Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 1 – Physical Factors

The northern hemisphere summer swimming season is on the horizon , though it doesn’t feel like it here in Ireland where we’ve been having the coldest spring “since records began” (that phrase we are all familiar with from the past few years).  there will be big swims, both attempted and successful. 

Before genuine and extravagant claims are made by ill-informed media covering swims about which they know little and understand less, I though it might be worthwhile to round up the limiting factors for ultra-endurance marathon swims that might help people to apply some criteria to help evaluate some of those swims. Limiting factors which constrain or control a process.

Limiting factors on marathons swims can broadly be said to fall into three categories, with further subdivisions in two of those three.

  • Physical
  • Environmental
  • Psychological

In this first part we will consider the physical limitations.

The Physical Constraints to long swims pertain to the individual swimmer and will be influenced by their experience, training, and preparation.

The god bottle
The god bottle

Energy: Often seen by non-swimmers as the defining criteria, Energy relates to the swimmer’s ability to keep swimming. For experienced marathon swimmers however this is not often the as critical as is seen from outside. Evan and I have covered marathon feeding aspects in the past, from mechanics to content and possible supplementation, but the simple fact is that a tested feed plan, appropriate for the conditions and swimmer, will usually provide the pre-requisite energy. Most marathon swimmers use concentrated carbohydrate as the primary feed, with electrolytes to keep the body’s systems operating.  Changes to this basic plan vary with the swimmer but as long as the swimmer can keep feeding, they will take in sufficient energy.

Digestion: There is often talk of vomiting amongst marathon swimmers. Many, and I am one, think it is worthwhile to get used to being able to swim if or even while vomiting. While many swimmers put the pre-disposition of marathon swimmers to vomit at the door of feed plans and high carbohydrate loads, I think there can be other possible causes, (though the body regardless of size can only process so much carbohydrate per hour). Additionally  there are also the small amounts of salt water that even very experienced swimmers can take in due either to the odd mouthful of choppy water, or salt spray in rough conditions. And which I think is important but unquantified, is the extended time in a prone position which could hinder digestion. Peristalsis, the contraction of internal muscles to move food through the digestive process, has been shown in studies to be independent of gravity for most positions (unsurprisingly, since the intestine leads in all directions). Though peristalsis in the prone head-down position was not shown to be statistically abnormal (i.e. the swimming position) those studies were of short duration.  It is possible, but undetermined, if a longer time period could cause a greater likelihood of digestive problems causing vomiting. Vomiting during a swim usually isn’t particularly energy-consuming , and can even be a relief for once-off incidences. But should the vomiting frequency increase  greater distress can be caused and lead to a collapse in energy.

Nothing_Great_Is_EasyStrength: Like energy, strength is often more considered a limiting factor by non-swimmers. Marathon swimmers don’t often operate on strength alone but more usually on continuous repetition obviously and on technique. Hundreds or thousands of kilometres of swim training act as low-repetition strength training and cause swimmers to have very strong (if not very defined) muscles. A typical training load of a thousand kilometres a year (some swim less, some swim much more) prepares distance swimmers physically. Marathon swimmer’s embrace of the Nothing Great is Easy aphorism is simply one of our ways of explaining that physical strength is not the most important attribute.

Typical English Channel swimmer with salt mouth
Typical English Channel swimmer with salt mouth

Salt Mouth: I’ve written on Salt Mouth specifically as being a serious limiting factor for long swims. In brief it is the build-up of salt in the swimmer’s mouth and throat which can in the worst cases lead the swimmer to be unable to feed or even swallow, and can cause the sloughing of the epidermis of the tongue and throat. It can be extremely painful. Only swimmers who have run into this can understand how painful it can be. With all the talk of stinger suits and shark protection, I think ways this problem is far more important for those willing to risk  extending the outer limits of distance swimming. When evaluating a long swim it is worth looking at the salinity of the region. Kevin Murphy’s record 53 hours in the English Channel was in a region of higher salinity and is one of the many reasons swimmers who understand this limiting factor hold Kevin in such high esteem. Swims in the Caribbean such as Chloe McCardels or Penny Palfrey’s Cuba to Florida swim attempts are also in a region of high salinity. The US West Coast is lower salinity that the US East Coast and the Mediterranean is higher than any of these.

