In the open water swimming community, many foods and drinks are discussed. Many swimmers have strong opinions on what is to eat and drink during training and before and during races and solo swims.
Some scientifically-oriented swimmers who are nutritionally knowledgeable base their feedings on specific protein, fat and carbohydrate percentages. There are other swimmers who swear by Maxim or some other specific drink. There are others who stick to a particular gel. Some athletes swear by a ketonic diet; others are vegetarians; and both will tell you why their diet is best.
And then there are the outliers – people who enjoy a piece of chocolate or a homemade brew of customized origins.
For these swimmers, their taste buds are embossed with sensations that are indescribably familiar and satisfying although the nutrition value of their selected food is most definitely debatable.
When these open water swimmers bite into their favorite cookie in the water or swig their preferred caffeine concoction, familiarity and satisfaction are the overwhelming sensations. This result is not only perfectly acceptable, but also definitely preferred.
So instead of a packaged gel pack scientifically formulated with the optimal carbohydrates, fats and proteins – however optimally nutritious it is or how it is marketed – many swimmers enjoy the familiarity and satisfaction of familiar foods before and during their feeding stops. But what is good for one may not be good for another.
These swimmers know well what works for them – many of them are veterans. Sometimes, their selection is easy. Sometimes, their selection takes months of experimental trial and error. And a few times, their selection is unusual to say the least.
John Muenzer explains, “I actually stumbled across what foods and drinks have a positive effect on my stomach by accident during the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim. The conditions for the Tampa Bay 24-mile Swim. were less than favorable.
Just underway by about an hour or so, the winds picked up and with Tampa Bay a relatively shallow body of water, the waves were 3-4 feet. Then the waves settled in at 4 feet. The angle of the waves were coming directly at my side making it difficult to breathe on the right side. Near the five-hour mark, I became quite sick, vomiting several times before the dry heaves entered the picture. I swam for another hour and for the first time I actually thought to call it a day. It was at this moment that I tried my new diet.
I ate potato chips and drank some Coca Cola. I was surprised to experience my stomach cramps and vomiting disappeared. For the remainder of the swim I continued to eat 10 or so chips and drink 5-6 oz of Coca Cola. Upon my return to Chicago, I implemented this into my training for my attempt to swim the English Channel in July. What I found was every time, I felt sick I ate the potato chips and drank the Coca Cola. Every time it worked. It settled my stomach and I was able to go back to my regular training diet.
That year during my swim across the English Channel, I ate potato chips and drank Coca Cola twice. It settled my stomach both times. Many people will dismiss this as foolish, but you want every advantage to help you accomplish your marathon swim.”
Because the performance of open water swimmers is so dependent upon their mental outlook and level of confidence, while the impersonal metallic packaging of gel packs may have its place in the nutrition formula of open water swimmers, so does a favorite and familiar comfort foods. This is especially true when the open water swim is an ultra-marathon.
The Night Train Swimmers prepared for their 6-day relay along the California coast by focusing on food (fuel), drink (hydration), and sleep. “The food was fantastic and right on the mark in terms of protein and carbohydrate mix,” recalled Patti Bauernfeind. “The hot food was really helpful for getting our body temperatures back to normal especially during the night swims. All of us ate something hot while sitting in the “sauna” aka the boat bathroom with a powerful ‘lil heater.
A couple of us used GU or had some type of bar or had a few gulps of a protein drink during our [one-hour] night swims. For me, that added some calories and a chance to interact with someone both at 20 and 40 minutes during the hour swims. I found that with the sleep deprivation, I was more aware of the water temperature so it was a huge psychological boost to take something in on the feeding interval that I use for solo swims.”
Patrick Horn and swimmer Phil Cutti served as the team chefs. “Our plan was based on getting each swimmer and crew member calorically-dense individual hot meals that they could heat up in the microwave or boiling water. we wanted good food, not manufactured freeze-dried crap. Patrick and I took over our kitchen for a week. Each meal was cooked, packaged or vacuum-sealed and frozen. The first couple of day’s meals were not frozen.
Each swimmer and crew member had 3 meals a day. Lunch and dinner were labeled with day, meal and swimmer/crew name. In the morning, Patrick would take out the day’s meals and put them in a 5-gallon bucket on the back deck to thaw out throughout the day. It was a simple system once all the work was done.
We planned for 7+ days with a total of 153 individual meals. Breakfast was not individually packed and consisted of hard-boiled eggs, sausage and bacon. We would do breakfast differently by adding oatmeal or something similar to the options. Plus, each swimmer brought plenty of snacks: Krave, chips, trail mix, food bars, etc. We had a good amount of food.”
Horn knew that proper food and hydration were critical. “We believed that eating real, hot food was going to be really important to the swimmers both physically and mentally. We wanted to make sure that each meal was 500-700 calories and had plenty of good fat. We also looked at low glycemic loading foods so that after a meal the swimmers were not spiking and crashing.
All meals included at least one animal protein with fat and green vegetables. An example is chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli. We also had chicken and beef stews. This was supplemented with swimmers own snakes and Krave jerky (also a low GI loading food). All the food was cooked before hand, separated into individual portions, vacuum sealed, labeled and frozen. Each swimmer would heat there food in the pouch in the microwave, eat and then throw away the pouch eliminating mess.”
While six days is long, 32 days is mind-boggling long to do a stage swim across the Atlantic Ocean.
As Figge swam a total distance of 257.5 nautical miles (477 km) over the month-long traverse across the Atlantic Ocean, Hajdu keep busy helping out on the catamaran Pearl and cooking up a storm on deck. The logistics, operations and planning behind any crossing of an ocean is daunting, but doing so with a swimmer in the water for hours on end is mind-boggling to say the least.
