Tag Archives: vomiting

Sylvain Estadieu’s English Channel Butterfly – Part 5

Part 1Part 2Part 3. Part 4.

I wasn’t sure when I started this how long this series would be. Previous long series have run to five posts. This will take six. Given his achievement, I think it’s fair to say that Sylvain deserves a six-part series!

As I wrote in the previous post, almost immediately after Sylvain got sick Mike Oram started feeding him, with no discussion with crew. Between getting sick and Mike’s feeding the time lost was about five minutes.

Twenty minutes later was the next scheduled feed, at 16:45, and adhering to the plan wasn’t as important at this time, but Mike again fed Sylvain, this time with a watery porridge, water, and mouthwash to remove the vomit taste. Five minutes after this feed, Sylvain got sick again but reported feeling better afterwards. Less than ten minutes later again, just before 5 p.m. Mike fed Sylvain this time with a cheese spread on bread. We as crew were superfluous at this stage, and since this was Sylvain’s swim and his success the only important thing, it wasn’t about how we felt, so we bit our tongues. From Mike’s point of view about many things in the Channel with his 800 crossings, crew are mostly baggage, which will be not be a surprise to anyone who has read or heard his many  “swimmers are only my third and slowest engine” comments. The 5 p.m. feed was lengthy, taking Sylle over two and a half minutes.

Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick
Sylle in the sixth hour shortly before getting sick

So why did Sylvain get sick? As I’ve also said previously, this happens usually because swimmers take in more carbs than they can process as they mostly are in liquid form and happens many people.

Channel swimming burns about 800 calories per hour. The human body, regardless of size, can take in about 280 calories per hour. Earlier during that morning “discussion“, Mike had ridiculed me for not having a “T-form“, or for not knowing the term. Not needing Mike’s approval I’d asked what he meant, and I had mentioned I’d read all his emails to the Channel Chat group over the years, a repository of which articles Niek Kloots hosts on the Netherlands Channel Challenge site. They are worth reading if you are interested in Channel swimming, and being here, you may be interested, as Mike knows more about the Channel than most people, Fred Mardle and Reg Brickell being the only other pilots with similar experience.

The T-form, is essentially a calorific input/output balance sheet (my explanation). Mike explained to me all about calories and liquids and blood and liver etc, not really accepting that I, or indeed any swimmer, might have some or any knowledge of these matters. Mike explained how he had brought the idea from his sales training in the US, in between his extensive sailing and piloting etc and plotting swim routes from California to the North Channel. Apparently.

Mike’s T-form is the written form of the mental calculation that experienced swimmers do subconsciously or even occasionally consciously. Written down or not, there is the same net result: calories-in do not equal calories-out. Eventually a swimmer goes from having a positive glycogen amount in the liver and muscles to a deficit. Part of training is to get adapted to the transition from glycogen burning to fat burning, also known as ketosis. Writing it down adds nothing except work, unless you are so poorly organised or inexperienced as a crew that your swimmer is feeding too little or too much.

Lisa and Zoe and I continued to discuss with each other and to talk to both Mikes. Mike Oram’s primary assertion was “this year’s Maxim is bad“. He said that this Channel season had seen a significant increase in the number of swimmers getting sick.

Maxim is the most used carbohydrate by Channel swimmers and that used by Freda Streeter to feed swimmers on their Dover Harbour training swims, so it became the default. I’ve used it, Lisa and Zoe used it and many more. Maxim is a 99% maltodextrin carbohydrate and both Evan and I’ve written previously about different aspects of feeding. Evan’s posts on maltodextrin product comparisons and osmolality are particularly useful in this discussion if you want to understand some of the varying factors.

In 2012, Maxim became increasingly more difficult to source until it disappeared. Freda and the beach crew and many others, including myself for MIMS2012, and Lisa, sourced anther product, called Vyomax Maxi. Sylle was using a different product as Maxi wasn’t available in Sweden, but his was still just a generic 99% maltodextrin. I’ve also used Sponsor Competition Sponsor Long Energy, Hammer Perpetuum, Go Energy and others.

During the immediate hour subsequent to Sylle getting sick, Mike Ball looked at Sylle’s feed stuff and then asked why we hadn’t informed him that Sylle wasn’t using Maxim. Lisa and I tried to explain that 99% maltodextrin was 99% maltodextrin, regardless of label, we even still call it Maxim. I don’t think Mike Ball, whom I greatly like and respect, really believed us!

During this time Mike Oram spoke much about noted American Channel Swimmer, friend of his and one of the Channel greats, Marcy MacDonald, who only recently had completed another two-way swim, her third, with Mike, her regular pilot. Mike said she had been sick most of the way, and he’d reverted to the older English Channel feeds of porridge, tea and bread to keep her going.

I am of the opinion, as I’ve written about other swimming subjects, that simple explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones: Did Diana Nyad catch a magic unknown current and after over 30 hours swimming somehow start swimming faster than world-record pace? Or did she make it all up for money and fame, following a lifetime pattern of attention-seeking? Is all this year’s maltodextrin, regardless of  vendor, bad and causing illness, or are more swimmers overfeeding?

It is certainly the case that something had happened that I haven’t yet told you. When mixing the feeds the night before the swim, Sylle had mixed the feeds to quadruple strength, so that when diluted with our warm water supply that was used each feed, the concentration was reduced to double. There was … discussion … of this, shall we say. Lest you think this was a crazy ad-hoc last-minute decision by Sylvain, it wasn’t. Sylvain was already a Channel swimmer. He is a very experienced swimmer, a very experienced open water swimmer, and he was following the feeding regime he always used, including his first Channel swim and which he had used for his long training swims.

The last feed before getting sick IMG_8825.resized

During our discussion I mentioned how last year during his English Channel solo, Alan Clack had wanted a double strength feed, and how without telling him, I’d changed it to single strength. In that case I was completely in charge of looking after Alan, and with more experience than Alan, felt sufficiently certain to so do. But I never told Alan, because I knew he needed to believe that I was doing exactly what he wanted.

It’s also the case that I’ve seen a document circulating on email which outlines double-concentrate mixing of feeds. But this document states that this is intended to be mixed to achieve single concentration.

Papillion Francais
Papillion Francais

Without actual details of the swimmers affected I can’t categorically say, but in Sylvain’s case, we know for a fact that he was using double-concentrate and that was the cause of his illness, rather than some manufacturing defect.

I use Sylvain to explore further this whole problem and the challenges of gauging individual feed requirements, and situations that can arise, even for an experienced swimmer and crew, and it’s not meant to reflect poorly on Sylvain.

We all make decisions and the Channel finds us all out one way or another.

Keeping the communications open and being receptive to Mike over the next couple of hours, we continued to watch Sylle closely. The tension for us his friends and the concern for him, was high. Over the course of a couple of hours, between four p.m. and 6 p.m. Sylle’s stroke rate dropped from 28, to 26, to 24. Not a cause for panic but needing to be watched.

This series finishes in the next and final Part.

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.