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.

Banquet day in San Pedro: Celebrating a big season of California channel swimming

And now, a few words about the CCSF and SBCSA annual banquets (before the memories are too far from mind). Rob already wrote a fairly authoritative recap – to which I don’t have much to add.

(L-R) Anne Cleveland, Marcia Cleveland, and Cindy Cleveland. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Despite the recent surge of interest and participation in open-water swimming, marathon swimmers are still a rare breed – and our efforts are distributed across the globe. It would be unusual for more than a few of them to be in a room at the same time. How often, for example, would you be able to get a picture of the three great Clevelands together? (No relation – see picture at left.)

November 5th at the San Pedro Doubletree (a place I’ve come to know rather well this year!), the CCSF filled a large conference room with marathon swimmers (past and present) and their families. In a classy, inspiring ceremony emceed by Forrest Nelson, the Federation celebrated the successes of 26 solo swimmers, several relays, as well as Forrest’s own epic circumnavigation of the island.

List of successful 2011 soloists

It was a moving tribute to the courage of channel swimmers: the courage required to jump off a boat in the middle of the night, to leave the safety of land and offer oneself up to deep, dark, unknowable waters; swimming for as long as it takes to reach the other side.

Lynne Cox. Photo credit: Paula Selby

Lynne Cox – perhaps the most courageous among us – gave a keynote speech without notes, holding the room spellbound for a solid 45 minutes.

Cindy Cleveland was finally recognized for her pioneering circumnavigation of Catalina in 1979. Here was this petite, unassuming lady… one of a small handful who might be included in the “greatest marathon swimmer ever” conversation. She got a spontaneous standing ovation – and I think she almost melted on the spot. It was adorable.

And so, with a certificate signed by Forrest Nelson, Paula Selby, and John York, I officially became the 212th person to cross the Catalina Channel. It was the 263rd successful solo swim (accounting for multiple crossings by the same individual) and the 24th-fastest in the C-M direction. The full, updated list of successful solo swims can be viewed here.

Official certificate

When things started winding down at the Doubletree, Rob and I headed across town to Acapulco Restaurant to attend the board meeting of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association. I’m super-excited to serve this organization, and mark my words: There will be some interesting things happening in the Santa Barbara Channel over the next few years.

Following the board meeting was the banquet, celebrating 7 solo successes – 6 from Anacapa and one from Santa Cruz. It was the second-biggest year ever for the SBCSA, behind only 2008. Many of the same faces were in attendance – a benefit of having the banquets on the same day in the same town.

SBCSA board of directors (L-R): Jim F., Jane C., Dean W., Evan M., Dave V.M., Lynn K., Scott Z., Dale M.

Rob and I polished off the day at the Crowne Plaza bar, where we ran into Captain Bob and Three-Ring Mike. We reflected on our experiences and discussed the future. In marathon swimming, the end of the season can mean only one thing: Time to plan for next year!

It was a good day.

More coverage:

Swimming with the Ocean Ducks at Goleta Beach

The blog has been rather text-heavy lately. This post should fix that.

The Santa Barbara Ocean Ducks gather Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Goleta Beach County Park, and Sundays at Butterfly Beach in Montecito (plus Saturdays in the summer). It’s a diverse, friendly group of folks, and even this late in the year you can expect to see 8-10 of us in the water during the week; more on the weekends.

Goleta Beach

Typically we head out in groups of 2 or 3 according to speed. There are a variety of possible swim routes. Here’s one of my favorites (click to enlarge):

Goleta Beach to Campus Point

From our meeting place next to the shower head (west of the restaurant and pier, east of the restroom), we make our way beyond the surf line, 100-150m offshore. Then we turn right, towards UC Santa Barbara and Campus Point. On the outbound trip, we try to maintain a constant distance from shore as we bend around the cove. In the image above I’ve noted four intermediate landmarks, which offer convenient turning-back points if someone is in a hurry.

