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 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.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A great 10K swim - one where I learned a ton

I just returned from a fantastic weekend in Long Island, NY.  Last Friday (July 10th), I pushed off from Fairfax, VA toward Long Island after a quick swim with my friends at the Old Keene Mill pool.  I felt really sluggish and tired in the warm pool water and wondered if this weekend would be any different.  The week's practices were getting harder and harder - perhaps because I am really starting to tire out from the repeated 32km weeks of training.  Regardless, I headed off with great hopes that this swim would teach me something about my feeding.

Friday day and night were fun and relatively uneventful.  The drive up to Long Island went by quickly because for some odd reason, everyone decided to stay off the road.  I never saw I-95 (our highway up the east coast of the US) so empty.  No complaints here, just happy that I could get up to NY in about 4 and a 1/2 hours.  I stopped by my aunt's house, picked her up and headed to my other aunt's house with her.  We had a great time for a few hours but then the drive and early wake-up started to weigh heavily on my eyes; it was time for bed.  Off to bed at 9pm and I slept like a log until 6:30am on Saturday - race day.

Race Day

I drove from Port Washington, NY (where my aunts live) to the south shore ports for the Fire Island ferries.  The race organizer setup a special 9:30am ferry for us swimmers.  
Waiting for the ferry - trying to avoid the sun as best I could
The pre-race setup was extremely well organized.  The ferry ride took us to Atlantique - a small beach area within easy reach (25 min ferry ride) of the Bay Shore Ferry Terminal.  
The first level on the ferry where I stayed out of the sun.
Once the ferry got us to our destination, we walked to the Atlantic Ocean side of the island - roughly a 300m walk along a nice paved pathway.  
The path between the ferry terminal and the beach.  It was a nice walk.
The race organizers had tents setup and quickly handed out the timing devices and marked those who were not marked prior to hopping on the ferry.  All of this took minutes instead of the often laborious hour-long registration that most events put us through.  I was quite impressed.  

Pre-race Preparation

I managed to jump in the water and warm-up for about 10 minutes prior to the mandatory pre-race meeting.  The meeting was quick and informative.  We learned that the course would head west from the start and parallel the shoreline for 2.5 km where we would turn around and head back.  The 10 km swimmers would swim 2 loops around the 5 km course leaving all buoys to the left.  I felt confident that the swim would go well because the conditions were simply perfect.  There was no wind at the start and the swell was negligible.  According to, the waves were .5 to 1 foot; I think they exaggerated.  If they were 2 inches, I would be shocked.  So I felt great and was ready to swim.

Feed testing...whoops!

One slight problem with my preparation was that I packed food in bottles to be handed to me at the 2.5 km places.  Unfortunately, the paddlers would not be able to provide feeds in specific locations so I needed to either carry my own food (not practical) or abandon the feed tests.  I chose the latter.  Most if not all the 10 km swimmers had the same restrictions so I had to think quickly about how to tailor my swim to the restricted food intake.  The race director said there would be plenty of water provided on the course but no food unless we had our own.  I was down for a new test.  My new feed test was how well would I do for about 3 hours with only water.  A new test!  Turn lemons into lemonade.

Let the race begin

I started the race kicking only slightly to keep my feet up and not drag too much behind.  My rationale was to conserve energy for the first half and then see how I would perform for the second half after the conservative first-half.  I began the swim at a deliberate pace that put me well-behind the leaders who seemed to start out at about my 100m pace.  My focus remained solid and steadfast on a slow, deliberate pace.  The conditions allowed me to easily breathe throughout the first 2.5 km leg and I felt extremely relaxed.  

When I turned around and headed east, the waves kicked up a bit and the tide turned against us.  I felt the going a bit more difficult on the return and noted that for my second loop.  When I swam back, I started thinking about the salt water sloshing around in my stomach and wondered if it would make me sick.  So far, so good.  I felt very relaxed but as I neared the 5 km turn-around, I started to feel a little bothered by the choppy conditions.  Bothered might be an over-statement.  My feet felt like bricks because I stopped kicking to preserve as much energy as possible for the second half.  When I reached the turn-around mark, I noticed the first 5 km swimmer come up alongside me and pass me like I was sitting still.  That feeling is not one I like but it was good for me to realize that I only gave up 10 minutes to the fastest 5 km swimmer even without kicking.  I was refreshed and ready to start kicking.

Second loop comeback

The second loop started with an expectation that I would drink a little water to relieve a little cramping in my feet.  Salt water tends to make me dehyrdated rather quickly but this time around it seemed to take much longer than usual.  My mouth wasn't affected like it usually is with the salt water swishing about as I grabbed each breath.  I swigged about 10 ounces of fresh water and started my leg with my usual kick and immediately felt the difference in my body position.  Before, I felt sluggish and low in the water where now I felt like I was on top of the water and surging with each stroke.  I felt great!

Slowly but steadily I raced up to the swimmers in front and I started to pass them.  There were only 10 km swimmers now ahead of me and a few lingering 5 km swimmers but they would be done before I reached the finish.  I passed one swimmer after another and started feeling better and better with each stroke.  To keep my mind busy, I focused on my stroke and all the tips my friend Stu and my coach Cheryl reminded me of during swim practices.  I felt faster and stronger as I went along.  The beach flew by and in no time, I rounded the 2.5 km mark to head back to the finish.  

