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).
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
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.…
First, a Michael Pollan-inspired minimalist manifesto:
- Drink some carbs.
- Not too much.
- 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?
Yesterday Open Water Source hosted a fascinating web-presentation by Peter Attia, a physician and Catalina Channel solo swimmer. The topic: Nutrition for Open-Water Swimming. Right up my alley, to say the least! There’s good news and bad news.
Bad news first: The webinar was oversubscribed so, despite pre-registering a week ahead of time, I got locked out. The good news: I was able to obtain the audio and slides, and “listen in” after the fact. (Friendly suggestion to the good folks at Open Water Source: Please don’t overbook your webinars. I realize they’re free, but still…)
The even-better news: The webinar was excellent. Though, somewhat different than I expected. A few weeks ago a friend sent me a whitepaper authored by Dr. Attia, entitled “Swimming in the Intensive Care Unit.” The gist of the paper is that a marathon swim is enormously stressful on the body, producing physiological symptoms not unlike those of a patient in the ICU with a traumatic injury.…
In marathon swimming, there’s very little in the way of credible science – that is, methodologically rigorous, experimentally controlled, peer-reviewed science. It’s not hard to understand why: Open-water swimming, especially the marathon variety, is a tiny market compared to land-based endurance sports. Market size is related to the potential for making money, and the potential for making money is, in turn, related to funding and motivation for scientific research. Even in triathlon (an enormous, lucrative market), swimming is often seen merely as a warm-up to the bike and run, so there’s little effort to understand it.
As a result, marathon swimmers are left with approximately four strategies for acquiring knowledge about their sport – specifically, the physiological demands of long-distance swimming, and the nutrition required to fulfill those demands:
- Figuring out what is known, scientifically, about land-based endurance activities, and applying it to swimming.
Among channel swimmers, the Danish sports drink Maxim is something of a magical elixir. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this post, but for additional details I recommend a search of the Channel Swimmers chat archives – especially posts by CS&PF pilot Michael Oram.
Maxim is an excellent product. Indeed, it fueled three of my four ultra-marathon events this year (Tampa, MIMS, and Catalina). What’s interesting about Maxim is how simple it is. The ingredients: 97% maltodextrin, with a smattering of Vitamins C and B1. Maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate of chained glucose polymers, and is the basis for other popular endurance fuels including Perpetuem, HEED, and EFS. Maxim, however, has no added protein (Perpetuem), no added amino acids (EFS), and no added electrolytes (all three).…
Recovery drinks are expensive. My go-to “branded” recovery drink – Hammer Nutrition’s Recoverite - retails for $50/tub. That works out to $1.56 per serving (2 level scoops of powder, mixed in 10 oz water), which might not seem like a lot, but multiplied by 5 workouts/week and 52 weeks/year adds up to $405.
Chocolate milk, of course, is a perfectly acceptable alternative. And at $2.99 per half-gallon, the cost per 10-oz serving goes down to $0.47 ($122/year, a 70% savings). My favorite supermarket-bought recovery drink, though, is Silk Soy chocolate milk – at $3.99/half-gal, still only $0.62 per 10 oz).
Two downsides to chocolate milk: refrigeration and expiration (and therefore, more frequent shopping trips). Powder-based drinks such as Recoverite travel better and, in my opinion, taste better at room temperature.…