Last year I undertook an ambitious program of marathon swims:
While I usually keep my personal life out of this space, in this case it’s essential to understanding my experiences this year. I undertook this schedule of swims while going through a divorce (a process that began 4 days before MIMS), and while moving 2,100 miles from Chicago to California.
Yep - it was an interesting year.
Some thoughts, to those who might be considering a big season of their own:
Remember: there’s always next year. What’s the rush?
Another issue bears particular emphasis: It may be harder than you think to recover from a big swim. The channel swimmer/physician Peter Attia has compared the physical effects of a 20-mile swim to a traumatic injury. Personally, I budget at least 7-10 days for physical recovery.
In my experience, the greater challenge is mental recovery. A 20-mile swim is profoundly emotionally draining. In the weeks following a big swim, I’ve experienced symptoms not unlike depression: lethargy, listlessness, lack of motivation. With 4 swims in 6 months, though, you have no choice but to buck up and keep training.
The story of my 2011 season actually begins in September of 2010 - when I had the silly idea to enter the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. On September 10, my buddy Mark won a thrilling match race against Petar Stoychev. I thought to myself, That sounds fun.
On September 28, in what turned out to be the second-to-last day before Lake Michigan turned over, I swam Point in the coming months. Amanda is a two-time MIMS veteran and was a helpful mentor as I acclimated to the idea of a 28.5-mile swim.
On November 1, after a last-minute flurry of essay-writing, I how it turned out.
By December I had submitted my Tampa entry and my boat deposit for Catalina. The die had been cast.
In January, I started my** training ramp-up** in earnest. By late February, I was ready for what would be my only major training swim before Tampa: an Swim Miami 10K. My time didn’t reflect it (course mismeasurement), but I was first overall in the Masters division.
Two other items of interest from this time period: my April Fools joke.
In late April, it was off to Tampa, where my Season of Big Swims would finally begin. At this juncture, instead of recapping what I’ve already written about extensively, I’ll do more of a compare/contrast exercise. My full reports are linked in the parentheses.
Tampa (Part 2)
MIMS (Photo Album)
Catalina (Part 4/final report)
There was another small issue simmering beneath the surface during the latter part of the summer. I haven’t mentioned this before, but perhaps now is an appropriate time. By virtue of my 3rd-place finish at MIMS, I was offered a spot in the subsequent Manhattan match race and record attempt, when Erica Rose withdrew. The race was to be held September 28 - three days before the Ederle Swim. I had to choose between the two.
Truth be told, by the time I finished Catalina I was ready to call it a year. I was so spent - physically, emotionally, motivationally - that I didn’t think I had another swim in me. Maybe I should just forget Ederle, and use my Southwest Airlines points for another day. In the end, I kept my flight and I kept my spot on the Ederle roster. I declined the MIMS record attempt because (among others reasons) I figured there was no chance I or anyone else could take down Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary record.
In an ironic twist of fate, Shelley’s record did fall on September 28 - to my friend Rondi Davies; and then, less than 10 minutes later, to my great MIMS competitor Ollie Wilkinson. I was thrilled for them both - but at the same time had to suppress any thoughts of “What if?”
In any case, I came home from New York with a record anyway.
After Ederle I took 10 days off - my longest break in almost 3 years. No pool, no ocean, no drylands…nothing. And I felt no guilt whatsoever.
In mid-October I banquets in San Pedro. I saw some old friends, met some new ones; celebrated past achievements and pondered future ones.
It was a difficult year, but one that I’ll remember fondly for many reasons. Four big swims were two too many - but I wouldn’t subtract any of them after the fact. I had, basically, four goals going into this season:
So, three for three. As for the fourth - I take heart from the fact that it’s still an unanswered question.
And that… is a year in the life of a marathon swimmer.
As the sun rises on 2012, I wish all my readers a happy new year. May you stay happy, healthy, fit, and motivated - to tackle whatever channel, lake, bay, or river captures your imagination.
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story about Matt Biondi (one of the fastest swimmers ever) that he always made a point of being the slowest person in the pool during warm up, no matter the skill level of the other swimmers surrounding him.
