How long is a piece of swim?

You swim – no matter which event or the distance, every participant is simply pulling their body through the water in the best way they can. Therefore, it’s easy to think that all Great Swim swimmers need to eat and drink the same way – but this isn’t the case. Your Great Swim might be from 250m up to 10km, but how you eat and drink before and during the event is more about your completion time than the distance you will cover. A big question to ask is, ‘how long will my event take?’. Taking time to consider this will help you eat and drink the right things at the right time and so we thought we’d go over the various scenarios so that you can prepare and enjoy your Great Swim experience as much as possible!


General Diet

Let’s start with something that is key for everyone. Eating the right foods will support your training and help you get fitter faster, but what are the ‘right foods’? Research has constantly shown us that natural, unprocessed foods that haven’t been smushed into something unrecognisable are what we should all be basing our diet on. Ask the following 3 questions: 1) Does it look natural? If so, you’re onto a good start! 2) Does it come in a packet? If so, someone put it there and that can suggest it’s been processed. 3) Recognisable ingredients? If all the ingredients read like something from a chemistry set, it might be best to stay away. In addition, eating the most colourful diet possible is another way to be healthy as the nutrients in different, natural foods show themselves in different colours. You can’t out-train a bad diet, but a good diet will boost your training!

Completion time: Less than 30mins

This group will be made up of most of the 250m swimmers, some of the ½ Mile swimmers and a very few 1 Mile swimmers. If you are in this group, then the great news is that your nutrition and hydration needs are simple. Before the event, make sure you eat natural unprocessed foods, and don’t eat too little in the days before the race. This will give you the energy you need to complete the event with no need to take on board anything during your swim. After the event, there is also no need for any overt recovery strategy, while a warm soup of cup of tea might be a good idea if the water/weather is cold, your normal diet will be enough to help you recover.

Completion time: 30-60mins

This group will be made up of some of the ½ Mile swimmers, mostly 1 Mile swimmers and a very few 2 Mile swimmers. If you are in this group, there is no need to take on large amounts of carbohydrate in the days before the event. However, you will want to make sure you eat a carbohydrate rich breakfast 2-3hrs before the event to make sure you have enough energy to get through. Also, you will want to make sure that you drink enough in the 24hrs before the event to keep you hydrated, as up to 60mins without fluid and in a wetsuit is quite demanding. Much like the first group, you don’t need to take on board any energy or fluid during the event, but if your swim will be close to 60mins and at quite a high intensity, then you will want to make sure that you help your body recover well. Do this by either eating the CLIF Bar you are given at the end of the event, as it gives you a good balance of carbohydrate, protein and good fats as well as vitamins and minerals or another nutritious snack along with some water or tea to warm-up. Above this and your normal diet will be enough.    

Completion time: 60-90mins

This group will be made up of some of some 1 Mile swimmers, mostly 2 Mile swimmers and some 5km swimmers. If you are in this group, there is still little need to take on board extra carbohydrates in the day’s before the event as this only really supports perfromance in events of 90mins or more, however, don’t neglect your carb intake in the lead up to the event, it is still the most important nutrient when it comes to your performance as is fluid intake, which you should also focus on in the 24-48hrs before the event. The major adjustment for this group is the need to try to take on board energy and fluid during the event. All swimmers in this group should aim to take on 2-3 Bloks or a gel during the event. For some, there will be CLIF Bloks and Gels available on the course however, if not, then it’s equally easy to store gels up your wetsuit sleeve and stop once to take this at some point mid-way through the swim. Even though you are swimming in it, getting fluid can be trickier but there may be a support boat or pontoon where you can get or leave drinks. If there is, take this option. After the event your energy stores will be quite depleted and you maybe quite dehydrated, so make sure you take on board some food and fluid as soon as possible and contiune to eat and drink every few hours for the 24-48hrs after the event.

Completion time: Over 90mins

This group will be made up of some of some 2 Mile swimmers but mostly those entered into the 5km and 10km events. If you are in this group, eating a few more carbohydrates in the days before the event can help to load energy stores which in turn can sustain performance. It isn’t about huge bowls of pasta, just simple tweaks like adding honey to cereal. You’ll be training less but aim to maintain your training diet. Doing this will mean you have 75-90mins of energy stored up for your swim, if your swim will take longer than this you should plan to take on board some energy during the event. Like the last group, use the on course nutrition, or store gels/Bloks in your wetsuit. You should be aiming to eat about 1g of carbohydrate per minute from 60mins onward. This means that for a 2hr swim, you would need 60g of carbohydrate. Spread this out as much as you can through the event. You should also aim to drink around 300-500mls of fluid per hour, so drinking every time you pass the aid station/boat is a good idea. In general, you will have burned through some energy in the form of carbohydrate and fat, sweated out fluid and sodium and also used some protein. Therefore, these are the things that you need to replace, remembering that the longer or more intense your event the more you will have used. Eat a snack such as the CLIF Bar/CLIF Nut Butter Filled Bar you are given in the 30mins after then event as well as working hard to rehydrate by drinking 500mls of fluid in the hour after you finish. In the 48hrs after your event, you should look to eat wholesome meals and snacks that give a good range of carbs, protein (found in meat, dairy eggs, but also in grains, beans, pulses and nuts) and vitamins and minerals found in berries, greens, vegetables, beans, spices (particularly ginger and turmeric) as well as dark chocolate and all will help heal our body more quickly after exercise without stopping the body’s natural ability to fix damage from exercise.

In summary:

The longer you are in the water the more the demand on your body. While swimming isn’t as impactful as running, longer swimming events still place significant stress on the body and eating and drinking well is the best way to combat this and meet the energy demands of the event. Eating and drinking well before, during and after your Great Swim is really important, so make sure you take time to get it right.

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The ideas and suggestions written above are the opinions of Joel Enoch, an award winning triathlon coach for the Hartree JETS, 9-time GB Age-group triathlete, 2x Great SwimRun winner and CLIF Bar’s paid nutritional ambassador in the UK.  This article is provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. The contents of this article are not intended to make health or nutrition claims about Clif Bar & Company products. Always seek the advice of a Doctor or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition related activity.  

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