Use of choline supplementation in marathon swims (or ultra-endurance events)

I don’t like dietary supplements. B Complex, multivitamins etc. The little reading I’ve done so far on the subject indicates little or no benefit is gained from commercial multivitamins for endurance athletes But I don’t rule it out…

Since my EC, (too late that is), I’ve had a few interesting conversations with an online friend and endurance athlete (hey Herman!), who has a background in nutrition, who has convinced me to look at some specifics. When I’ve talked to others in this line, they don’t have any experience with real endurance events, much more in strength events, track or field or team events. But given his own endurance exploits Herman has given this more thought than those advising other athletes. Also, having done a Solo, I am interested in how we can do it better and the scientific improvements we can bring to our almost non-studied pursuit. Evan Morrison has started a series on this subject also, which prompted this post, as so much Evan writes so often does.

So, what can we do better?

Amongst the things that Herman suggested we increase was Choline. I’ll address the others separately, (why write one post when I can write two?).

So what is Choline, and why increase it?

To the Researchmobile Batman!

(There’s three links there, for the hypertext inadequate).

Mihai Niculescu

Choline is a dietary and nutritional Requirement, like vitamins. It’s often grouped together with B-complex vitamins. It’s required for a variety of purposes including supporting cell structure and integrity, muscular control and neuro-transmission (signalling between neurons). So just thinking from a heavy training point of view, and the precision that swimming normally requires combined with heavy training loads, these seem quite apposite.

The body has a good supply of choline, and retains it well into endurance events but can drop precipitously. Studies at the Boston Marathon in the 80’s show runners could drop 50% over the curse of a marathon. So what about a 5 to 40 hour swimming event?

WE DON’T KNOW! On an initial search I can’t find (unsurprisingly) any studies on choline in ultra-endurance events.

Oh, and apparently, low choline can lead to an unpleasant (fishy) body odour, which no amount of washing will remove. I’m not sure how you segregate this from open water (sea) swimmers who just smell of fish anyway! 🙂 Which is no worse than the six months of pool training when you smell of chlorine.

Like ALL essential nutrients we can get everything we need from our diet. But the primary forms of choline and changes to a modern diet both mean we could be operating on low choline levels.

The Adequate Intake (AI) of choline is 425 mg (milligrams) per day for adult women; higher for pregnant and breastfeeding women. The AI for adult men is 550 mg/day.

There’s a study that shows AI, Adequate Intake, may not actually be adequate.

Here’s a table straight from Wikipedia:

Animal and plant foods Choline (mg) Calories
5 ounces (142 g) raw beef liver 473 192
Large hardboiled egg 113 78
Half a pound (227 g) cod fish 190 238
Half a pound of chicken 149 270
Quart of milk, 1% fat 173 410
A tablespoon (8 g) soy lecithin 250  approx. 60
A pound (454 grams) of cauliflower 177 104
A pound of spinach 113 154
A cup of wheat germ 202 432
Two cups (0.47 liters) firm tofu 142 353
Two cups of cooked kidney beans 108 450
A cup of uncooked quinoa 119 626
A cup of uncooked amaranth 135 716
A grapefruit 19 103
3 cups (710 cc) cooked brown rice 54 649
A cup (146 g) of peanuts 77 828
A cup (143 g) of almonds 74 822

So you can see why it would be easy to not get enough. I like liver, but I don’t eat beef liver, (which is horrible and better fed to dogs) and half a kilo of liver a day of any kind would lead to vitaminosis, which is pretty dangerous, and why I limit liver intake when training hard to once a week.

Maybe you really do eat a kilo and a half of cauliflower a day, more power to you if so, but I pity the people living with your colon.

Or just a daily, and probably quite odd mix of these items. Maybe a cauliflower, milk, quinoa, spinach and fish smoothie? Yum.

But modern diet has had us reduce red meat and eggs for other reasons, concerns over cholesterol, etc. Milk is a good source (human milk is very high in choline, for infant development) and probably the easiest to take, something I drink plenty of to support training. I’m wasn’t sure what the hell a quart of milk was, apparently it’s almost a litre. America, please see above cartoon. Again.