I think there’s something to this idea. In training, most swimmers succumb to laziness from time to time. It’s been my observation (in myself and others) that swim-laziness comes in two basic forms:
There’s an important purpose to slow swimming and drilling: Ingraining perfect technique, and being mindful of each part of your stroke by reducing it to its components. Drilling well requires focus and concentration, and the path of least resistance is to do it sloppily - or just skip it altogether. Sloppy drilling is, of course, self-defeating.
There’s also an important purpose to fast swimming. As my college coach Rob Orr liked to say: You’ve got to swim fast to swim fast. When the coach assigns a 100% effort, the path of least resistance is often to give a bit less - perhaps 90%. People prefer to avoid pain - and 100% is painful. The problem with giving only 90%, though, is the last 10% is where a lot of the improvement happens.
Don’t be lazy! Swim slow slower. Swim fast faster.
First, a Michael Pollan-inspired minimalist manifesto:
One of the most daunting and mysterious aspects of preparing for a marathon swim is planning a nutrition strategy. And for good reason: Nutrition can make or break a marathon swim.
So, aspiring marathon swimmers often seek advice from their more experienced brethren. But how to sort through conflicting information and opinions?
The textbooks aren’t much better:
Here’s the thing: In planning your nutrition strategy, you must distinguish the art from the science - the “best practices” from the “special sauce.” Think for yourself. Pay attention to best practices, but don’t eat bagels and peanut butter just because Lynne Cox did.
What are the best practices? Here’s a good start:
Drink some carbs. Your gut processes liquid food faster than solid food.
Not too much. The goal isn’t to replace everything you burn There’s a limit to how much your body can process at once. A basic hour’s portion of Maxim (or equivalent) provides 58g of carbohydrates, 233 calories, and 750ml fluids (a 7.7% solution). Exceed that only with caution and care.
Some carbs are better than others. Maltodextrin is better than simple sugars* (e.g., sucrose, dextrose, and high-fructose corn syrup). Maltodextrin is the typical carbohydrate source in high-end, “designer” endurance fuels such as products by Hammer, First Endurance, and Infinit (and of course, Maxim and Carbo-Pro).
Simple sugars are the typical carbohydrate source in lower-end, mass-production sports drinks such as Gatorade, Powerade, and Vitamin Water.
Basically, if you can buy it at a gas station, don’t use it on a marathon swim.
And… that’s it. All the other stuff - protein, amino acids, electrolytes - you don’t actually need them (and in some cases you don’t want them). Under certain circumstances, they may help at the margin; but there are risks. Supplemental protein and electrolytes have probably harmed _more marathon swims than they have helped. The main thing is to consume carbohydrates - in a _form and amount your body can easily digest while swimming. Everything else is just “special sauce.”
Regarding the last point: Why is maltodextrin better than simple sugars? To answer this question, I’ve recruited a special guest author. Stay tuned for the next post…
* Note: I am aware of Peter Attia’s argument that SuperStarch is superior to maltodextrin. That may be true - but I haven’t tried it. I would simply note that Dr. Attia agrees that maltodextrin is superior to simple sugars.
On a sunny late morning in Chicago last summer, I told Ted Erikson about the nutrition plan I’d recently used for Tampa and MIMS. My plan called for an hourly cycle of two Maxim feeds and one Perpetuem feed. Ted sort of chuckled, and then said something I’ll never forget: “You know, Evan… all you really need is glucose.”
And he’s right: Glucose is the basic unit of energy. Whether you feed on Gatorade or Maxim, it all ends up as glucose anyway. I mention this story because it’s worth remembering as you read what follows. When I said in the previous post that “some carbs are better than others,” I don’t mean that maltodextrin is the be-all-end-all, magical elixir of marathon swimming. It’s not. Many swimmers - including some of the best - have used “simple sugars” to fuel a marathon swim. You can, too!
However, it’s my view (based on both research and experience) that the basic recommendation to an aspiring marathon swimmer - in the absence of strong preferences otherwise - should be a maltodextrin-based fuel.
One reason is taste - simple sugars are much sweeter than maltodextrin. The neutral-to-slightly sweet flavor of maltodextrin provides much greater control over the final taste of your beverage. However, this is (quite literally) “a matter of taste” and not generalizable.
Another reason is a bit more obscure. It has to do with how carbohydrates are metabolized in your gut. One important difference between maltodextrin-based sports drinks and sucrose/HFCS-based drinks is their osmolality. I could attempt to explain what this means, but I thought it’d be more fun to get someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.
