Saturday, 30 January 2016

Nutrition for the Marathon Swimmer

It feels like the time has come for me to write a blog on nutrition. This also has a direct read-across to nutrition for marathon swimming!

Ever wondered why some runners actually put on weight training for & finishing a marathon?
Why did one of the fittest human beings in the history of the planet, Sir Steven Redgrave, end up with type-2 diabetes?
How come we actually put weight on & 99% of diets fail in the end??

I hope you find this useful & might begin to explain these few questions as I have had an experience with weight loss and performance which has left me rather evangelical & thus willing to share my findings.

To be clear, most readers of this blog will know that I didn't grow up with swimming - I am NO authority on marathon swimming (I could barely swim a mile until 2010) and I also didn't grow up learning much about nutrition - I am therefore NO authority on nutrition either! (How's that for a health warning/disclaimer!) It was mainly meat and potatoes with over-cooked veg when I was growing up but the finest roasts for mankind!

Of course, I genuinely feel that I have marathon swimming to thank for saving my life - BUT that's a subject of a whole different blog altogether (Take All Your Chances While You Can), however, I also have this extreme  sport to thank for leading me, rather inquisitively, to take on-board nutrition recommendations, ideas and articles from 2-time EC swimmer Sam Jones, 2-time CC swimmer Dan Simonelli after EC & fellow Lomond Swimmer Adrian Rotchell had piqued my interest with this article: Endurance Athletes who 'go against the grain' become incredible fat burners
(Be sure to watch the 8 minute video within the piece as it explains a great deal).

A step change in endurance sports nutrition? I think so.....

My OCD tendencies have done the rest. I have been like a dog with a bone and it was early December 2015 after ca. 10 pints at the Nemes Nutters Xmas Party! ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH. I think my interest was provoked as:

1. I couldn't have done more exercise over the years but was not losing much shape - my colleagues at work were cruel as usual enquiring why I didn't have a perfect stomach after all that swimming! (Don't worry I can be just as cruel back!)
2. I was getting properly fed up with feeling bloated all the time. It is hard to put in words how frustrated I was with being so bloated, feeling generally inflamed & helpless unable to shift the body shape with training alone.
3. Putting on weight makes me worry that I will hit the wheelchair earlier
4. I couldn't get my head around WHY I was over 6 stone heavier than my brother who took NO exercise WHATSOEVER! For crying out loud, exercise is supposed to be good for you!
5. If I could easily lose some weight I actually might be able to swim faster!
6. I had only ever eaten whatever I entirely wanted to eat my whole life. How cool was that? If I wanted a beer, I had a beer (or a few), if I wanted ice cream, I had an ice cream (of 1/2 tub of B&J Fish Food!) if I wanted a McDonalds I had a Big Mac Meal (or 2!) with apple pie(s) of course!
7. I have been led to believe that waist size is a key marker for abdominal fat. My waist size had been doing nothing but expanding for years. I got up to a 40'' (I am now 36''). Perhaps this would address the lurking abdominal fat issue!
I absolutely believe waist size should concern us all given what we know now.

So, that was the beginning of December and I was 16 1/2 stone. Today (at the time of writing this blog) I weighed myself I am 15 stone zero. That's 21 pounds or ca. 10 kilos in old money INCLUDING Xmas where I continued to shed pounds despite drinking & eating shed loads (of the right stuff!). (As I review this blog today on 13th May 2016 - I am now 14 st 6 which is precisely where I want to be). HOWEVER, this all feels entirely sustainable as I was naturally deviating away from certain foods into others after listening to my body during & after marathon swimming. I have had to wear suits I used to wear 7 years ago as my more recent suits don't fit me. I also had to drill 2 new holes in my belt! #humblebrag
I used to suffer from EIB but that asthma has now gone. I don't need to take that medicine. I am not struggling for breath EVER.

What have I learnt?

