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.