End of the Beach

The Rock

The Waterfall

The Stairs

The full trip to the east side of Campus Point is approximately 1800m. As seen on the satellite image, this location is actually a “false” point, beyond which there is a small cove that bends into the “true” Point. Usually the false point (or even a little before) offers a better turn-around spot, to avoid rocks and surfers – especially on big W or SW swells. Even on flat-ish days there’s often a nice little right-breaking wave at the Point – perfect for a bodysurfing interlude.

On the return trip we aim for a straight-line trip across the cove. If done correctly, this shaves 300m off the outbound distance. The north side of the pier (where it intersects with the beach) is the best sighting landmark. I usually make the 3300m (2-mile) round-trip in a little under an hour, including a bodysurfing break.

Here’s a short video I took near “the rock”:

It’s a beautiful little swim. There’s an occasional kelp patch to dodge, and perhaps a lone seal or pod of dolphins out for lunch; but for the most part, not much in the way of sea-flora or fauna.

A couple gratuitous Google Earth views of the swim:

From the West

From the East

Interesting historical note: this swim route partially retraces a favorite workout of Lynne Cox, a 1979 graduate of UC Santa Barbara. According to her memoir Swimming to Antarctica, Lynne would swim from the Goleta pier to Campus Point, then on to the next point (Coal Oil Point), and back – a 6.5-mile round trip.

Lynne Cox's route

I guess I need to find a paddler!

Origin Stories

Many open-water swimmers seem to have origin stories. A moment of revelation when one identifies – in a powerful and lasting way – with the experience of being in open water. In reality it’s usually more of a process than a single moment, but often there’s a particular event that seems to crystallize that process and lend it symbolic meaning (perhaps only retrospectively).

One of the great legends of open water swimming, Lynne Cox, turned her own origin story into an award-winning book. Cox’s story, too, was a process – but she also describes a moment from which the rest of the moments in her incredible career seem to flow. In 1971, she entered the Seal Beach Rough Water Swim and, as a 14-year old, won the women’s race and beat all but two of the men. Only a middling talent in the pool, Cox was encouraged by her coach, Don Gambril, to try open water.

lynne cox
Lynne Cox

 

Cox’s description of the race start sounds almost surreal, but I think many who’ve caught the open water bug will know exactly what she means:

The water was cold, salty, buoyant, smooth, and the deepest blue. And I swam as if I had learned to fly. I raced across the water. My strokes felt powerful, and I felt strong, alive, as if awakened for the first time. Nothing in the swimming pool gave me this pleasure. I was free, moving fast, feeling the waves lifting and embracing me, and I couldn’t believe how happy I was. It was like I had gone from a cage into limitless possibilities.

Swimming to Antarctica, p. 28.

Some origin stories are rooted in failure. Another legend, Penny Lee Dean, attempted to swim the length of the Golden Gate Bridge as a 10-year old (4-foot-2, 50 pounds), but DQ’d herself 400m from the finish by touching a support boat. She describes the pain of failure, and the inspiration that followed:

I cried. I had failed, but promised myself I would never quit again. Someday I would swim the English Channel. This swim taught me about challenges I had never experienced physically or mentally in the confines of a swimming pool; it inspired me to attempt every open water swim possible.

Open Water Swimming, p. 5.

Other origin stories seem almost accidental. If you ask Mark Warkentin how he got into open water, he’s been known to half-jokingly explain that he simply was trying to find a way onto the U.S. National Team, and the 25K seemed like the “easiest” (ha, ha) way to do it, because very few people want to swim that far. In 2006, he won the 25K National Championship, and made the team.

Is there any human sport more diverse than open water swimming? Not just diversity in terms of ethnic or socioeconomic background (though there’s plenty of that, too). I mean diversity in personalities, motivations, and character. Some are former pool swimmers looking for new challenges. Others have no formal swim training, but just like being in the water. Some are world-class athletes. Others are slow swimmers, but succeed through world-class persistence.

All you need are a suit, cap, and goggles – but really, you don’t even need those.