25 September 2012

Guest Post: Dan Stephenson on Swimmers and Food

Yesterday I reviewed Dan Stephenson's debut novel The Underwater Window, which is about two friends and teammates who are hoping to make the U.S. Olympic swim team. Among the many eye-opening details about competitive swimming Stephenson reveals in his book is how hungry the athletes can become as a result of their grueling workouts.

Cover photo credit: Copyright 2012 Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing.

I asked Dan, who was an elite swimmer, to tell us a little more about the relationship between swimmers and food.
Swimmers and Food—Big Love

Michael Phelps raised some eyebrows in 2008 when he revealed that his training "diet" consists of 12,000 calories a day. That's the approximate calorie content of a small gymnast.

Michael burned off all those calories in the pool, but his revelation left the impression that swimmers eat indiscriminately, like goats—only the volume is important. I suppose I have confirmed this impression in my novel, The Underwater Window. It's a novel about two best friends and competitors in the pool, who both hope to make the Olympic team. But it's also a book that answers the probing questions the general public has about swimming—what do swimmers think about when they swim? Do they wear boxers or briefs? What do they eat? It's not surprising that many of the scenes in The Underwater Window revolve around food. In Chapter 15, Doyle Wilson and five of his teammates gather for Chinese food and a poker game after a particularly grueling practice:

"If you ever have to watch swimmers eat, be prepared to shield your eyes. It's pretty savage. We need fuel, we need a lot of it, and we need it fast. The niceties of etiquette are unimportant to us. We're oblivious to the finer nuances of taste. The six of us tore into the food like it was famine relief. After about 15 minutes, the food was gone. Every scrap, every drop, every grain of rice."

Okay, so swimmers eat fast, and they eat truckloads, but what do they eat? It depends on whether you mean before or after a big meet. After the meet, Doyle's preferred meal is two burgers, fries, and a hot fudge sundae. He dips the fries into the whipped cream on the sundae before munching. This would not make a good pre-race or pre-workout meal—it would reappear in the pool gutter. The post-race indulgence is a treat mostly because it's forbidden during training. So swimmers, who are among the most dutiful of creatures during training, eat what they should—fruits and vegetables, pasta, lean meats and fish—they just eat a lot of it

Then there are old swimmers like me, euphemistically called masters. The hopefulness of that name reminds me of my niece's pet turtle, Speedy. Masters don't swim because somebody makes them; they swim for their own reasons—to stay fit, to meet challenges, to make friends. In my case, I swim because I like to eat, and if I didn't swim, I'd look like I swallowed a bowling ball. In other words, to waterlog a famous quote from Descartes: "I eat, therefore I swim."
Thanks so much, Dan. Your watery Descartes quote made me smile. The men's swim team often had food on their brains, but considering their practice schedule, as you describe it in The Underwater Window, it's no wonder those guys had to fuel up.

I walk four to seven days a week, but if I ate half of what Doyle ate, I'd be as big as house! Of course, he's over a foot taller than I am, so it'd be pretty difficult for me to go bite for bite with him even if I did swim competitively.

Buy The Underwater Window at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Watermark, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780578108049

9 comments:

Peppermint Ph.D. 9/25/12, 6:19 AM  

I couldn't help but think about how hungry we felt as kids after swimming all afternoon. We would eat everything in the house that night! I also started swimming for exercise earlier this summer, but one of the reasons I had to switch back to walking was bc I actually wanted to lose a few pounds. Swimming made me feel as if I was starving!! Very interesting stuff!

Amanda 9/25/12, 8:07 AM  

I was never an olymic-level swimmer, but I WAS a competitive swimmer for five years in middle and high school, and I ate TONS. In high school, I swam for 1.5 hours in the morning, and 1-2 hours after school. My meal schedule went something like this:

pre-workout: bowl of cereal
post workout: 2 sausage & egg breakfast tacos
mid-morning: some sort of snack around 10am
noonish: lunch
mid-afternoon: pre-workout snack (usually consisting of nuts and dried fruit)
early evening (post-workout): dinner (my family ate dinner early)
late evening: snack again, could be variable

I think in general, I ate between 3000-4000 calories a day, at least! And I weighed anywhere between 118 and 123 lbs - on the low end for my 5'6 frame.

And for competitions, my parents always had huge pots of spaghetti for dinner the night before, since you can't really eat morning-of and you need a lot of energy. Then after racing, I went automatically for hotdogs - I needed the fat and salt! It was by far the best thing to eat post-race. :D

rhapsodyinbooks 9/25/12, 9:04 AM  

Almost makes one want to be a swimmer! LOL. And I agree- when I was bike riding, I could eat tons. Wish I still had the impetus to exercise like that! :--)

Barbara 9/25/12, 11:10 AM  

This is fascinating information. I always wondered how much they ate to keep up the grind and now I realize timing was very important as well. I have so much admiration for athletes, especially since I was a pre-Title IX young person.

Zibilee 9/25/12, 1:11 PM  

This was fascinating, and I can imagine that a swimmer would burn hundreds of calories doing their thing. It is very interesting to think about what kinds of things they are eating though, but the amounts are mind-boggling! Very cool post today. Some questions were answered that I always wanted to ask!

bermudaonion 9/25/12, 2:38 PM  

This is an interesting post for me since I just read a memoir by Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard. Even while she performing and in top shape she suffered from bulimia. She implied that many swimmers suffer from body image issues.

Melanie 9/25/12, 3:44 PM  

Haha, this post made me smile. Maybe I need to take up swimming. I'd love to be able to eat quite a bit with not too many worries.

Julie P. 9/25/12, 7:47 PM  

I've read before how many calories competitive athletes burn every day! Amazing!

Leovi 9/26/12, 10:51 AM  

Soil swimming, the truth, make me a good appetite.

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