeat sprints. [7, 10] Some studies show improvement after single sprint performance [6, 7], while others do not. [2, 4, 9, 12]” (Mullen 2012, see STACK magazine piece).

    If using creatine it appears the loading phase is unnecessary, making a 5 g dose most effective after workout (see Friday Interview: Jose Antonio, PhD, CSCS, FNSCA). Another plus about creatine is the low health risk and the cost. Creatine is a cheap as dirt supplement with the potential of improving sprint and distance performance in swimmers, as creatine is the first substrate to be used in any race and likely after each short rest period during the turn.

    Caffeine is another cheap and commonly used supplement in the form of drinks. However, the use of caffeine in supplements and drinks is quite different and high levels of this substrate in the body is illegal in NCAA and IOC competition (> 12 micrograms/milliliter). This supplement is another with mixed results (as many supplements do), but overall it appears caffeine potentially helps with psychological component of training. High doses of caffeine are likely necessary for power and short races, requiring gastrointestinal (GI), as GI pain is problematic (Friday Interview: Dr. Ricardo Mora-Rodríguez, Ph.D). If using for sprint competitions, 9 mg/kg body weight is indicated [note: this may result in positive tests in some swimmers] and why 2 mg/kg body mass resulted in mixed results in swimmers (Hill 2006; Burke 2006). It also appears caffeine will benefit trained swimmers, not untrained swimmers (Collump 1992). More research on swimmers must assess habituation, different distances, and doses.

    “Briefly, beta-alanine supplementation results in increased carnosine content in the muscle. Carnosine has been proposed to be a pH buffer, anti-oxidant and can improve muscle contractile function. The main role that many researchers believe that carnosine loading (via beta-alanine supplementation) is the increased ability to buffer the protons produced from prolonged, high intensity exercise.

    As for side effects, ingesting more than 1.6 g of pure beta-alanine in a single dose has resulted in significant paraesthesia. This uncomfortable “pins and needles” sensation is possibly consequential from sensitization of neuropathic pain specific neurons in the skin. The documented side effects from supplementation usually fade away after a few hours. Therefore, I would recommend ingesting no more than 1.6 g of beta-alanine (preferably sustained-release) per single dose and more than 3 hours in between doses… (Wei Chung 2013)."

    The potential benefits of BA and swimming have been suggested for 100-m performance (Chung 2012; de Salles Painelli 2013).

    If using this supplement, it seems dosing BA supplementation consisted of 4.8 g per day for 4 weeks, followed by 3.2 g per day for 6 weeks is ideal.

    As you can see, the list of studied and evidence-based supplements specifically for swimming performance in scarce. Sure, other supplements may be helpful and some of these supplements may not help each individual, making individualization and trials during workouts necessary before implementation in meets.

    Lastly, one must realize well-rounded nutrition, sleep, and stress management are likely as, if not more beneficial than any of these supplements. Remember, supplements must “supplement” ideal training, which encompasses a well-rounded lifestyle and approach towards success. Too often swimmers (like all athletes) seek the quick fix, when simply getting more sleep will aide recovery and muscle/strength gains greater than this small list of potentially beneficial supplements. Also, one must also question the safety of supplements.

    The swimming community was effected first-hand when Olympic Qualifier, Jessica Hardy, tested positive for a tainted substance in an Advocare product. This makes extreme caution warranted when using any supplement. For more confidence, informed-sport has released supplements which have been tested, attempting to bring clarity to the subject. Other seals demonstrate extra efforts on testing procedures, but these do not guarantee purity. If you are an Olympic Trial Qualifier, it seems clear not to take anything without peer testing seal and if you do, attempt to gain a letter from the company ensuring non-tainted substrates (this won't guarantee purity, but if you test positive, you are likely to win an easier law suit). If you are lower than an Olympic Qualifier, an informed-sport supplement is still ideal, but the likelihood of being urine tested is much lower, making the hassle and possibility of obtaining a safety letter from the supplement company challenging.

    Supplements have potential benefits, but also potential drawbacks (the most prominent, a waste of money). Make sure you remember they are meant to supplement ideal training, not replace faulty or lazy training and ensure safety and purity with use!

