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.

The last rodeo: Reflections from marathon swimmer Barbara Held

Barbara Held and I crossed paths three times in 2011: at the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, where she was the first woman to finish; at the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim; and then again during my Catalina Channel swim, for which she was a CCSF observer. She did her own Catalina swim in 2010 (in the blazing fast time of 9:36), and set a new age record in the process.

Barbara Held

Barbara’s marathon swimming feats are even more impressive in light of how she completed them all after the age of 55. Now 58, she will tackle the English Channel in August – a swim she says will be her last before retiring from marathon swimming.

It’s an exhausting, time-consuming, and expensive sport – in which “careers” don’t often last more than a few years. So Barbara and I stand in curious symmetry: While I’m now looking back on my first year of marathon swimming, she is looking upon (perhaps) her last. 

With Barbara’s permission, I’m re-posting a “Note” she recently wrote on Facebook, reflecting on her years as a marathon swimmer. In many ways, it’s a perfect counterpoint to my own year in review. The following is what Barbara self-deprecatingly describes as “the closest thing to a ‘blog’ you will ever see me do.”

Continue reading “The last rodeo: Reflections from marathon swimmer Barbara Held”

Don’t try this at home: A look back at 2011

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.    The Aeneid, Book 1

Last year I undertook an ambitious program of marathon swims:

  • in April, the 24-mile Tampa Bay Marathon Swim;
  • in June, the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim;
  • in August, a 20.1-mile solo crossing of the Catalina Channel;
  • in October, the 17.5-mile Ederle Swim from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Manhattan.

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.

Continue reading “Don’t try this at home: A look back at 2011”

The SoCal Eight

An exciting announcement today from the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association: the Southern California Eight.

Eight islands off the coast of Southern Califorina; eight world-class marathon swims. From gateway swims (12.4 miles from Anacapa) to greatest-ever swims (61.2 miles from San Nicolas). From well-trodden paths (275 swims to/from Catalina) to virgin waters (San Clemente and San Nicolas). A swim for every budget, ability, and ambition.

The Channel Islands of Southern California

The Ocean’s Seven will soon have its first conqueror, most likely later this year. What will be the next epic challenge? For U.S.-based marathon swimmers – especially those on the West Coast – the SoCal Eight would have to be enticing. Residents of Southern California could potentially do all eight without ever setting foot on an airplane or in a hotel.

Who wants to be the King and Queen of the Santa Barbara Channel? This is (quite literally) the “Wild West” of marathon swimming. It’s yours for the taking…

  • For more information about swimming to, from, around, or between the Channel Islands, please consult the SBCSA’s website, Openwaterpedia entry, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. You can also subscribe to the SBCSA newsletter.