So, allow me to introduce Brandon Sullivan. Sully is a former teammate of mine on the 2010 USMS 10K Championship in Noblesville. More relevantly, he has a PhD in Biochemistry from (the) Ohio State University!_
Sully has generously agreed to explain what osmolality is, and why it matters to endurance athletes. Thanks dude!
[Ed. Note - emphases added.]
I was recently asked to compare and contrast nutritional strategies from a biochemical perspective. It is an interesting question as the data is sparse and controversial. In fact, I was severely misinformed before writing this article! In a recent post, I scribbled a comment that reflects some of the most common misconceptions in carbohydrate nutrition. I am glad Evan has given me the opportunity to write a guest post and set the record straight – well at least straighter.
Let us start the discussion by explaining why carbohydrates are important to endurance athletes. Muscle contractions require ATP - the body’s energy currency. Therefore, it is imperative to constantly provide the muscles with ATP to sustain desired performance. The production of ATP is primarily driven by the metabolism of carbohydrates. Quite simply: eat carbs, make ATP, have energy for swimming.
The major carbohydrates found in energy drinks are: glucose (aka dextrose), fructose, sucrose, maltose, high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin (see figure). Glucose and fructose are both single units (monomers); sucrose and maltose link two sugars forming a disaccharide; and maltodextrin links several glucose units to form a polysaccharide. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a commercial preparation of glucose and fructose monomers. Regardless of the chemical composition, all of these molecules are broken down and converted to glucose before entering the blood stream. From the perspective of the muscles involved in swimming, the carbohydrate source is irrelevant.
So, are there meaningful differences in our choice of carbohydrate? Absolutely.
The primary difference between energy drinks is the carbohydrate composition. Gatorade and Powerade provide carbohydrates from HFCS, or mixes of glucose, fructose and sucrose. Designer energy drinks like Infinit and Perpetuem prefer to market products with maltodextrin.
One of the greatest misconceptions is that simple sugars like glucose are absorbed into the blood too quickly, making it hard to balance energy needs for the duration of a marathon swim. Many athletes believe that since maltodextrin requires chemical modification before entering the blood it must be slower than glucose and provide more consistent long-term energy. This is actually not true.
I will ignore the marketing data provided by several companies and discuss the results of a Journal of Physiology article published in 1995 (Vist and Maughan). Here, the authors measured the rate at which food is emptied from the stomach to the intestines for a series of four liquid meals, all with the same volume (~20oz):
The authors concluded that the more dilute feeds (24g) were emptied faster, and that maltodextrin was emptied faster than glucose at both concentrations (see chart). What is the primary difference between the maltodextrin and glucose feeds? Osmolality.
Osmolality is defined as the number of molecules per kilogram of solution . It turns out that our body has a much easier time measuring concentrations than masses. Therefore, differences in concentrations (osmolality) have great influence on our physiology.
Consider a hypothetic example where you are 2h20m into a marathon swim and taking your seventh feeding of 5 ounces (see figure). If your took in 16 glucose molecules in 5 ounces, the concentration of glucose in your stomach would be 16/5 = 3.2 molecules/oz.
When concentrations are high your body responds in two ways. First, it empties the stomach sluggishly resulting in slower intestinal absorption and ATP production. Second, it floods the stomach with water to increase the volume. Note that if the volume increases from 5 to 10 oz, the concentration halves - 1.6 molecules/oz. This later phenomenon is known informally as bloating which in turn decreases appetite and comfort.
Now consider a second option, in which you feed on 2 molecules of maltodextrin. The concentration is considerably lower; 2/5 = 0.4 molecules/ oz. This means it will be emptied into the intestines faster and provide the same amount of theoretical energy (576 ATP). Once in the intestines, enzymes instantly break down maltodextrin to glucose, which are transported to the muscle for ATP production.
These lines of logic have led several companies to produce energy drinks with maltodextrin as the primary carbohydrate source. While many athletes have found these products to improve performance it is still unclear if these are solely osmolality effects or if other factors are in play (e.g., viscosity, solubility, taste). The answer to these questions will require larger sample sizes and likely interest outside our niche sport.
