Now reading What Long-Distance Swimmers Eat

What Long-Distance Swimmers Eat

The complications of feeding at sea.

The chicken leg she ate while crossing the English Channel didn’t agree with her. Neither did the peach she ate before her swim. Still, assaulted by waves, cold, fatigue, and bouts of nausea, American Gertrude Ederle became, in 1926, the first woman to cross the twenty-one-mile expanse of sea. It took her fourteen and a half miserable hours, but Ederle did beat the previous record holder—by two hours.

If you spend any amount of time running, riding a bike, or exercising in general, you know how important food and liquids are to keep you going. These days we call it “fueling.” Fueling is a big industry that offers specialized formulas (bars, gels, or powders to mix with water), bottles (for holding and dispensing fuel), and belts (for holding bottles, bars, and gels), among other accoutrements.

Some fuels and tools used for running and cycling are also useful to the long-distance swimmer. But for the most part, eating and drinking while swimming long distances is a completely different monster.

Consider the first problem: digesting during extreme movement. While exercising, blood moves to the muscles and away from the internal organs, making digestion difficult. Problem two: seasickness. It’s often starts with waves and swells, but inadvertent gulps of water compound the problem. On a long swim there are more reasons to vomit than to not.

The challenges continue. Salt water enlarges your tongue and blisters your mouth. Nothing tastes good, and eating and drinking will be painful, but you still must eat because you are expending energy for hours on end.

Meals while swimming can range from the prosaic (water and sports gels like Gu) to the culinary (scrambled eggs and oatmeal cookies). NYC Swim, which hosts a 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan Island and provides general tips, suggests “hot liquids that are quickly consumed. High carbohydrate sources like Exceed and Carbo Concentrate, plain chicken broth, liquefied bananas, watery oatmeal, and tea with honey.”

I got in touch with Anne Cleveland, a coach who trains people to cross the twenty-mile Catalina Channel, in Southern California, and the twenty-one-mile English Channel. Cleveland says a swimmer’s feedings are highly individualized. “What works for one person can be poison for another,” she says. She adds that it seems as though skinny swimmers have more gut problems than bigger swimmers who she’s seen “sail across large open water with nothing but Gatorade.”

One of the biggest problems, Cleveland says, is nausea. The stomach, the mind, and the cold are problems that lead into one another. When people stop eating because of nausea, hypothermia gets worse. “First there’s sea sickness. But when you’re swimming in salt water, you’re swimming in electrolytes,” she explains. “Through membranes in your nose and mouth, you’re absorbing electrolytes, so you’ll take in more than you need. This often leads to vomiting as your body tries to balance itself again.” That’s the beginning of dehydration—the beginning of the end.

The main fuels she recommends are carbohydrate powders mixed with warm water, because cool liquid will shut down the digestive system. Cleveland prefers a brand called Maxim. When she hit a cold patch twenty hours into her double-crossing of the Catalina Channel, her pilot made her “thick Maxim feeds” that were baby-bottle warm, and it gave her a needed boost. The gruel can’t be too hot, she warns, because you need to drink quickly and your mouth is ultra sensitive.

“If you waste time on a feed, a big strong tide or current could push you off course and add time to your swim,” she says. A good open-water swimmer can feed in five to ten seconds, while a world champion can do the same in two or three. It’s an acquired skill—especially when you’re out of breath, facing cold and tides. Cleveland recommends “rolling over on your back, kicking your feet like a sea otter, opening your throat, and turning off your breathing.”

“I have a somewhat different philosophy on feeding than a lot of marathon swimmers,” says Jamie Patrick, an ultra-long-distance swimmer. “I learned the hard way in 2010, when I did a double crossing of Lake Tahoe and my nutrition was completely off. I ended up in the hospital for four days with my body eating my muscle tissue and clogging my liver. My wife said, ‘Do not do this anymore unless you get it figured out.’”

