What should swimmers eat?

what should swimmers eat?
What should swimmers eat?

We are what we eat, and swimmers eat a lot – there is no doubt about that.  Fresh Vegetables, nuts, and various fruit is the obvious answer when someone asks: what should swimmers eat?

Is this correct and does it apply to all ages?

In this week’s article, we take a look at what swimmers should eat and the dilemma new swim parents face when their children decide to become swimmers…..

Most parents just drop the kids off at swim training and carry on with their Saturday chores.  Parents collect the kids after training, so few wait at the pool.

There is one swim mom also waiting and introductions take place.  Always nice to meet new swim parents!  Her boy is 15 and decided last year that he wants to be a swimmer.  He stopped all other sports and dedicates all his time to swimming.  We are so impressed with his commitment.

Waiting for the swimmers to complete training is pretty boring, so I haul out my camera and start taking a couple of photos – it is, after all, my other hobby.  The other swim mom is knitting away with pins clicking.  I am always fascinated with these crafty and handy people.

About halfway through the session, the topic (as always) came up:

What should swimmers eat?

Unlike us oldies, this swim mom is new to swimming.  As she gently said: It is like a new world to me.  Swimmers speak a different language!

Yes, indeed.  If you are a rugby, cricket, soccer, netball, or any other type of sporty mom, you should throw the rule book out the window the day your kid announces:  I want to be a swimmer.


Long hours next to various pools in various weather conditions are awaiting you.  Chlorine-soaked hair, swimsuits, and towels are your destiny.  Let’s not even start talking about the costs involved. Contrary to popular belief, swimming will cost you money – a lot of money.  Including a substantial increase in your grocery budget.

The biggest challenge of all: I AM HUNGRY, WHAT IS THERE TO EAT?

Swim mom hovering in the kitchen thinking: What should I cook or not cook?  Menu for the next week? 

A standing joke in the swimming fraternity:  

How do you know someone is a swimmer?  

Answer:  They always ask: Are you going to have that?

Jokes aside, the question is a very important one and one that we, as swim moms, cannot ignore.

What to eat and what to avoid?

Healthy and raw food
What should swimmers eat? Raw fruit and veg and healthy foods that will give long-term energy.

The fascinating thing about the swimming world is that coaches only coach.  We asked a coach about eating habits, and he sent us to a nutritionist.

Swim parents, however, are timekeepers, officials, psychologists, therapists, physiotherapists, and everything else, including nutritionists. (Unless you are in a position to obtain top-notch professional help in every area of swimming. Remember that budget I mentioned?)

I am by no means a nutritionist or any of the above-listed professions.  However, I am an old triathlete, a swimmer, a Microbiologist, and a swim mom.  Therefore, I understand the science behind the food that fuels our bodies.

In layman’s terms, science depicts that there are 3 energy sources in the human body:

  1. The first energy source is glucose (blood sugar).
  2. The second energy store is the muscle cells, called muscle glycogen.
  3. The third energy store is the liver.

The body uses carbohydrates (sugars and starches) as an energy source.  Sugars and starches break down to form glucose.  Glucose is the immediate fuel for the body for use.  Excess glucose is sent to the muscles and the liver for storage. (Glycogen)

How much energy do swimmers burn?

Swimmers energy consumption

Calculating energy consumption depends on:

  • Swimmer’s age
  • Weight
  • Stroke they swim
  • Distance they swim
  • Intensity – i.e. sprinting or just swimming?
  • How long does the swimmer train?
  • Is the swimmer just swimming or are they doing land training/cross-training as well?
  • Are there breaks in the program to eat during training or is it a continuous session?

As a rule of thumb: A 60 kg person training for 1 hour, burns 2987 kilojoules.

