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Friday, July 17, 2015

The routine of feeding while swimming the English Channel

As promised, I intend to provide all the details I learned over the past few months about how to eat while swimming...in the EC.  There are many subtleties that require a bit elaboration.  I begin with what to eat and then venture toward how to eat it, and then when to eat.  Here goes....

What to eat

Everyone has different tastes.  I learned that fact while climbing over the years.  Also, many years ago when I competed in triathlons, I learned that I could eat almost anything at any time without having too many stomach problems.  As I grew older, I learned that my tastes changed and I could bear to eat certain things but I didn't like them too much.  So taste preference and tolerance play a role in what to eat.  There are some physiological demands, however, that trump taste and tolerance.  They are....

1.  Carbohydrates are needed to replenish burned energy
2.  Electrolytes are NOT needed in salt water because with every breath comes a little bit of salt - enough to satisfy any electrolyte replacement
3.  Proteins can help with short-term endurance and long-term recovery but few people can tolerate them while exercising - I tolerate them just fine.
4.  Fluid replacement is an essential part of refueling and must be combined with the fuel (i.e., Carbs and Protein) to sustain the physical effort over the long haul.

These four points lead me to try different concoctions.  The most promising one to date is Generate UCAN plain Superstarch.  Here is the can I purchased:

My fuel of choice.
This stuff tastes like cornstarch and flour kinda loosely suspended in water.  At first, I hated it.  I couldn't imagine drinking this sludge for hours at a time.  It almost looked like talc when I first opened it up.  Yeesh!  I was not ready for it nor did I find it terribly appetizing.  But just as I mentioned earlier, I tolerate just about anything and soon imagined the drink as an ear of corn that just tasted a little off - not bad off, just off.  Here, take a peek inside the container to see for yourself.  Talc....

Superstarch...from inside the container.  Looks like talc.  Blech...
My first experiment with the Superstarch was in the pool at GMU.  I tolerated the strange consistency and taste well enough to get me through the 3-hour practice.  The only downside was that I had some really bad heartburn.  I can take care of that with my little friend "the purple pill."  More on that point in subsequent posts.  

What I will eat consists largely of this talcum powder stuff mixed with plain water.  I might have a little whey protein mixed in with the Superstarch but I have yet to experiment with that combination.  Perhaps after a few swims, I will have a better idea of how well plain whey protein mixes with this stuff.  For now, I'm 100% focused on carbs.  Superstarch addresses the four points above and meets my taste and tolerance just fine.

How to eat

There is a wealth of knowledge across the internet concerning how to eat.  The one common factor is time and the easiest way to rapidly ingest calories is through a fluid and not a food that requires chewing.  I will drink my calories.  How will I get these drinks?  From a feeding stick, how else?  Several folks posted "HOW TO's" for making your own feeding sticks.  I found this one the most informative and by far the most practical.  

By placing my drinks in the cup and extending the arm toward me, I can grab the bottle, drink as quickly as possible, and then chuck it back into the boat.  Bottle?  I didn't say anything previously about a bottle.  What bottle you ask?  Well, that has yet to be determined.  Right now, I think a simple, small squeeze bottle may work best.  I experimented with Hydrapak SoftFlask 250 during my 6-hour qualifying swim.  

The SF250 squeeze bottle - very easy to use but a little flimsy.
That container worked well for that swim but they are expensive and may not stand up to repeated tosses back into the boat.  In retrospect, I think that the effort to get the fluids out of the SF 250 bottle often reduced my interest in taking the entire portion.  A standard squeeze water bottle might be easier to use and more durable.  I was thinking that a Gatorade squeeze bottle might suffice - plus they are much cheaper than these fancy bottles.  An even cheaper option if the water conditions permit is a standard 8-ounce plastic cup (200 ml).  Trent Grimsey set his record crossing the EC by feeding with cups.  I thought his routine was very effective and required the least sophisticated equipment.  Once I try some more options out, I will update the "how to eat" section with my choice.