    1. Collomp K, Ahmaidi S, Chatard JC, Audran M, Préfaut C. Benefits of caffeine ingestion on sprint performance in trained and untrained swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1992;64(4):377-80.
    2. Hill, MR. Low dose caffeine use to improve 50-meter swimming performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2006; 38(5), Supplement abstract 1334.
    3. Burke, LM, Anderson, ME, Pyne, DB. Low dose caffeine intake and sprint performance in swimmers. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2006; 38(5), Supplement abstract 1330.
    4. Chung W, Shaw G, Anderson ME, Pyne DB, Saunders PU, Bishop DJ, Burke LM. Effect of 10 week beta-alanine supplementation on competition and training performance in elite swimmers. Nutrients. 2012 Oct 9;4(10):1441-53. doi: 10.3390/nu4101441.
    5. de Salles Painelli V, Roschel H, de Jesus F, Sale C, Harris RC, Solis MY, Benatti FB, Gualano B, Lancha AH Jr, Artioli GG. The ergogenic effect of beta-alanine combined with sodium bicarbonate on high-intensity swimming performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 May;38(5):525-32. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0286. Epub 2013 Apr 24
    By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

    Friday Interview: Jose Antonio, PhD, CSCS, FNSCA, FISSN Discusses Creatine Monohydrate Timing

    1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).
    My name is Jose Antonio. I’ve been working in the sports nutrition ‘business’ (academic and industry) for more than two decades. I’m the CEO and co-founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (<>); the ISSN is the leading academic organization in sports nutrition and supplement science. I am also a Fellow of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and was the 2005 recipient of the NSCA Research Achievement Award and the 2009 NSCA Educator of the Year. I’ve published 14 books and over 50 plus peer-reviewed scientific publications. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of Sports Nutrition Insider (<>), the first and only trade publication dedicated to the sports nutrition industry, and have written for Inside Fitness magazine, Ironman, Muscular Development, Muscle and Fitness, T-Nation and Fitness Rx Men/Women. I completed a Ph.D. and post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas Texas. Furthermore, I’m an Assistant Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Exercise and Sports Science in Ft Lauderdale FL.

    2. You recently published an article on the timing of creatine monohydrate, could you briefly explain your findings?
    In recreational bodybuilders, it seems that taking 5 g of creatine monohydrate post-workout is better than pre- as it relates to strength and body composition. Here is what we did. We took 19 healthy recreational male bodybuilders and randomly assigned them to one of the following groups: PRE-SUPP or POST-SUPP workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate (5 grams). The PRE-SUPP group consumed 5 grams of creatine immediately before exercise. On the other hand, the POST-SUPP group consumed 5 grams immediately after exercise. Subjects trained on average five days per week for four weeks. Subjects consumed the supplement on the two non-training days at their convenience. Subjects performed a periodized, split-routine, bodybuilding workout five days per week (Chest-shoulders-triceps; Back-biceps, Legs, etc.). Body composition (Bod Pod) and 1-RM bench press (BP) were determined. Diet logs were collected and analyzed too. Basically, the POST-SUPP group did better with bench press strength as well as gains in fat free mass! Does taking it pre also work? Yes.

    3. Your study looked at bodybuilders, do you think this also relates to sports performance?
    Creatine certainly can help swimming; esp the sprint distances. There are literally hundreds of studies showing that regular creatine supplementation can increase lean body mass, strength, endurance, and overall performance. The strength-power sports in particular can be helped dramatically by creatine supplementation.

    4. The study also did a 5 g of creatine monohydrate without a loading phase, do you feel the loading phase isn't necessary?
    In general, you do not need to do a loading phase. If you consumed 5 g daily, you’ll be fine.

    5. Do you think these results will vary if creatine monohydrate is used with a protein or carbohydrate drink?
    In the long run, probably not. Again, being consistent is the key. Consume 5 grams daily!

    6. These is some new research suggesting polyethylene glycosylated creatine is a beneficial creatine option. What is the difference between this and creatine monohydrate and which do you feel is more beneficial for athletes? 

    Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicates that PEG is as effective as creatine monohydrate (CM); albeit, at a lower dose (half the dose). However, the dose of CM is so low (5 g) that it really isn’t an issue. Furthermore, 99% of all research done on creatine is on CM. Your best bet is to stick with CM. The volume of research on it is enormous. And for all the naysayers, there is zero evidence that creatine supplementation is harmful to your kidneys or any organ for that matter. And there is zero evidence that it causes cramps. Why folks (esp medical professionals) fabricate these side effects is just downright bizarre.

    7. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
    My bread and butter projects involve the ISSN Conferences. If you love sports nutrition, then the place to be is our conferences. Our 11th Annual Conference is June 20-21, 2014 in Clearwater Beach FL. It is a gorgeous venue; right on the beach! Also, I just finished writing a book with Dr. Abbie Smith. It has the latest research in sports nutrtion (Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements<>. Eds. Abbie Smith-Ryan PhD and Jose Antonio PhD. ISBN: 1-60797-339-1. Linus Books. 2013. - See more at:

    Also, check out my online magazine, Sports Nutrition Insider,, Sports Nutrition & Performance Enhancing Supplements 

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