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by Ali Hall

November 1, 2009

How does a reasonably fit swimmer prepare for an ultra-endurance event that’s just less than a year away, a 22 mile coldwater lake swim at high altitude?  Well, we’re going to find out.  A best-guess is that the swimmer needs to address three areas:  belly, body and brain.  Let’s explore the belly…what does a swimmer need nutrition-wise, how to eat, what to eat and when?

After a bright sunny Northern California morning workout, I’m off to the store.  Get there when it opens, get the stuff I need and get started on my nutrition prep.  I fly through the store, efficiently, in somewhat of a windswept way, tossing what seem to be healthful things into the cart.  “Seem-to-be-healthful” is the operative phrase here.  The store is a popular place, for good food at a good value, and I’ll admit it confers a halo effect to every item.  I’ve got a prepackaged sandwich in my hand, egg salad on whole grain bread.  How convenient!  Nutritious!  Wow!  Yeah, except for the 850 mg of sodium screaming at me from the label.  And how many grams of fat???  Yikes. 

I’ve recently read that 2300 or so mgs of sodium, the currently published barometer RDA, is actually almost three times higher than it should be.  So, the sandwich in my hand accounts for about 100 percent of my daily target sodium intake.  I read a little further on the label and there are 3 or 4 kinds of sugars somewhere in it.  An informative book about how eating sugar, fat, and salt affects our minds and bodies and encourages overindulgence called The End of Overeating by David Kessler, tells us that packagers can divide sugar into several subcategories thus obscuring sugar’s place on the ingredient list.  Consumers will shy away from something if sugar is at the top of the list, but if it’s buried deep at the bottom into its various subcategories we’re more likely to buy the product.

Ok, the prepackaged sandwich goes back on the refrigerated shelf.  It may take me more time and energy, but now I’m buying eggs, low sodium bread, lettuce and so on to make my own.  Fewer calories, less sodium, scant sugar.  Hold the salt!  And fat, and…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  What do I really need?  How do we know how many calories, and what kinds, will support us nutritionally?  One endurance athlete tells me “fruit all morning, vegetables all afternoon and evening.”  Another says “eat half your calories and all your protein in the morning.”  Yet another says “eat small amounts all day long, with combinations of carbohydrates, protein and fat.”  How do we find information that works well for our individual needs?  We don’t want to waste away and we don’t want to add unneeded pounds.  How can we toe the right line when we work and travel, sometimes to places where the only restaurant in town is aptly named “The Feedbag Grill”???  About the same number of healthful options on their buffet as on the menus of the Outback Steakhouses, Chilis, Olive Gardens, Red Robins and other franchises that grace the landscape.  And pizza?  A nutritionist interviewed for The New York Times the other day said most commercial pizzas are just “donuts with tomato sauce.”  Eeek.

Here are some thoughts and ideas:

***Read.  Some interesting books are out there, including those by Kessler (above), Michael Pollan and Andrew Weil.  For cookbooks and recipes from the New York Times, practically anything by Mark Bittman will lead us in the right direction. 

And some swimmers are fans of the Skinny Bitch series.  And, Runners World magazine has a wonderful monthly nutrition column with great ideas for time-effective, workout-supportive, healthful eating.

***Join an online group, start a USMS discussion, join list serves such as the Channel Group to learn from others who are preparing for endurance challenges.

***Try different energy drinks and recovery formulas.  Learn from others, try out different things and see what works best for you.

***Get a dunk test and a basal metabolism measurement.  Then, maybe consult a nutritionist.  That’s where I’m headed next week.  Knowing my BMI and resting metabolism will help me target the right number and kind of calories per day to support my training regime.  Without this info, an athlete can be as many as 1000 calories off each day, high or low…with the right belly support, we can achieve the fitness levels we truly desire.  And that’s what matters at the end of the day!

Happy Swimming!