1. After reading the Volek artcle (above) I then read 'Why We Get Fat' by Gary Taubes. I began to realise that it is the carbs (not the FAT) that does the damage. The pyramid of food we were (and still are!) taught is sodding wrong for crying out loud. The NHS nutrition guidelines are wrong as are the ones in the US! Only Sweden has it right and has changed.....can we please WAKE UP! That really depresses me. We obviously now need to RE-LEARN things from scratch. I feel thoroughly lied to tbh and having to re-learn everything about nutrition aged 42 years!
2. I then read the great Jeff Volek book on Low Carbohydrate Performance (Here) and realised that I have only been accessing my glycogen stores of 2000 calories rather than becoming keto-adapted or a fat burner that can access the 40,000 calories that would be available to even a normal thin human being. Most of us ignore the bigger and better fuel source.
3. I then came across a great blog by ultra-runner Timothy Olson who has won the 100 mile Western States Run in the US twice and swears that the Low Carb way of living doesn't mess with his constitution. He listens to what is right for HIM. His blog on nutrition is fascinating: Here
4. I read the other Jeff Volek book on Low Carbohydrate living and it was all beginning to completely suit me and make sense. We kept cooking High Fat Low Carb stuff which funnily enough is higher in taste and provokes you to think more about what enters your frying pan/stomach.
5. I continued to make alterations to my diet switching certain things for more natural options - i.e. Swapped Beer/Cider for Gin/Wine!, Ice Cream for Raspberries & Double Cream ('ave it!), no potatoes, no pasta, no chips, no rice, no wholemeal pasta (bovvered!), no chocolate (the odd piece of 90%+ dark chocolate!)  and no crisps (but found some great natural pork scratchings).  The kids have been encouraged to eat more of whatever they want at school (Pizza & Pasta) as they aren't going to be served much of it at home. I am the cook and am not going to cook 2 meals a night!
6. Our fridge now has a shelf full of various types of cream (first time in our 18-year marriage) as fat is NOT bad for you. We have more seeds, types of nuts and have to buy a shed load of veg to last us the week. This regime is awesome as it forces you to turn to REAL FOOD for the soution..
7. I count carbs now not calories. Most people I observe do the reverse which denies them and calories in v calories out does NOT work btw. I don't deny myself other than to stay around ca. 50g of carb a day. I don't feel like I am denying myself in any way.
8. Some foods have massive amounts of carbs which REALLY SURPRISED ME and I didn't realise before (sweet potato 20g, wraps 35g each!  green coke 22g, mango 20g, grapes 22g, miso soup from Itsu store 35g to name a few!)
9. I have still had a Gin & tonic (slimline) and at least one glass of wine each night! Gotta live, innit.
10. I have realised that I tend to do better eating EARLIER in the evening. Dinners at 8.30pm with bed at 10pm are a killer for the weight maintenance!
11. The following are what I would consider to be superfoods: Cauliflower, Black Pudding, Eggs, Cream (especially double!), most fish and meat, Avocado, Broccoli, Mushrooms, Almond Butter, Hazelnuts, Coconut butter and pork scratchings!

What's happened to training?
1. I now eat strawberries/raspberries and natural yoghurt before a session. Sometimes I do massive 5km sessions on no fuel at all and feel fine with a constant energy source I am tapping into.
2. I also love almond butter which fills me up before a session - you can buy the natural stuff at Sainsbury's and it lasts forever.
3. I bought some UCAN sports nutrition powder to replace the Maxim I had before because the UCAN does not produce insulin spikes.
4. My body is leaner and I am faster, more in control plus times have come down during the sets that I do (that's according to my swim buddies not me). I feel more sustained and adapted to burning the larger tank of fuel than a desperate need to sugar load and hit jelly babies or stock up on maxim before/during training. This leaves me feeling smug but not lacking in muscle!
5. After training I eat an omelette with greens etc or bacon, eggs, avocado and some tomatoes.
6. I cut out latte's (lactose sugar!) and have an Americano now (with cream if/where I can get it).
7. I feel more in control and less at the mercy of carbs & the nonsense guidelines I have always believed - what a sodding joke!
8. Key feeling I have is one of control over my own destiny rather than helplessness. This is a regime and way of life for me now NOT a diet - there is a difference!