The issue and questions we as swimming moms ask are:

  1. What should swimmers eat to replace the kilojoules they burn in an hour?
  2.  What does feed them when they train 2-3 hours a day?
  3.  Surely we should put the amount of energy used back in the form of food?
Tall swimmer
1,57 meter (4,79 ft) 46,6 kg (102 lb)

Our swimmer is a 10-year-old girl.  She trains approximately 50 minutes a day including warm-up and cool-down.  Intensity varies based on the program and the time of the season so we need to consider that and adjust where needed.

Monica is tall for her age: 1,57 meters (4,79 ft) & she weighs 46,6 kg (102 lb).  The above rule of thumb is not something we can use.

The first avenue we take to answer the question: What should swimmers eat?

Are the medical professionals that deal with Monica’s asthma?

Paediatrician’s answer:  Children should eat everything – no diets, no restrictions.  They must drink full cream milk and eat all food, including the skin of the chicken. As much as possible fresh fruit and veg with loads of protein.

My next stop for this question is our GP – also an avid sports person.  Very true words from her:  Yes, kids should eat everything, but test and see what works for Monica.

That is the best advice I received to date.

Our first dehydration lesson:

In 2015, we decided to swim in the USHAKA champs in Richards Bay.  It is extremely hot and humid in January.  Monica does not drink anything but water and milk.  As a result, she does not take in glucose and minerals the other swimmers get when they drink energy drinks.

The gala takes place on a Saturday and Sunday.  We arrive at the pool armed with our standard cooler box.  Monica swims only 3 events.  So lots of time to rest.

We find the best shady spot and sweat it out.  Monica does well and wins her events.  The gala finishes fairly early, and we are just too happy to arrive home in an air-conditioned room.

Shower, pasta dinner (I made lasagne as we stayed in a self-catering place), air-conditioner on an early night.

At midnight, we wake up with Monica crying from a headache, and nausea.  Dehydrated.  I mix salt, sugar, and water and give it to her.  She sleeps soundly the rest of the night and wakes up refreshed.

We stop at a pharmacy on the way to the pool and I get the required off-the-shelf products to ensure she does not dehydrate again.

Lesson?  With the kind of heat and humidity in Richards Bay, everybody loses more than the normal amount of salt.  That needs to be replaced in some form.  Therefore, if we swim in extreme weather conditions, we have to take precautions to ensure our swimmer stays hydrated.

Extra salt with food or a mixture of sugar, a pinch of salt, and water is now a standard issue in our cooler box.  Drink this mixture on hot days, and do not forget that swimmers sweat in the water.  It helps to prevent dehydration.

We hang out with the honeypot!

Just like Winnie the Pooh, we hang out with a honeypot.  Monica could be a honey ambassador!
Honey works for us as it is natural (it even tastes different depending on which blossoms the bees drink nectar from) and we use it both in training, competition and in recovery.

Do not just use raw honey in competition.  Use raw honey before training, at least 20 minutes before swimming.  Take a spoon full of raw honey after training for recovery.

Why is honey good as a short-term energy source?

In the photo on the right, Monica still uses processed honey, but we switched to raw honey since we found a regular supplier.

Raw honey contains the following good stuff:

  • 27 minerals
  • 5,000 enzymes
  • 22 amino acids
  • Minerals: Selenium, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorous, Magnesium.
  • Vitamins:   Niacin, riboflavin, B6, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid.
  • The biggest benefit!  Raw honey contains 80% natural sugars and 18% water (the remaining 2% consists of pollen, protein, and the above-mentioned vitamins).  Most of all, in studies conducted at the Sports and Nutrition Lab (Memphis University), the nutritionists found that honey is one of the best carbohydrates to consume before sporting activities.  Honey also performs on par with glucose (all these expensive gel sachets contain glucose).
  • Besides the above, honey helps with wheezing and coughing in asthmatics.  On the doctor’s recommendation, we warm up, use our asthma pump and take a spoon full of honey before the competition.  It takes some trial and error, but it works for us and I dare to say that it even helps with dehydration in the summer months.
At the end of the day:
Fruits, nuts and seeds are good snacks for swimmers

We concluded that none of the professionals will commit to an answer unless the swimmer is an adult and specific nutritional programs could be prescribed.  To me as a swim mom, it is fair as I know our swimmer is still young.

