Feeding the marathon swimmer

By Liz Morrish

Swimmers are usually encouraged to eat well an hour or two prior to getting in the water, but with early, and irregular, starts for 8 Bridges, planning feeds can be problematic.

During a swim of 5-7 hours, all swimmers will need to drink frequently, and the organisers issue instructions to kayakers to feed the swimmers every 30 minutes. This means that feeds need to be mixed, stored and handed over to the individual’s kayaker prior to splash time.  This is the person who has the job of marshalling all the feeds and responding to directions from the swimmer. During endurance events, there is a need to store and replenish carbohydrates, electrolytes, energy and calories. Electrolytes include sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium and are essential to metabolism. There are specialised mixtures on the market, but each swimmer will have their own preferences. Here are some of the chosen provisions on the menu for this year’s swimmers.

Popular choices are carbohydrate and electrolyte-rich drink mixtures such as Carbo Pro, Maxim, Hammer Perpeteum, Ultima Replenisher and Gatorade gels. Personal taste and careful blending leads to some strange confections:

“I’ll be mixing some potions of Ultima Replenisher for electrolytes with CarboPro for calories, and also drinking an Infinit custom blend. In addition, I’m taste testing all the gels I can find to see which are best and packing some straight up VT maple syrup”.

 Other choices are chocolate, bananas, dried fruit, and plain water.

Sometimes the national dishes of a country can make provide excellent sources of endurance fuel. Here is the choice of one of our Brazilian swimmers: “Before training in the morning, it is sweet potatoes. In training it is potatoes with something sweet (here in Brazil we have sugar cane derivatives). I take liquid carbohydrate and potatoes during training and sometimes some derivative of sugar cane (when training is longer)”.

Taking on board solid food can be a matter of personal preference. “Generation UCAN. It’s been my go-to for years now and has worked great! I have a hard time eating anything solid while swimming, and other gels/sports drinks never seemed to sit well. The simplicity of it has made life a lot easier on my kayaker, too!”

This swimmer really likes to mix up the liquids and solids: “Feeds occur every 30 minutes, 1) Infinit is my carb mix of choice, 2) plain water, 3) powerade, 4) bite size peanut butter filled pretzel 5) bite size chocolate chip cookie 5) flat coke”.

Peanut butter is a good source of calories and electrolytes. I still remember the swimmer form last year who mixed it in smoothies with M&Ms. Others will mix it with fruit juices and gels such as applesauce or mango squeezes. Others are more relaxed about nutrition, and will be feasting off, “whatever I can throw together from the fridge the night before; probably something with blueberries, a touch of oatmeal, water, honey, more fruit…?”

Whatever is in the bottle, it can be difficult to keep food down during a marathon swim. Losing electrolytes can lead to feelings of nausea and muscle cramping. Failing to replenish calories can mean the swimmer tires early or succumbs to the cold. Keeping it all balanced is an art which is perfected by the experienced swimmer. In an event like this, those of us observing are learning a lot from the experts.