How about the bloods?
I saw my Doctor recently for my Lake Geneva medical and have had some blood results from 4th Jan. I can compare all my info from detailed bloods taken 2 and 4 years ago.
My HDL (good cholesterol) is still brilliant and outside of the upper range but got even better. Hooray! Hopefully provoked by exercise and eating loads of sushi!
My LDL (bad cholesterol) has gone down materially after being in the danger zone
My Triglycerides level is lower than the low end of the range and gone down materially
My Glucose is now normal after being at the upper end of safety & close to the danger zone
My overall Cholesterol level is normal after slightly entering the danger zone

What's the conclusion?
Before, I was genuinely concerned that if I carried down this path then my poor health and marathon swimming would end up with a linear relationship - i.e. I would do the swims but end up the size of a bus with a whole bunch of people on social media applauding me!
This marathon swimming sport of ours is unique and exceptional as it demands a great deal from our bodies in terms of endurance. The traditional school of though is to 'man-up', 'eat pies' and put on weight to better endure the cold. 'Of Course you must carbo load' I have heard repeatedly over the years when I meet so many people. THAT I am totally sure is NO LONGER the path for me now.
I am not advising anyone on what they should do as we are all different (listen to yourself!) but I feel like I better understand what does the damage and what I can do to change it. I can't go back to the old days as I realise that at the start of this I was becoming mildly insulin resistant with a BMI outside the healthy range (fine now). I can't go back as I will put it all back on to where it was at the beginning.
Over the coming months I will be experimenting with feeds & nutrition to learn how to nourish myself naturally which might have a bearing on the type of sensitive stomach that I experienced after my EC swims.

Evangelical?.....Yes....but unapologetic!

Further reading?
You MUST watch this Tim Noakes video (click on link) - It will hopefully open up your ideas in the same way it did mine: Tim Noakes - Brilliant Advice on General Nutrition
If you only buy 2 books, buy the Volek Sports Performance one and the Real Meal Revolution. You could also search for all those people on YouTube - they have done some brilliant videos. Also check out the work of Professor Tim Noakes on the same subject. Let me know how you get on! Good luck!
Check out all the amazing free resources on:


  1. Add to reading list:

    Dr Peter Attia

  2. Mark, what a wonderful post. I just finished about 8oz of roast beef and some carrot salad and thought I'd read your post.

    I read it slowly and immediately upon getting to your #1, I told my wife about you. She's been LCHF for quite a few years now. We have all the books you recommend. She's seen everything Taubes has done, as well as some other LCHF folks. We both subscribe to Attia's blog. We are solidly behind the philosophy.

    Unfortunately for me, I have trouble staying on LCHF. When we were in the states, I followed it with my wife although I kept mine around 100g of carbs a day; I had a beer a night and didn't apologize. The numbers below show the improvement in my blood data:

    In 2010 I was about a year, year and a half "out" of being a pescovegetarian and eating meat. In 2013 I started LCHF:

    Total Cholesterol: 227
    Triglycerides: 125
    HDL: 54 (w00t!)
    LDL: 152 (yuck)

    TC: 230
    TG: 101 (getting better)
    HDL: 55
    LDL: 154 (oy!)

    2014 (after about a year of LCHF):
    TC: 198 (w00t!)
    TG: 53 (hell's yeah!)
    HDL: 62 (boo-yah!)
    LDL: 123 (oh-yeah!)

    Now here in Kyrgyzstan it is hard for me to stay LCHF. I eat well at home, especially when my wife cooks. But at work it is difficult. The Kyrgyz cooks just don't understand "hamburger, no bun." But I'm trying.

    Tell me: when you first went LCHF, did you feel any different when swimming? When I started back in 2013, for about 2 weeks, every time I started my workout, my arms would feel dead, like I'd already done the workout. But after 2 weeks that was over.

    I'm going to do my next big swim in June/July, and I hope to be keto-adapted. It'll be short (relatively), only 13+KM, so perhaps I can get by with only water. We'll see.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your LCHF experiment!


    1. And let me mention that my wife loved me being on LCHF. Let's just say, certain male-type traits, which would impress frat boys but are unwelcome by wives, all went away when I went LCHF.