Global ocean salinity
Global ocean salinity

Sleep: If you’ve ever missed a night sleep and spent the next day in an utter daze, one may find it hard to imagine that sleep deprivation in itself is not as much a limiting factor as one may guess. There are studies showing that the sleep two nights before a big athletic event is of more importance that of the preceding night. And the majority of English Channel swimmers start their swim in the middle of the might and will miss most if not all of sleep of the night before. Once actually swimming, and assuming the swimmer has the requisite physical and mental stamina, lack of sleep for a second night does not seem to be the most critical factor. Obviously scientific study of the whole of marathon swimming in low enough given the small numbers involved, but the numbers of people who have swum over 24 hours (the 24 hour club) is very small with no scientific study to speak of, and only inferences can be made. Key is probably the factor that the athletic endeavour of marathon swimming is well below the swimmer/athlete’s VO2 Max ability, (what the athlete is capable of at their threshold limit).

Stroke training
Stroke training

Technique: Marathon swimmers range in style and technical ability. Some are not at really graceful or obviously and some like Evan or Trent are elegant controlled swimmers. Most of us though fall in the the wider intermediate range. We train technique along with all the other aspects and just are there are different ways to skin a cat there are different techniques in swimming from a bludgeoning powerhouse to a smooth FLOWer. Excellent technique in itself is not a determiner of success in marathon swimming, but equally being a powerhouse swimmer isn’t either. Good technique though is much less likely to lead to an overuse injury during a significantly long swim. Slight stroke imbalances when repeated 30,000 times for an average English channel swim, or even more for more epic swims, accumulate tiny stresses in the body of the swimmer, especially the neck and shoulders, that could lead to injury during a swim.

Coming in Part Two, environmental limiting factors of marathon swimming.

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6 thoughts on “Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 1 – Physical Factors”

  1. Great detail. was wondering if you could elaborate: How does one get used to vomiting in the water if one has never had the need to? What about vomiting in the water is particularly challenging? The position? The waves? I want to prepared for it but I am not sure how to.

    1. Hi Emily. That is a difficult one. In theory if you do everything right you shouldn’t need to. But changes air or water temperature, amount ingested, water swallowed on the day could still cause it. Luckily my training caused it to happen a couple of times, the first on a 6 hour choppy water session which caused me to swallow a mouthful so instead of trying to suppress it, I went with the urge. What makes it difficult to commit to is the fact that you are going to happen to stop, and you may not know for how long. In fact during MIMS I would have preferred to throw up sooner and in retrospect I should have deliberately swallowed a mouthful to initiate it, as I felt much better after (the high water temperature meant I took on more Maxim than I needed or could process and got bloated & uncomfortable, I’m not used to planning for warm water). I also swam in the sea during training while sick once, and discovered that I could throw up then without breaking stroke. We have all been sick and we know that it can be a very uncomfortable or even tiring process. If caused by feed or salt water, we need to learn to it is not as bad and can even make us more comfortable.

  2. I can relate to the digestion part. By the end of my swim I was so bloated and full that I was really afraid that not digesting was going to be the thing that could stop me. I think I would have been better off to go ahead and vomit to “empty out” and give my digestive system a rest. Good thing Loneswimmer was aboard and kept my feedings at a reasonable level instead of at the level I had requested.

  3. What a nicely done big-picture post, and what a great idea for a series.

    And thank you for the compliment, though I feel a bit ridiculous being mentioned in the same sentence as Trent. I’ve never approached his grace and efficiency, though I try!

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