Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Do it yourself

The last in a series of four posts about nutrition in marathon swimming. To recap:

  • Marathon swimming nutrition is both art and science. There are both “best practices” (generalizable to many) and “special sauce” (generalizable to few). In general, a nutrition plan that aims to drink some carbs — not too much is a good place to start.
  • Some carbohydrates are “better” than others, due to differences in osmolality. An endurance athlete can consume more carbohydrate in the form of maltodextrin, compared to simple sugars, without overwhelming the digestive system. Also, maltodextrin is neutral in taste, thus providing more control over your drink’s flavor.
  • Of the many designer endurance fuels on the market, few are ideal for marathon swimming. High electrolyte content makes sense for runners, cyclists, and triathletes – but less sense for swimmers (even less sense for ocean swimmers).

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.”

The Full DIY

  1. bulk maltodextrinBuy some plain complex carbohydrate – maltodextrin (Carbo-ProMaxim, or bulk) or if you want to be adventurous, Superstarch.
  2. Mix your chosen carb with water, and flavor it with something tasty. Possibilities might include fruit juice or Gatorade.
  3. Calculate your drink recipe by:
    1. how many calories (including the ones in your flavoring) you want to consume per hour
    2. how much fluid you want to consume per hour
  4. If you’ll be swimming in warm water and/or freshwater, add some electrolytes (e.g., Hammer Endurolytes). Keep in mind many fruit juices already provide some potassium.
  5. If you want to add some amino acids, go for it (try this).

This is, in fact, exactly what I do. For a 30-oz feed bottle, I mix:

  • 1/2 cup maltodextrin (bulk for everyday use; Carbo-Pro or Maxim for race day)
  • 6 oz fruit juice – anything but citrus. On my big swims last year I used unfiltered apple juice. But other juices work great too – cranberry (unsweetened), blueberry, cherry, pomegranate, grape, etc. You can even blend them!
  • 24 oz water

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:

Maxim Energy Mix

Maxim Energy Mix

  • carb source: maltodextrin only
  • extras: Vitamins C and B1
  • cost per 250ml: $0.32

Carbo Pro

Carbo Pro

  • carb source: maltodextrin only
  • extras: none
  • cost per 250ml: $0.45

The Semi DIY

  1. Infinit NutritionGo to the Infinit Nutrition website.
  2. Complete the online interview (or schedule a phone consultation).
  3. Get your customized formula. Infinit will blend it, put it in a nice little bag, and mail it to you.

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.)

Marathon Swimming Nutrition: A product comparison

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:

  • You can buy it in supermarkets and gas stations
  • It is brightly colored
  • Produced by a subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company, such as Coca-Cola or PepsiCo
  • Advertised on national television and/or billboards
  • Has a flashy, Javascript-heavy website that contains very little actual information.
  • Ingredients lists may be difficult to find. When you do find one, it’s often extensive and includes strange additives like “xanthan gum” and “brominated vegetable oil.”
  • Most relevant to endurance athletes: The primary carbohydrate source is a simple sugar such as sucrose, dextrose, or high-fructose corn syrup (or a combination).


Vitamin Water

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.

Continue reading “Marathon Swimming Nutrition: A product comparison”

Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Osmolality and why it matters

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. Ted EriksonMy 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.

Brandon SullivanSo, allow me to introduce Brandon Sullivan. Sully is a former teammate of mine on the Columbus Sharks Masters. He is also a certified marathon swimmer, having completed 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!

* For the record, Ted Erikson’s nutrition plan for his legendary 1967 Farallon Islands swim consisted of “glucose plus anything to flavor and pour, e.g. peaches, pea soup, etc.”

Continue reading “Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Osmolality and why it matters”

Marathon Swimming Nutrition: Art vs. Science

First, a Michael Pollan-inspired minimalist manifesto:

  1. Drink some carbs.
  2. Not too much.
  3. Some carbs are better than others.

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?

  • Lynne Cox munches on bagels with peanut butter
  • David Barra spikes his drinks with ginger tea and agave nectar
  • Erica Rose chews dried pineapple slices
  • Capt. Matthew Webb favored (I mean, favoured) beef tea and brandy
  • For Janet Harris, variety is the spice of life.
  • Peter Attia has been pounding the table for SuperStarch.
  • Penny Palfrey likes watered-down porridge, and famously once had a tub of chocolate ice cream flown in via helicopter (while playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in her head!)

The textbooks aren’t much better:

  • In Dover Solo, Marcia Cleveland recommends “warm, energy-providing liquids, followed possibly by some solid food, or energy gel.”
  • Steven Munatones’ book suggests to “try everything within reason: energy drinks, bananas, sliced peaches, chocolate, and cookies.” He also wisely notes that “what works for another swimmer may not necessarily work for you.”
  • Penny Lee Dean devotes a section to nutrition in her book, but in 2012 her recommendations are a bit dated. A lot has changed in sports nutrition since 1998.

