Open water swimming is exciting and can be quite an adventure, but we know that it also has its risks. It's important to prepare, and to begin doing so well in advance. If you have prepared yourself physically and psychologically, you will have completed two of the three main pillars to withstanding this test of endurance in open water. But a third pillar remains: nutrition.
NUTRITION THROUGHOUT THE YEAR
Just as you train throughout the whole year, you also have to maintain a healthy and balanced diet all twelve months. Thinking days prior to the race about what to do before, during and after it will be of no use unless you have been following a strict, well-formulated eating plan the rest of the year. You will not be able to swim comfortably during the event if you don’t give different nutritional strategies a try first.
It is best to maintain a constant rate of food intake (a schedule) with enough dietary variation: raw and cooked vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruit, dairy products, olive oil, meat and fish. Unless you have a food intolerance or an allergy, you have to introduce a range of foods, since no single ingredient or food group contains all the necessary nutrients.
So, to properly prepare for a swimming event, you should also work on your daily diet throughout the year.
SUPPLEMENTS AND ERGOGENIC AIDS
Open water swimmers are endurance athletes, which is why they need extra support. Nutritional aids can complement your diet, supplement it or directly improve sports performance, supported by plenty of scientific evidence.
Athletes can take supplements to complement a nutrient that, due to weekly physical workload, is difficult to consume in the right quantities. After strenuous workouts, you may need a shake which will surely contain carbohydrates and protein. The amount of carbohydrates will depend on the hours spent training and the effort. It can vary between 5 g carbohydrates per kg of weight and 10 g per kg of weight.
Supplements provide extra nutrients to a diet in order to prevent deficiencies during periods of hard physical work. Vitamin or mineral supplements are a classic choice for swimmers. Effervescent Vitamin C pills are still commonly taken, but you should always consider whether they're really necessary.
Ergogenic aids are intended to improve physical performance in preparation for and during sports and they are not included in the IOC list of doping substances. Caffeine, electrolytes and even creatine monohydrate are of particular interest and are backed by clear scientific evidence.
TO PREPARE FOR AN EVENT, IT IS NECESSARY TO ASSESS WHETHER THESE SUBSTANCES ARE NEEDED AT AN INDIVIDUAL LEVEL AND WHAT EFFECT THEY HAVE
During the race, electrolytes will be very important, as well as drinks containing carbohydrates (sugars) or foods rich in them (bananas, gel, gelatin or energy chews).
CARBO-LOADING, GOOD OR BAD IDEA?
Carbo-loading, also called supercompensation, techniques have been and continue to be widely used. It may be advisable for significant swims (of more than 3 hours in open water), but each individual should determine for themselves whether they need it or not, using performance tests throughout the year. The so-called Astrand method is one of the most well-known and interesting techniques. It starts 6 days before the event, in which the athlete trains intensely and follows a very low carb diet; the three days after the event consist of an active rest period with an overload of carbohydrates, which can be from 10 to 12 g carbohydrates per kg of weight per day.
Our advice would be to consult your coach and Dietitian-Nutritionist. Not all athletes are suited to carbo-loading diets. They can also be adapted to each individual. Eating a light load of high-quality carbohydrates 3 days before the event with 8 g per kg of weight per day can improve performance.
BEFORE THE EVENT
It will depend on the time the athlete wakes up but the correct approach would be to eat four hours before the event. If that is not possible, you need to have a good dinner the day before (rich in carbohydrates and assimilating proteins) or consider doing a supercompensation technique (in advance).
If there is time, ideally you would have breakfast, and if this time is reduced to two, two and a half hours or less will have to adjust it. If you have been eating a light load of carbs, you can have your usual breakfast.
DURING THE EVENT
Long events usually have platforms or boats with refreshments. These can be used to drink water, salts and/or eat some food. Exhaustion, low water temperature or a hurry to finish can often cause the swimmer to stop without consuming anything or very little. This can lead to fatigue and make the last kilometers of the journey a living hell.
The most common refreshments are banana and orange slices, sweetened sports drinks and water. You can store some gelatins, sports chews or gels in the back part of your cap or even in the extremities of your wetsuit. These carbohydrates will be very useful in helping you to continue swimming efficiently.
AFTER THE EVENT
The goal is to recover energy, carbohydrates, water and electrolytes. Eating some fruit rich in vitamin C and carbohydrates, such as an orange or banana along with some dried nuts and dried fruits (dates) along with what the organization provides, which is usually a hot drink such as hot chocolate and cookies, or soups with some pasta. If your recovery foods contain protein along with carbohydrates, recovery will be more effective. Sugary liquid yogurt is usually a good solution, although in autumn it tends to be less appetizing.
If you take all these factors into account and train well in advance, you will be prepared to make your journey and above all, you will be able to enjoy it to the fullest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jordi Sarola Gassiot is the director of the CeNDieF Center for Nutrition, a Dietitian – Diploma of Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Barcelona (CESNID-UB), with a Degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Vic (UVic), MSc in Health Research from the University of Lleida (UdL), and Level 3 Kinanthropometrist accredited by the International Society for the Advancement of the Kinanthropometry (ISAK), a member and professor of the Catalan School of Cineanthropometry (ECC-INEFC), a professor of nutrition at Tecnocampus of Mataró and the Parc de Salut Mar, all of them affiliated with the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).