      Also, my persistent burning acid reflux (I used to call it dragon breath it burned and hurt so much) went away too when I went "all bacon, all the time." Love this diet.

  3. Great post. I am trying 'lower carb' as opposed to 'no carb'. Quality protein, limited non-processed carbs, no excessive sugar, water and sleep seems to be working for me.

  4. Apart from the "green coke" (what's that ?)I think I wrote this post.
    Certainly matches my experience with LCHF.
    Especially with the Dark Chocolate ��.

    I started in December. Down 8kgs (from 83 -> 75) and feel more in control than ever.
    Something else also is no fatigue.
    Up super early all the time. Prior to LCHF, had to take mid-day nap. Since December, not one time have I had to take nap. Must be something in that.

    Vince (total convert)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Mark, was interesting to put you into context having met at the lake today. As I said then, thanks for sharing all your experiences with fellow swimmers as is very helpful. On the subject of LCHF, having looked at some of Tim Noakes' information via your link, I note that he says that it depends on your carb tolerance profile and I have seen elsewhere, suggestions of your metabolic rate being a factor. I have the opposite problem to most people, a BFI of c. 19.5 and find it very difficult to put on weight, despite trying to do so all winter to try and improve my cold water tolerance. You looked pretty trim to me today, and I would have thought there was a crossover point where if you lose too much weight, the benefit of access to your stored fat energy will be negated by your loss of cold water resiliance.

    1. There are 2 points that might not seem that obvious at first blush
      1. My aim has been to find the ideal body mass range so that one reaches an ideal power to weight ratio.
      2. It has been proven by me (on Lake Apache recently) and others that fat is a much better source of fuel than carbohydrate. Indeed, in training for a swim of the enormity of Lake Geneva, I was getting very concerned that carbohydrate loading would lead to bloating and inflamation like it did on my prior channel swims. Noakes & others have also done work on how too much carbo loading during endurance races also damages the heart.
      Finally, I think Dan S is right where no link has been quite proven between body weight and tolerance. Although I agree that it's hard to beat a bit of insulation, I am ultimately happier at the higher end of the acceptable BMI range rather than spending all of the year in the danger zone.

  6. Michael Beecher,
    Carb tolerance is a significant factor in determining the advantages of LCHF, and the only way to know is to get the proper test done for yourself.
    Individually, the more tolerant you are to carbs, the less effect they have, at least in terms of weight gain. There's still the factor of potential chronic internal inflammation which, though not displayed by weight, has other significant health issues.

    Regardless of amount of excess adipose tissue (external fat), there's no shortage of fat storage to allow as primary, basically inexhaustible, energy source.

    And, lastly, there is some question about the benefit of "bioprene" for "cold water resistance" at least for long distance/duration exposure.

    My personal anecdotal opinion is it's less about "bioprene" and more about training sufficiently to condition and acclimate your system.

    1. Couldn't have put it better myself. The other point I would add is that the main swim I am training for this year should be between 19-24c. The English Channel has almost never in its history been above 18c. There are plenty of people way thinner than myself who have swum the channel. I am not 100% certain that beefing up achieves anything other than personal health problems that are either immediate or will provide complications further down the road. I feel 100% committed to this regime as I feel I have a grip on the damage the carbs are doing.

    2. Simon, Mark, plenty of food for thought here, so to speak! I am finding this a very interesting subject. Coming to open water swimming from a running background has recalibrated my concept of what it is to be fit for a start. Having now met plenty of people who have swum the channel whose body shape would not strike the lay person as athletic, but who clearly are athletes, has been an eye opener. And now the LCHF ideas here which were so well articulated by Tim Noakes in is videos. One thing that does chime with me is recently I started avoiding carb at lunchtimes at work as they made me sleepy, and subsequently there was a real difference to my frequent afternoon slump. I remain to be convinced though, that BMI is irrelevent and it is just down to conditioning. I can remember your comment Mark in your SCAR report about the skinny people finding the water cold. And as someone who has barely missed a week all winter in the water, so down to 3 or 4C, albeit mostly in a wetsuit, I still find myself pretty chilly in Charlton Lido at 25C after half an hour. Maybe another season or two will improve this, but there is a logic to the fact that I can survive half an hour in the coldest weather with my wetsuit, and really struggle after 200 m without it when the temperature is in single figures. So insulation in one form or another does make a difference.