Call me the crazy swim mom, but I do like the investigative nature of this journey.

Here is a short list of experimental foods we are testing:

  • Raw honey is always on our list – before, during long sessions, and after recovery.
  • Dark chocolate – contains a surprising amount of iron.  The biggest challenge is cost, and 73% dark chocolate seems to be the best we can find (no sugar added).
  • Peanut butter – spoon full before training – also helps when there are sugar cravings.
  • Cottage cheese and biscuits for recovery.
  • Oats biscuits – syrup replaced in the recipe with honey.
  • Beetroot to keep iron levels up.

In conclusion and as a general rule, I am an old school mom – in my house, you eat green, yellow, white, and a protein on your plate.  We found that 2-hour snacking keeps Monica’s energy levels up, and the healthy stuff works for us.  I concluded that what comes from swim mom’s kitchen works best as we know what goes into the food.

We still battle a bit with iron levels, but constantly working on it.  Eating a bit more beetroot helps, and our swimmer loves beetroot.

You are the swim mom, so be the mom.
Feed them when they are hungry and 
keep it raw, natural and healthy 
where possible.
Last but not least, do not eat 
or do anything competition
which you do not eat or do in training.

Please comment on our article What should swimmers eat? below, or share if you find this valuable.

Join Monica in the next article, where she shares her Swimmer’s pasta recipe.

Swimmers pasta

Learn to cook swimmers pasta with Mica

 Swimmers pasta – Mac and cheese

We all know swimmers eat a lot, and mom always gets the question What do you feed Mica?

We decided to answer the questions and have a little bit of fun.  It is important for me as a swim mom to teach our swimmer to make her own food.  More important once she goes to University or College, but no harm to learn at an early age (Monica is now nine.)

We adapted the traditional Macaroni and cheese based on a recipe I once read fleetingly and could not find again.  We are not sure how many of you are familiar with this version, but we are sharing it none the less.  Mica loves this dish and you could either eat it warm or cold – in the latter case we take our swimmer’s pasta  left-overs to the swim meets for lunch.

Please try it, and share your thoughts with us.


1 Onion
Celery as much as you like
Cherry tomatoes as much as you like
Sometimes we add mushrooms as well – be creative add the veggies you like.
Ham ( or lean bacon or both on naughty days) as much as you like
1 cup of cheese
1 spoon of butter
1 tablespoon Cornflower dissolved in cold water
Olive oil
Wheat macaroni or if you cannot find, normal macaroni

Swimmers pasta instructions:

  1.  Chop all ingredients into small pieces.
  2. Mix the spoonful of Cornflower in cold water.  Add enough water so that it is flowing and not a paste.
  3. Melt the butter in a pot and keep a whisk handy with the milk on the side.  Add the cornflower to the butter and whisk immediately.  Add milk soon after the butter/cornflower mixture thickens to form a white sauce.  Put it aside as we will add the cheese later to make a cheese sauce.
  4. Add a little bit of oil to the big pan and heat it up.  Add the onions and celery until the onions are brown.
  5. Add the ham and/or bacon and cook it until the meat is cooked.
  6. Warm the white sauce and add the cheese.  Stir it until the cheese melt to form a nice cheese sauce.
  7. Add the cheese sauce to the veggie and bacon mix.
  8. Keep the cherry tomatoes for last as they cook soft quickly.  Mix it all together and cook for a short while.
  9. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce.
  10. At this point, we add a bit of salt.  If you like chili or other spices you can add it.
  11. Place in heat resistant bowl and bake in the oven for 10 minutes (180 degrees).  If you want to, you can add cheese on top.  We just like it with the cheese sauce.
  12. Say YUM  and dig in swimmers, enjoy your lovely home made swimmer’s macaroni and cheese!
  13. Remember to let Mica know how your Mac and cheese tasted by commenting or leave a message for us on the blog, Youtube, Twitter or Facebook!