The presence of fructose has a dramatic effect on the quality of energy drinks, albeit not solely an osmolality issue. Fructose is easily converted by muscle cells into glucose, but it is absorbed from the intestines into the blood stream by a different process that requires transporters and is significantly slower. Once the transporters are fully occupied fructose accumulates in the intestines. The body responds by supplying the intestines with more water which leads to cramping and diarrhea. For these reasons many athletes avoid products like Powerade and Gatorade for endurance events lasting longer than a couple hours. Glucose and its polymers, on the hand, are efficiently transported from the intestines to the blood stream by an active process that requires sodium. This is one of many reasons to include a nutrition strategy that also supplies electrolytes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed “Nutrition Week” here at Freshwater Swimmer. As you may have noticed, I’ve been vague about recommending specific products. There’s a reason for that: I don’t believe there’s any single best nutrition plan for all people, in all situations. However, I’ve personally tried a number of sports drink products, and will share my thoughts on them.
Beginning with the low-end market… These products include, but are not limited to: Gatorade, Powerade, and Vitamin Water. Some signs you might be buying one of these products:
Please note: This isn’t an argument about the “morality” of simple sugars. From an exercise perspective, it all ends up as glucose anyway. The issue is osmolality. Because maltodextrin is a larger molecule, it’s easier to consume more carbs without your stomach treating it like food, flooding with water, and causing gastric distress. This might not matter in an everyday workout, but in an 8+ hour swim, it matters.
It’s also easier to control the flavor of a maltodextrin-based drink. By itself, it’s almost tasteless. If you like a sweet, strong-flavored drink, you can always add fructose, fruit juice, or even Gatorade. With simple sugars, the only way to control the flavor is by watering it down - and thus consuming fewer calories.
Now to the higher-end, designer “endurance fuels,” which typically use maltodextrin as their primary carb source.
Unlike Gatorade and Powerade, the nutrition facts and ingredients lists are usually easy to find. I’ve included an image of each product label, which you can click to enlarge.
I also included a cost estimate for each product. It’s not obvious how to do this, given they’re sold in different-sized containers, and often recommend different serving sizes. So, I decided to calculate a cost-per-carb. The standard serving of maltodextrin is 20g carbs in 250ml (8.45 oz) water - an 8% solution. This is approximately what I drink every 20 minutes during a marathon swim. So, the costs listed below are for each 250ml serving of 20g carbs.
The “numerator” of the cost calculation is the largest-sized container available, purchased from Amazon.com with free shipping and no sales tax. If the product is not available from Amazon, I use the price listed on the product website.
Note: The following is written from the perspective of a marathon swimmer, and may be less relevant to runners, triathletes, etc. As always, YMMV.
Summary and Recommendations
None of these products is perfect.
And that is why… with the occasional exception of Perpetuem, I don’t use any of these products. In the next (and final) post in this series, I’ll review what I consider to be the two best options for marathon swimmers:
The last in a series of four posts about nutrition in marathon swimming. To recap:
Although I do think Perpetuem is a good product for swimmers, my best advice is to **skip the one-size-fits all formulas and do it yourself.**This is the only way to ensure you get the nutrition you need on a marathon swim, and not the stuff you don’t need.
There are two basic varieties of “DIY,” the “full DIY” and the “semi DIY.”
This is, in fact, exactly what I do. For a 30-oz feed bottle, I mix:
This recipe provides approximately 280 calories and 70g carbohydrates (depending on the juice). Assuming bulk maltodextrin ($33.54 per 12 lbs) and premium juice ($4 per quart), the total cost of my 30-oz custom bottle comes to $1.06. For everyday workouts, I dilute the recipe by 50%, bringing my cost down to 53 cents.
**Important Caveat:**Some people have trouble digesting fructose. Fruit juice contains fructose (along with glucose & some other stuff).
**Always test your feed plan before you use it on a marathon swim!**
The nutrition info for Maxim and Carbo-Pro are pretty boring, but here they are anyway:
Everything is adjustable – flavor, calories, electrolytes, protein, amino acids, and even caffeine. Tell them what you want, and that’s what you’ll get. You could even have different formulas for different swims – perhaps a low-electrolyte formula for a cold ocean swim, and a medium-electrolyte formula for a warm lake swim.
(No, I’m not getting anything for saying this. However, my buddy Jared – who initially brought Infinit to my attention – is sponsored by them.)