    3. Mark/Michael/Dan
      I have been on LCHF since the beginning of the year and have a channel swim booked for August 2018. The diet has worked brilliantly for me with all the benefits described in this article. However, I am concerned about the "bioprene" factor because I have become quite lean (I'm 6' and weight 73kg) and don't seem able to put weight on with this diet. Would love to hear more on exactly how important it is (or isn't) to insulate yourself with body fat for cold water swims.

    4. Hi Bruce,
      I think you need to find a comfort level that suits YOU. Before I did my channel swims I was led to believe that bulking up was everything and you couldn't beat a bit of fat insulation. Well that's fine until the doctor is 50/50 on your medical if your blood pressure or something else hits the danger zone (which mine has). Plus the reason I wrote the post is perhaps that we all also need to consider the LT health implications of becoming the size of a house for this sport. Another observation....have you seen the size of the guy that did the earliest ever Channel swim in history (May this year by Howard James)? I have seen few learner athletes TBH. He spent 2 months every day in the lead up training hard in the open water for that. I do understand that this regime burns fat if you train hard and eat properly but i think you need to find a level that suits YOU and makes you comfortable that you can cope - only training or BLDSA events will give that to you. I went down the route of doing all the BLDSA events prior to my channel swims as I wanted to 'cut my teeth' in a safe and intense environment before taking on the EC. It was a revelation and I wouldn't have changed that.

    5. Hi Mark,
      I have just read your comments (1st April 2019), as I was looking for Prof.Noakes and how he prepared Lewis Pugh for polar swimming. Anyway, I am three months into Zero-Carb or Carnivore, and one of the most commented on results of an animal product only diet is that we (carnivores) don't feel the cold like they used to. It's an interesting phenomenon, and so is the fact that we don't sunburn as easily (nothing to do with your topic here, of course). The people who have been eating this way for over six months, report great gains in muscle, and trimming down of fat. Perhaps muscle density is a better insulater than fat?? Check out Dr Shawn Baker (@SBakerMD on Twitter ) whose BMI is 29-30, but it's all muscle. BMI is not a great indicator of health, as a Rugby player's BMI would indicated obesity. is a good website to see what's happening in the ZC community. Cheers, Naomi

  7. Bruce, good going!

    See my reply above on same question about bioprene.

    Quick reply/start to answering your base question:
    The scientific jury is still out on bioprene.
    I have my anecdotal opinion. Conditioning/acclimating training for long distance is much more important factor.

    And further reply to Michael Beecher:
    I think (from my own experience and same as many other marathon swimmers) there's a difference of feel of being cold for say the first hour and then it seems the body equilibriates (via conditioning?) and that feeling of cold dissipates for subsequent hours!
    It happens to me every time, to the point, though I semi-jokingly dread the first hour of a cold training swim, I've attained the confidence and certainty that in hours 2+ i feel fine and wonder how was it that I felt so chilled!?!

    Lack of sleep and feeling colder is another anecdotal commonality among colder water marathon swimmers.

  8. Thanks Mark. Well written and I found myself nodding in agreement all the way through. 2 years in and I am a believer when it comes to endurance athletic benefits of a LCHF way of eating. Thanks to Dan Simonelli who like so many, got me on the path to making this switch. I will respectfully disagree about the benefits of bioprene in chillywatee. While I have not done a solo channel crossing, I have swum an EC relay & suffered through a few shorter marathon swims at SCAR. Being 20 pounds heavier helps with extended time in water when you aren’t a particularly fast swimmer. I can hop in super cold winter temps and do just fine for distances 200 meters or shorter. An ice mile at my lean keto weight is improbable. I do believe having more mass slows down heat transfer from the core. In any case though, keto has been a game changer for me too.