Swimmers energy – how to maintain energy during training sessions

Swimmers energy just a spoonful of honey

Swimmers energy

Swimmers energy requirements are high during training sessions. Honey is just nectar for a swimmer that does not drink anything other than milk and water.

Our first couple of years as parents were tough and a rocky road.  Since birth Monica battled with breathing and suffered from chronic pneumonia/bronchitis. In no way do we say that this was an isolated case, but it was enough to drive anybody crazy.  As per our pediatrician’s instructions, we raised her on soy milk as she showed an intolerance for milk and dairy products.  Monica never took to any tea, coffee, fruit juices and cold drinks – she blatantly refused to drink it as a baby, so we just ended up not giving it to her.

In desperation to reach a healthy state, we only fed her vegetables as she also refused fruit.  In retrospect, I think the fruit’s acidity did not go down well with her.  She cut her teeth on raw carrots and we found that broccoli, spinach, pumpkin, sweet potatoes were all her favorite food.  As she was not taking in fruit, I ended up giving her honey and used it as a sweetener wherever required.

Needless to say, she developed a love for honey and still loves eating it a spoonful at a time, on bread, in her porridge and every opportunity she gets.

In January this year, her training program stepped up in difficulty and distance.  Without us knowing it, we were in for another learning curve.  The first hurdle we hit was dehydration in combination with keeping our swimmers energy high so she could deliver quality training sessions.

Dealing with dehydration while keeping swimmers energy high

Pool where we train

Heated pool at the gym where we train

We live on the East coast of South Africa which is a tropical region.  Our summer months from December to March are extremely hot with high humidity.  The pool we train in is a heated indoor pool.  Our training conditions are not optimal for swimming as the pool is shared with gym members doing water exercise as recovery to injuries and accidents and the elderly fighting rheumatism.  The gym seems to keep the temperature for the above-mentioned purposes at approximately 26-29 degrees Celcius when the outside temperature is approximately 30 degrees.  It is a salt water pool which helps with prevention of asthma, but working out in such hot water leaves one lethargic and sweaty.  With the type of sessions we do, we feel the heat stress related to water temperature.

There is still a lot of controversy about water temperature and outside temperatures.  Fina recommends 31 Degree Celcius as maximum temperature but I am sure those that conducted research did not train under these conditions.   (Ref. open water article but as an old swimmer and someone that trains with our daughter, I speak from experience and if I, as an adult take strain how much strain does it place on the body of a child?)

Swimsuits old school racerbackMonica only drinks water and milk – during training sessions, we add loads of ice to our water and she gets out of the pool between sets to cool down.  Drinking iced water during sessions is not a bad thing until you wake up at midnight with a dehydrated child.  Headaches, nausea, slight fever.  Fortunately, we keep rehydration medication in our first aid kit so we could fix the problem immediately.

It was time to re-look the intake of fluids and choice of food again. I realized that other swimmers take energy supplements and eat a lot of fruit which Monica does not do.  This is most likely a reason why they do not dehydrate so easily as the natural sugars and in some fruits, (sodium in some apples, guava and passion fruit), assist in the prevention of dehydration.

We took the matter up with our GP who is also an athlete, so she always take the athletic part into consideration when looking at her patients.  She recommended half a banana and a spoonful of peanut butter before training to aid in longer-term energy for our swimmer.  If you eat bread with peanut butter, it will take longer to digest so best to just eat a spoon full of peanut butter approximately 20 minutes before training.  Marmite or Bovril on Low GI toast is also a good snack, but in our case, Monica just refuse to eat these two spreads.  So we opted for the peanut butter and banana.

Our next big swim meet was the Provincial championships in February.  Training was going well although very tough and Monica seemed to be doing better maintaining her swimmers energy throughout the sessions by eating a banana and spoon full of peanut butter before training.  We re-instated an afternoon nap  as we could see training was taking its toll, especially as we were doing tough sessions in hot water.