Choline is beneficially linked to foetal development, cardiovascular system, and anxiety reduction (not depression), increased IQ in infants, possibly lowered cholesterol (contradicting studies), and mental acuity and memory in mice, and diets with no choline can lead to liver or muscle damage in 80% of cases. On the negative side, there’s a study that it can lead to colonic polyps in women. Or increased risk of diarrhoea or flatulence. One study shows that endurance athletes can be deficient in choline, which is the real point.

Lacking this intake of, it seems choline is possibly a good recommendation for diet supplement in endurance athletes. It is assumed to come in diet from Lecithin, which is how strength athletes (always keen to shove pills into themselves) often supplement. It’s European E-number E322, derived from soy or egg yolk and it’s used as an emulsifier (stabiliser) in processed food, such as some margarine, baking or processed chocolate bars (not high cocoa percentage chocolate bars). But (older) studies show lecithin isn’t effective in choline supplementation, that maybe only 4% of lecithin is actually converted to choline.

Yes … but. The but is ask what we can do. Without studies of deficiencies, supplementation and effects for ultra events, we simply don’t know.

Extracting from one article:

Evidence for choline supplements
But can choline supplements really be beneficial? We know for sure that choline levels do plunge near the end of a marathon, and we also know that choline supplements can prevent this devastating downswing. In one study, the simple act of taking in two grams of choline before exercise began totally prevented the fall in choline normally associated with prolonged activity.

However, the simple maintenance of choline levels does not automatically mean that performance will be enhanced. To check on the performance part of the equation, researchers recently asked 10 trained runners (eight males and two females) to run 20 miles as fast as possible after taking 2.8 grams of choline citrate one hour before the run and the same amount (adding up to 5.6 total grams of choline) at the half-way (10-mile) point of their efforts. On a second occasion, the athletes ran the same distance without taking choline. Seven of the 10 subjects ran better times after taking choline, and average time for the 20-miler was five minutes faster when choline was utilised (2:33 versus 2:38).

The researchers were also able to show that plasma choline levels decreased significantly after the placebo (non-choline- supplemented) run but actually increased by 74 per cent at the end of the 20-mile exertion when choline was taken before and half-way through the run.

Cavet: Those are only two small-scale studies, in different conditions (because we always have to remember a few things: Cold & Salt water ingestion as environmental factors for us).

There are two counter studies also. A study of moderate distance cyclists (150 kilometres per week) training at less than VO2 Max displayed NO improvement from choline supplementation. But there is a suggestion in an analysis of one study that choline supplementation is only effective OVER two hours of exercise. Whereas in the other, blood choline was raised, but performance wasn’t.

There IS a small study on pool swimmers, who were using results from an Interval T-30  (thirty minute time test for distance) as the measurement. 11 out of 16 showed an improvement.

Okay, so we’re not left with a lot of conclusive evidence. But there does seem to be a leaning toward choline as being beneficial for ultra-endurance events.


In the meantime, it’s not a regular supplement, I don’t significant use in boosting it daily, but that would depend, as above, on your diet. Eat more eggs, you need less choline supplementation. If it is of any use to us, it’s directly prior to and during the events themselves. I see if I can influence any of next year’s Aspirants to try it out. In the meantime I don’t like keeping these thoughts to myself, our community is based on friendship and sharing knowledge. So here it is for your consideration. And any useful information anyone could add would be great.

Lastly, the actual supplementation. Well it’s not something you find in pill form on the supermarket or pharmacy shelf. Apparently some electrolytes has choline as an addition. The best uptake form is either of the choline salts, choline chloride or choline bitartrate, which are absorbed really quickly into the blood, within 30 minutes. If taking it, you take about 2.0 to 2.5 grams before the event, and after 2 hours, (about 0.2 gr per kg of body weight). For a multi-hour ultra event, I would GUESS, that taking it subsequently every two to three hours would be best. If it is of any benefit.

References from:

Wikipedia, PubMeD, Cochrane, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Peak Performance Sporting Excellence, new England journal of medicine, Google Scholar


5 thoughts on “Use of choline supplementation in marathon swims (or ultra-endurance events)

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