Patrick started working with a nutritionist. They decided to make digestion a priority: Patrick takes more time during feedings and goes vertical so gravity can pull food into his stomach. He also updated the menu. “We changed from all processed energy gels to all real food. My diet now is more like an old-time ultra runner,” he says. “The key for nutrition doing these long-distance swims is keeping your body in a very balanced state,” he continues. “If I feel like I’m lacking a little protein, I’ll stop and have a piece of turkey.”

He also eats sticky rice balls, about the diameter of a quarter, mixed with scrambled eggs. And he snacks on cranberries and raisins. “One of my favorite things is to get salted, ground-up pistachio nuts. It’s just a little bit of flavor,” he says, and “I’ll have a Jelly Belly to clean the palette.”

The downside: Real food means a real need to poop. Patrick says eating on the go for up to forty hours means that your body goes through the digestion process in the midst of exercising.

Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica and the Open Water Swimming Manual, is another real-food adherent. Cox broke records when she crossed the English Channel as a teenager, in the early 1970s. At the time, plastic sports water bottles hadn’t been invented, so Cox’s mother filled rinsed-out shampoo bottles with tea and honey or hot orange juice, “which is absolutely disgusting,” she recalled during a talk in 2013 at Google.

“We tried hot cocoa, but that was not good with the salt you get in your mouth for hours,” Cox said. She and her team finally settled on warm apple juice because it’s easy to digest. Every hour she’d have a warm half-cup of apple juice and, from time to time, oatmeal raisin cookies. She has always played with her food options, she said, noting that during her swim across the Beagle Channel, at the tip of South America, she ate bagels with peanut butter and jelly.

When Diana Nyad was training to swim a 110-mile course from Cuba to Florida, she consulted NASA for recommendations and ended up with a mixed approach. The space agency suggested that in addition to her usual sports fuels she take solid foods too. “Every three or four hours, I’d take a little piece of chicken breast and just masticate it,” she said in a 2008 interview for KCRW’s Good Food show.

Nyad said that on long swims, she burned energy at a rate of 1100 calories per hour, which she then replaced with pure hospital liquid glucose, mixed with plain yogurt to blunt the sweetness. Yet even with high-calorie replacement fuels, she still lost twenty-nine pounds on one of her attempted Cuba swims.

One recent morning, I met with Kim Chambers, the fifth person and first woman to swim the thirty miles from the Farallon Islands to San Francisco. She had just completed a short swim around the cove at Aquatic Park, where water temperatures in the winter can dip to fifty degrees.

Chambers’ fuel of choice for long swims comes from a natural-food startup called Urban Remedy. It’s what she used during training, she says. But on the boat ride to the islands for the attempted crossing, seasickness forced her to change tactics. “For the first two or three hours, I did the swim on two hundred calories per hour,” she tells me. Ultimately, her feedings during the seventeen-hour-and-twelve-minute swim consisted of Pedialyte, peaches, and packets of almond butter. In a post-swim interview, her hands and voice were shaking. She said she hadn’t known if she could make it on such little food, but she forced herself to keep going.

Then there’s the other kind of feeding open-water swimmers want to avoid: being food yourself. Simon Dominguez, who attempted a reverse crossing—from San Francisco to the Farallons, something no one has yet managed—tells me that during his swim, he drank a slurry of cooked white rice, almond milk, banana, and Nutella that he used in training. He also had peaches as a treat: “They’re great—they just slide down your throat.”

Dominguez had been in the water for seventeen hours and forty-five grueling minutes when heard his wife calling for him to board the boat as quickly as possible. Dominguez’s crew had been watching a great white swim near him. When the shark suddenly changed directions, came toward him, and dove under, the crew made the call to end the swim.

“It went down deep, which is what they do right before they attack,” Dominguez says. “I didn’t see it,” he said, sounding chagrinned. (He loves sharks.) When he made it back up on the boat, he was covered in blood from a badly chafed neck. (Salt water on skin over many hours is like scrubbing with a crushed-glass loofah: every time Dominguez turned his head to breathe, another little cut.)

While he didn’t complete the swim, he was ultimately pleased with his performance and “by the fact that I still had my arms and legs and didn’t have a bite taken out of me,” he says. “That helped with the disappointment.”