Keeping a swimmers energy high during challenging championships

At Provincial champs, during the 100-meter butterfly, Monica’s chest closed and she finished the race battling to breathe.  We thought it was asthma / bronchial spasm. Fortunately, it was the last event of the day so we came home and I gave our GP a call.  Monica really could not breathe and we had to administer some steroids to open her airways.

We had another day of racing so the morning before the meet started, I had to run around submitting a drug declaration form.  We were fortunate that the meet was held in the afternoon so we could see how she reacted to the steroids before we went to the pool – if it did not work, we would have had to withdraw from racing and that would have been disastrous, as she loves racing and it is not easy to explain to a committed athlete that sometimes rest is the best.


Swimmers energy We were quite stressed after this asthmatic incident as the prevention we do was working so well – we have not had an asthmatic incident in nearly a year.  We could not ignore that the seasons were changing and Monica traditionally spent March in the hospital for the first 5 years of her life getting additional oxygen to assist her breathing.  So it was back to the drawing board.  Monica was not getting better after Provincial champs.  She described the condition as follow: “It feels as if something is cutting my airways off and I cannot breathe.”  Back to the GP.  Monica had to go on a course of steroids and rest for 5 days to get this sorted out.

We had to withdraw from the NDSA gala which was held over the weekend that she was booked off.  It was hard for her to rest and change her routine. As swim mom, I just put my foot down as health comes first.

During discussions, (and I think our GP did some research on this topic), she suggested that it might not be asthma but a condition called Stridor.  During the doctors’ visit, there was just a slight sign of a tight chest but a strong wheezing sound in her upper airways.  I asked the doctor if an allergy could possibly cause her airways to swell leading to this condition.  I also advised her that the only element in Monica’s diet which changed was the spoon full of peanut butter before swimming.  We decided to rather take it away as peanuts are not really nuts.  It is part of the pea family which could contain allergens.

As a result, we kept to banana before training.  We are 3 weeks away from SSA Level 1 champs (the most important swim meet of every swimming year) and we really need to overcome this condition before the big championships.  Once the championships are done, we will take Monica for an allergy and some follow-up tests.

A week after we stopped the peanut butter her breathing was back to normal.  We are avoiding all seeds and nuts just to be safe.

Swimmer’s energy – which alternative could we use?

Tapering started so the sessions are not so intense anymore.  We are still doing distance and I noticed once again that our swimmers energy ran low during the training sessions.  Another conversation with our GP.  Some late night reading about honey as a source of energy.  I ran into this article about the use of honey  to boost swimmers energy during training.

Energy and swimmingIt was like a lightbulb that went on.  100% natural honey is a great source of carbohydrates – 75 gram per tablespoon to be exact!  So a spoon full of honey instead of peanut butter before training is a great source of energy.  We also use it now as a recovery aid after training.  Honey will also help to prevent dehydration if mixed with water.  That is something we will have to experiment with as Monica just drink water and milk.  While writing this article, I just remember that she took to the taste of 100% fresh apple juice lately.  We will pack some into the cooler box for SSA L1 champs.

In conclusion, not many swim parents fight the same battle as we do.  The positive out of all of this is that we never give up and always find an alternative to ensure that she keep her swimmers energy sustainable in order to deliver quality training sessions.  Honey as a source of energy has more than just dietary value as it also contains many vitamins, minerals, and enzymes every growing kid needs.

It took some shopping around as it is imperative that we use 100% pure honey and not radiated products.  We found some at our local nursery and paid way less than what we do at the supermarkets.  Our alternative was to start looking for a honey farmer to supply us with raw honey.

The championships take place from 1-3 April after which we will take Monica for some follow-up testing.  In the meantime, we are happy to report that honey is working well as a source of our swimmers energy.  Might be worth giving honey a try but as always discuss it with your team first.  For us, training is going down very well with a spoon full of honey!