When to eat

Just like what to eat, when to eat garners a great deal of attention in the marathon swimming world.  I tried several plans including once every 30 minutes, once every 20, and then once every 15 minutes.  The real problem is that longer times between feeds means that each feeding session is dear and needs to be large enough to hold me over until the next feed.  The 30-minute option requires me to consume about 300 calories per feed to maintain the expected 600 kcal/hour caloric expenditures during the swim.  Contrast that with every 15 minutes where I can consume just 150 calories to maintain that rate.  The more feeds per hour, the more my swim gets interrupted and the longer the swim takes.  It seems like a delicate balance but here are the factors that influence my feeding schedule.

1.  Total calories needed (more feeds might be better to ensure full refueling)
2.  Breaks in the monotony (more feeds break up the swim more often and may keep me focused between feeds - also something to look forward to while swimming)
3.  Stomach emptying (more feeds decrease the total volume in my stomach at any single point)
4.  Time demands (fewer feeds means less time stopping and more time swimming toward France)
5.  Thermoregulation (fewer feeds means less time stopping - see above - and less time to get cold from not expending energy)
6.  Fluctuating caloric demands (adjusting the feed timing allows me to refuel based upon needs rather than merely by time)

The last point is the one I think makes the most sense.  When I start my swim, I intend to have a full stomach - or at least I intend to be sate with at least 500 kcal consumed before I head off.  That initial caloric boost means that the demands on my body will be lower earlier in the swim compared to later.  If I refuel according to my needs (i.e., eat more when the pace quickens or the tides, waves, winds adversely affect my pacing and stroke), I will be able to refuel when necessary.  Eating only when necessary, however, places a huge burden on my team.  I will only do that if they are willing to adapt the feeding to the conditions.  Perhaps a bit more experimenting with them might be a good plan.  

My initial plan is to refuel every 30 minutes because I know I can tolerate that for at least 3 hours.  As I continue on my swim, I would prefer to have more frequent feeds - perhaps every 20 minutes but no more frequent.  I am cognizant of the time demands while feeding and figure I can eat to my heart's content when I finish.  Consuming what I need when I need it matters more for now; any excessive feeding will only lengthen my swim and keep me exposed to the cold waters of the EC longer.  

Some of that excess is under my control.  How?  By practicing eating quickly.  Many EC swimmers aim to have their feed times as short as 10 seconds but certainly under 20 seconds.  Consider this point carefully....if I feed every 30 minutes and each feed takes 20 second then every 1.5 hours adds a minute to my swim time.  That doesn't seem like much time but those minutes can mean the difference between catching a favorable tide/current and missing it.  I heard from more than one EC veteran about the horrors of sitting in one place for hours as the tide shifted against the swimmer.  Fewer feeds and more efficient feeding routines minimize those horrors.  I continue to sort out these details and will update the blog as I get a more refined method.

Additional thoughts

My friend Madhu (read his blog to see what a real marathon swimmer does for fun) keeps reminding me that a flexible plan that changes throughout the swim is more common than the inflexible plan.  I need to keep that in mind and stay relaxed...perhaps focused on my swimming technique and leave the feeding details to my all-star crew.  Madhu also told me about his routine where he washed his mouth out with plain water, consumed his refueling concoction, and then rinsed again with diluted mouthwash.  He reasoned that the residual starch left in his mouth created an involuntary action of casually drinking some salt water.  I can attest to that involuntary action.  In many instances after I eat a little in the pool, lake, or ocean, I often find myself consuming just a tad bit of the water as I breath.  Once my mouth is rinsed of the residual, however, I go back to my usual habit of expelling most of the pool, lake, or ocean water.  I hope to try Madhu's 3-bottle approach soon.

Up next...

Thanks for following along with my adventure.  Planning for the outing is just as exciting as doing it.  As promised, my next post covers my cold water acclimatization device.  I have pictures and diagrams for those who wish to recreate my invention so stay tuned for some engineering marvels.  Following that post, I intend to introduce you to my crew.  Yep, my family gets full exposure in a week.  Stay tuned for more adventure news.  Thanks again for following.