The first return trip I felt extremely sluggish and slow going against the tide and slight chop; this second return trip was entirely different.  I was on course, rarely wavering from a straight line track toward the finish.  Each time I looked up, I saw another cap ahead and then the cap was behind me.  I gained more energy by passing them and continued to kick hard and really focus on my stroke.  Beating people was not my aim; I just wanted to test how I would feel after 7.5-9km without eating.  At this point, I had an answer - I felt great.  I kept surging ahead with each stroke and felt so confident I could catch the last remaining swimmer in my sights but then the final buoys came up to us and the first-place swimmer turned just ahead of me and finished right in front.  

What a race!  I felt great and felt confident that a proper feeding schedule would enable me to hold a strong pace for much longer than 10km.  It was a wonderful lesson and one I shall not forget soon.  Pacing withing my energy level limits is important.  

A great trophy with a cool towel backdrop.
Post-race thoughts

I really enjoyed myself at the race and met some fantastic people.  If you are a swimmer, please consider attending next year's Fire Island Open Water swim.  I hope to get some of the LOST swimmers down and my GMU teammates up to fill up the 10 km race.  Expect a big showing next year guys.  Thanks to the Open Water Swimming Long Island group for putting on a fantastic race on a beautiful beach.  Rest assured I will be back again to enjoy the water and company of my new friends.  Thanks to the OWS group and the volunteers for creating a wonderful event.  See you next year.

My next post focuses on my feeding routine.  Oh, and I will have a full post following that one on my cold water immersion machine.  Stay tuned.

Friday, July 3, 2015

It is paperwork is complete but more training needed


In my last post, I promised to send more updates about my qualifying swim.  The reason for the delay was simple - I didn't know if my swim would actually count.  Why?  The temperatures wavered between 59F and 63F and the qualifying instructions specifically mandate a 6-hour swim in 61F (16C) water or colder.  The truth of the matter is that the water was cold and certainly as cold as 61F throughout the day.  Unfortunately for me, the bright sunshine kept the top layer a little warmer and even warmed it up throughout my swim.   One foot beneath the surface and the water quickly dropped by a few degrees.  I mentioned that point in my letter to the secretary (Kevin Murphy) of the CS&PF and he accepted my swim.  So, it is official, I am now done with my paperwork.  Here are a few great pictures that document my steady progress toward the EC:

First, the email I received after submitting my paperwork.  I was overjoyed to read say the least.

Next, I saw the confirmation that all my paperwork was in order.  My registration - as it says on the bottom line - is complete!

Lastly, here is what I looked like after the swim.  Note the "butt paint" amply applied to my upper body?

Patrick (L) and Mark Bintley (R) just after the 6-hour swim.  Mark stayed in the water for the last 20 minutes and we chatted to pass the time.  Not swimming during that time made for a really cold exit.  Photo courtesy of Madhu Nagaraja.

The post would not be complete without acknowledging the folks behind my success.  Many thanks to the LOST swimmers Madhu Nagaraja, Loren King, Mark Bintley, Suman Joseph, Mike Morton, Rob Kent, Ross Shepherd, Rick Born, Lynn and Christine for coming out to swim with me on Friday and Saturday.  I also want to thank my wife Kathy for paddling all day alongside and putting up with my requests for food, drink, and direction.  She was a real trooper.  Kathy also hopped in the water - fully enclosed in a triathlon wetsuit - and swam alongside me while Patrick (my son) paddled the kayak.   So Patrick was also a great support.  He put up with hours of monotony and only one hour of kayaking.  I hope that the EC is not boring for him.  He won't have WiFi or any modern luxuries to keep him busy.  Oh yeah, he'll be supporting me.  The lack of WiFi might be a blessing for me.

With respect to the LOST swimmers....

Madhu and his wife Suman opened up their home to me and my family.  They hosted us prior to the swim, made sure we were setup and prepared to enter the lake in a safe way.  I cannot say enough about their support other than to sum it up as simply fantastic.  Madhu continues to offer me great support through email exchanges.  He has been and will continue to be instrumental in my channel swim success.  Thank you Mahdu.

During the swim, Madhu, Loren, Mark, Ross, Lynn and Christine each swam with me for a few hours.  My first three hours were solo.  Kathy paddled alongside for the first two and then swapped out the kayak for her wetsuit while Patrick jumped aboard the kayak and paddled alongside.  After her hour, she reboarded the kayak for the final 3 hours.  The LOST swimmers rotated in and out to keep me sufficiently challenged.  Mahdu orchestrated most of their participation.  It really was an awesome day thanks to the entire team effort.

Rob put together a really nice piece on the day after my swim.  You can read his bit here.  I am a LOST swimmer for life!  These folks are great.  Can't wait to go back up to Oakville, ON in the next few weeks to swim with them again.  If you are ever in the area on a Saturday morning, join them for a dip.  They are the most hospitable group I ever encountered.  To say I feel fortunate to find them and swim with them is an understatement of a lifetime. 

Below is a great picture from the day after.  Only two non-wetsuit swimmers (captured in the photo) that day and one still has butt paint on from the day before.  Yep, I'm the pasty white guy whose feet are too sensitive for the rocky beach.  Thanks again everyone for the wonderful experience.

Rob Kent wrote: "28 swimmers and 61F/15C .... and some HUGE waves!!!  Nice."  Yes, it was a nice day to be out on the lake.

With my paperwork complete, I intend to hone in on the crucial elements of the swim - fitness, feeding, and feeling good in the water.  Next weekend, I plan to swim a 10K event in Fire Island, NY.  If you are in the area and want to come out to enjoy the water, drink a beer afterwards, or just meet up for a nice day on the beach, feel free to do so.  The swim starts mid-morning on July 11th, 2015.  Here is a the flyer for more details:

Expect more updates soon.  Thanks for following along.