What happened in the galley where Hajdu worked her magic on a daily basis?
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How many meals did you plan for over the course of the voyage?
Sara Hajdu: Usually I plan one meal per day – dinner. Jennifer always eats pasta or potato with parmesan cheese and olive oil for breakfast. Until she ends the swim for the day, she does not eat, only drinking every 45 minutes. I try to cook every dinner to have some leftovers for next day’s lunch for the crew. But on this trip, nothing was usually left over so I prepared a light lunch, healthy-filling soup with homemade bread for the crew. For the whole trip, I put together a menu for 5 weeks in order to play it on the safe side. Each week, we had twice chicken, twice meat, twice pasta and one time fish.
As I am the chef also on board for our charters (www.xta-sea.com), it is not so hard for me to put a menu together. Although this swim is very different – to cook for 6 people for up to 5 weeks – what can I say? I have a big oceanic family. Also provisioning can be a problem in Cape Verde or other remote places. For this swim, I had to provision 99% of the food in Cape Town, South Africa for both the relocation part (31 days sailing from South Africa to Cape Verde) and the swim part from Cape Verde to Antigua too. Also provisioning a brand new boat means I had to buy really everything from spoons and plates to eggs, meat, toilette paper, etc. The hardest part is if I forget something there is no shop to go to, especially if the trip takes all together 60+ days because there is not much in Capo Verde to re-provision.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you prepare certain meals in advance?
Sara Hajdu: I don’t prepare meals in advance. I have time because she is usually finishing around 3 pm with dinner at 6 pm. Also, I get some help from the crew peeling potatoes and we take turns of cleaning up the kitchen before we go to sleep. Anyway it is constant cleaning for me on the boat, so it is not much to clean up at the evenings.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you prepare a certain rotation of special meals?
Sara Hajdu: My motto is ‘never repeat a meal’ so I was cooking different meals every day and we never repeated a single one. Not even on the Pacific swim which lasted 45 days. But also I like to try new recipes and I have a cooking blog in Hungarian with my sister (www.izextazis.blogspot.com). I post recipes and stories of all the places we sailed. My sister looks for the ingredients in my country (e.g chutney’s or palm hearts) and cooks it herself to give advice of “how to do it and where to buy it”. So I had some of those recipes to make on board and take nice pictures for the blog as I did not have time before to prepare them. We could enjoy even a nice ostrich steak as well as malva pudding with homemade banana ice cream (a South African recipe) together. Also I cook some Hungarian meals like gulash soup or chicken paprikas.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you give me an idea of a special meal that Jennifer really enjoys?
Sara Hajdu: I have to say her favorite meal was still the Hungarian bean soup, although she loved all meals. I know her by now very well, I know what she likes and dislikes, so it is not so hard to please her. But you should ask her about her favorite meal.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What are the key ingredients for your breakfast, lunch and dinner plans?
Sara Hajdu: The key ingredients of her breakfast is the pasta or potato and lots of parmesan cheese. On her previous swims, she had a nutrition bar also, but on this swim she switched the bar for two potatoes or more pasta instead. I don’t blame her – nutrition bars are not so yummy for 30-some days, every day. When she finishes the swim, I always serve some snacks – popcorn, hummus dip, chips or crackers with some dip on it. It is weird, but after so many hours in the ocean she still craves salty snacks. For dinner, it is mostly meat with different sides and lots of it. Protein and carbs are very, very important for a person who burns that much calories each day, every day for more than a month. For us, the crew, we just simply gain a few pounds each swim because there are delicious desserts twice a week also.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Do you make any really special or unique?
Sara Hajdu: This trip was full with very special or unique meals as I was planning to try out a lot of recipes. But also I cooked the big-time favorites: breaded chicken with fries, gulash soup and the Hungarian pancakes. I would say the most unique was the ostrich kebab. I don’t think I have ever heard about anyone who was having ostrich in the middle of the ocean. Also I had a nice “surprise” sauce for a freshly caught tuna made of coconut cream, curry, mango chutney, tomato and onion.
Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you explain the importance of food and food preparation on such a long trip?
Sara Hajdu: As I mentioned before, food is very important to help to get back the “lost” calories, but we follow our crew motto: “we are not here to suffer”! So instead of having nutrition bars or prepacked food, you can have the same calories in a delicious meal. This needs a lot of preparation (meaning thinking) before each trip. I start to put together my shopping list months before, but still I always freak out one or two days before we start the swim. Do I have everything?!? Also, I have to be prepared for technical problems on the boat. What if my freezer breaks down with all the frozen stuff and we still have two weeks to go? So I have to have backup food plan: cans. My shopping list was 12 pages this time.
Also the dinner on the boat is our “together-time” when all of us are able to sit down at the table and chat, eat good and have some wine, every day, like a true family. It was a very long trip, but very successful. She beat her record and swam every day. We saw a humpback whale only a few meters away from the boat dancing for us and a marlin trying to catch the tunas hiding under the boat, so it was the most amazing crossing up to now.
But even the best well-laid plans in the open water swimming world go topsy-turvy sometimes.
While Stephen Redmond of Ireland became the first person to complete the Oceans Seven when he crossed the Tsugaru Channel in Japan. In the days leading up to his swim, he could not stomach the fish-based diet that was served at his hotel. So he existed on white bread and butter for a week.
His choice of food was in stark contrast to Japanese swimmers who cross the same channel as they eat rice, fish and seaweed before their marathon swims.
It takes all types in the open water swimming world.
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