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.

Keep Calm and Carry On

Jared WoodfordThis is a time of year when many marathon swimmers are ramping up their training in earnest, in preparation for big swims this summer. It’s a time of year when reports of epic workouts appear with increasing frequency on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. While it’s fun to read of others’ training exploits, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize – maximizing your performance for your event – and not get caught up in cyber-rivalries.

My friend and former training partner Jared Woodford recently wrote an excellent post on this subject, and I asked his permission to re-print it. Jared is a professional triathlete, a commercial pilot for ExpressJet, and a former collegiate swimmer at Delta State University. Last May he was featured in an interview on SlowTwitch. 

Possibly unique to triathlon (and maybe its component sports) is the ability to read about the workouts of other athletes online.  Via Facebook, Twitter and blogs there is an access to other athletes that isn’t found in other sports.  I’ve never read on AJ Green’s twitter feed about how many pass play routes he ran that day and Kevin Durant doesn’t update us on how hard his last workout was.  Triathlon social media though is inundated with completed workouts, epic training day totals and regurgitated coaching mantras.

I wouldn’t say that triathlon’s use of social media is a bad thing though.  It can be a great motivator to read what others are doing (especially as our sport is easily quantifiable), and the ability to share a recent workout can garner positive reinforcement often lacking in an often lonely pursuit.  But as I ran my 5k on the treadmill today (that I didn’t find to be twitter worthy) I was thinking about how easy it is to be distracted by the training of everyone else.

It can be disconcerting when others are logging epic workouts and you aren’t.  And while good people train a lot (endurance sports work like that), remember that the competition is on race day.  The goal of training is to race faster, not to train more than your friends.  [Emphasis added.] There are no medals given out for epic training days posted online (other than social recognition medals, which could very well be more important to some).  And even if there were, they wouldn’t be handed out in January when the races are 5 months away.

As others gain early fitness and hit the web, don’t panic thinking you might be behind.  There is no glamour in patience; no online reward for staying the course.  It takes great self-confidence to do what YOU need to do.  The workouts that make the real difference (the ones that are repeatable and appropriate), won’t foster many “likes” and won’t impress your twitter followers.  But remember that the season is long, training is individual, and to keep calm and carry on.

2 years, 200 posts: An overview and history of Freshwater Swimmer

The WordPress admin dashboard informs me this is – hell’s bells! – post #200 here at Freshwater Swimmer. Sometime in the next month, three additional milestones will be reached:

  • My 2-year blogoversary! (Remember this post?)
  • 50,000 page views (not including RSS). Just a couple months behind Donal.
  • Best of all: 1,000 comments! That’s an average of 5 comments for every post (recently it’s been more like 10 per post — granted, some of those are my own!). I could be wrong, but I think this statistic might be unmatched in the universe of open-water swimming blogs. So, to my commenters, especially the frequent ones – Katie, Mike, Amanda, Adam, David, Donal, Rob, and Sully – thank you! And keep ’em coming. I appreciate the engagement, and am gratified that you find my stuff worth reading.

Regular visitors may have noticed a few changes afoot – some new fonts, an updated theme, and alas – a new header image. Much as I loved that spectacular view of the Chicago lakefront, it no longer reflects my reality. The new header is less eye-catching, but I prefer it for a couple reasons: First, it actually shows someone swimming. Second, that swimmer happens to be me. The photo was taken as I warmed up before the USMS 10K National Championship in Noblesville, Indiana.

freshwater swimmer

Finally, a brief word on this site’s title, “Freshwater Swimmer.”

A few people have asked me (and others have probably wondered) how I can be a “freshwater swimmer” when I now live in California, and almost all my recent swims have been in saltwater. That’s a reasonable question.

I settled on Freshwater Swimmer for a few reasons:

  • At the time (obviously), I lived in the Great Lakes region of the United States.
  • Given that most American marathon swimmers live on the coasts, it seemed like one way to distinctively “brand” myself.
  • Less obviously, it was also a winking nod to the famous “freshwater vs. saltwater” debate in macroeconomics. I lived in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago – the best-known “freshwater school” – so it seemed especially appropriate.

Now, of course, the title makes considerably less sense. But I decided to keep it anyway. Regardless of where I live – now and in the future – the Midwest is where I discovered the joys of open-water swimming. I became an open-water swimmer in freshwater. I became a marathon swimmer in freshwater. I learned to swim in cold water… in freshwater. I learned to swim in rough water… in freshwater.

So Freshwater Swimmer it is – and will remain!

Swim slow slower, Swim fast faster

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.

Matt BiondiI 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:

  • not swimming slowly enough, when you’re supposed to be swimming slow
  • not swimming fast enough, when you’re supposed to be swimming fast

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.