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.

The “Freshies” – My 10 favorite open-water happenings of 2011

End-of-year list-making: It’s not just for music aficionados, film buffs, and the New York Times Book Review. Why not open water swimmers, too?

So, here are my 10 favorite open-water “happenings” of 2011 (“happenings” because they’re not all swims).

The list is, admittedly, U.S.-centric – America is where I live and what I pay the closest attention to. While I greatly admire (for example) Nejib Belhedi’s 1400K Swim Across Tunisia, I have no unique insights to add to what others have already said. Perhaps Donal or somebody can make an international list.

The list also reflects my own personal biases. I readily admit, I couldn’t care less about “stunts” in which the promotional efforts are more impressive than the swim itself. Sorry, but I find such things distasteful and think they degrade our sport.

With that in mind, here are the winners of the inaugural “freshies” (in no particular order):


Rob Dumouchel: New Year’s Day Polar Bear 10K.

6 miles through sharky 53F (11.6C) ocean, from Avila Beach to Pismo Beach, CA. Quite possibly, the northern hemisphere’s first marathon swim of 2011. Long live the adventure beard!


David Barra & Rondi Davies: 8 Bridges Hudson River Swim.

A 120-mile expedition stage swim from Catskill, NY to the Big Apple. Earned a feature in the New York Times while still seeming under-promoted. A surprising omission from the WOWSA nominations.


Jen Schumacher: Mt. Whitney & Lake Tahoe Back-to-Back.

Day 1: Climb Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. (14,505ft / 4,421m). Day 2: Swim across Lake Tahoe length-wise (21 miles at 6,225 ft elevation). A lung-busting feat of cross-training. A tacit acknowledgment of the spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers.


Forrest Nelson: Catalina Circumnavigation.

Forrest doesn’t call the L.A. Times. He doesn’t hire a camera crew to film a made-for-TV special. Forrest lets his swimming do the talking. The most impressive marathon swim of 2011 by someone not named Penny Palfrey.

  1. Roger Allsopp: English Channel at age 65.
  2. Pat Gallant-Charette: Catalina Channel at age 60.
  3. Elizabeth Fry: Double crossing of the English Channel at age 52.

Three heroic swims, three new age records.


NYC Swim: A re-written record book. The first double-Ederle swim, by Elizabeth Fry (and along the way, new one-way records in each direction).
Then, re-broken one-way Ederle records, by Lance Ogren and myself.
Best of all: Rondi Davies’ and Ollie Wilkinson’s incredible MIMS match race, with both swimmers breaking Shelley Taylor-Smith’s legendary 16-year old round-Manhattan record.
Morty Berger isn’t someone who seeks out attention, but I’ll just go ahead and say: He deserves a lot of the credit for these record-breaking swims.


Penny Palfrey: Cayman Islands Swim. If this wasn’t the greatest feat of endurance swimming in history, it’s second only to the English Channel triple-crossings (Jon Erikson, Alison Streeter, & Philip Rush).


Petar Stoychev. Not a terribly original choice, but you can’t under-sing this guy’s praises. Petar is, it would seem, immune to water temperature. He already holds the fastest English Channel crossing (6 hr, 57 min). This year, he won the FINA 25K world championship in 32C (90F) water. He has won the FINA Grand Prix circuit 10 years in a row, and is still going strong at age 34. At some point soon, he will probably be acknowledged as the greatest open water swimmer…ever.


USA Swimming 10K Open-Water National Championships. Rough-water swimming at its finest – and the most exciting open-water race I’ve ever seen. For 9,800m, Andrew Gemmell, Sean Ryan, Arthur Frayler, and Mark Warkentin battled it out in insanely choppy conditions. Swimmers were colliding with each other from opposite directions on a rectangular course. Alex Meyer slipped in for the win, to qualify for World Championships (and eventually, London). Here’s a video.


State of California: Shark fin ban. Because shark-finning is barbaric and shameful. Sometimes, government can make a difference.


For what it’s worth, I endorse the following nominees for the WOWSA awards:

  • Man of the Year: Simon Griffiths (publisher of the new H20pen Magazine)
  • Woman of the Year: Penny Palfrey
    • Note: Penny is listed in both this category and the “performance of the year” category. As I predicted, she is splitting her own vote.
  • Performance of the Year: Forrest Nelson
    • Need another reason to vote for Forrest? I haven’t gotten a single email or Facebook post from him, begging for my vote.

Short Course: The bad news

I recently noted an unforeseen benefit of doing long swims in a short-course pool: It’s easy to monitor your stroke count without counting!

That’s the good news.

The bad news?

Swimming for a long time without stopping in a short-course pool can increase the risk of tossing your cookies.

I assume this has something to do with flip turns, and I also assume it depends on what you’ve eaten recently. I didn’t have a problem in the One Hour Postal last year, but I occasionally do get nauseated during these swims.

It goes with the territory. Just ask Dave Barra, who did a memorably gruesome 30,000 SCY workout at about this same time last year.