How Diana Nyad fuels her body
From the vantage point of a boat cruising beside Diana Nyad -- the 61-year-old swimmer who has set her sights on being the first person to swim the 103 miles from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Fla. -- the most action that happens on a nine-hour training swim is feeding time.
Every hour and a half (or up to an hour and 45 minutes if Nyad keeps swimming until the second "come in now" whistle is blown) the boat idles and Nyad swims over.
Bonnie Stoll, Nyad's best friend, business partner and "head handler," gives her the tube from a hydration pack filled with a carefully calibrated mix of water, sports drink, electrolytes and "predigested protein." Nyad dutifully sucks down the liquid as she regales the gathered crew with jokes about bees at Jewish weddings ("I don't want them to think I'm a wasp," said one bee to the other of his insistence on wearing a yarmulke).
Done with the fluids, Stoll hands over a tube of energy gel, then a single Clif Shot Blok. Then, a spoon with a bite of banana slathered in peanut butter is passed to the swimmer, who would invalidate the record she's hoping to set if she touched the boat. The bite doesn't provide much nutrition, Nyad explains, but even this small bit of solid food helps to coat her stomach when so much of her nourishment is coming from energy-compressed liquids and gels.
It's been eight minutes -- too long, the crew whispers as Nyad slips back into the water and the boat shifts back into gear. In the middle of the Gulf Stream, every extra minute treading water means drifting off course from the current they're planning to swim diagonally across toward Florida, adding distance to the already arduous journey.
But staying hydrated -- and properly fueled -- will be of the utmost importance when Nyad sets out on the 60-hour voyage from Cuba. In 1978, when she first tried (and failed) to complete the swim, she lost 29 pounds in not-quite 42 hours of swimming.
Luckily, we know a lot more now than we did in the 70s.
"You see pictures of when Diana did this 30 years ago and she'd stop and drink a Coke and eat a piece of cake," said Mark Sollinger, one of Nyad's drivers. "It's come a long way."
Finding the right formula still took trial and error. What works for a marathon runner or cyclist doesn't necessarily work for Nyad. First of all, she's spending five, 10, 20 and eventually 60 hours in a prone position.
"The human body was built to run long distances," Sollinger said. Our organs are set to be upright. After a swim -- especially early in her training when Nyad was still experimenting with different feeding regimens -- it wasn't uncommon for her to spend the night throwing up, sleeping on the bathroom floor.
At this point, Stoll seems to have dialed in on a blend of liquids that minimize, though don't entirely eliminate, post-swim nausea. Cutting down the sugary sports drink component and adding a little something solid seemed to do the trick. She also adds a heaping teaspoon of a sustained energy supplement with protein. This is something that most endurance athletes don't need, but Nyad does since her event is long enough for the body to turn catabolic and start breaking down muscles for fuel.
The daily calorie tally for this kind of training: 9,000 calories on a non-swimming day and about 3,500 when Nyad is swimming (there simply aren't enough hours to consume any more than that when you spend half the day in the ocean). But Nyad is quick to explain that it's not as fun as it sounds to eat that many calories.
"It's just too much food," she said. "Your stomach doesn't want to take it in." Just like in the water, condensed calories are the name of the game. "I try to do some of it in protein shakes and a large three or four servings of pasta for dinner."
"And then she could conceivably have a box of cookies at night," Stoll adds.
Hey, a girl's gotta cut loose sometime.