Swimming the English Channel

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I’ve always been a swimmer. Growing up, spending time in the ocean was what we did.  Swimming came pretty easily to me, but it wasn’t until the wrong side of 40 that I really found a love for it.

It was a love born of two things. Firstly, the threat of drastic surgery to correct a serious back problem meant I was on the hunt for any other remedy. Secondly, I happened to join a very high performing swim squad called Vladswim. Swimming is more than a sport to this group, it’s a passion and a way of life. Surrounded by adventurous people with no limit to their aspirations, I was inspired to create my own big goal.

I have always dreamed of an iconic swim like the English Channel, but never took it seriously. In the Vladswim pool goals are set, prepared for and achieved. This was 2016. I had a goal, I had a preparation program and I was ready to commit to swimming the English Channel in 2019.

I began a routine of early morning training at the pool and weekend sessions in the ocean. There was always talk of nutrition amongst the swimmers. What worked, what definitely didn’t. What worked for this person but not for another. It became clear that getting the ‘feeding’ right was central to achieving my goal and also enjoying the process.

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Towards the end of last year, I started to prepare for the Rottnest Channel Swim – a 20km open water swim from Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia to Rottnest Island off the coast. It was the longest swim I had attempted and I decided to consult a nutritionist to work out the best feeding plan. Up until this point my approach had been to eat whatever I wanted and suck down a few gels as needed on longer ocean swims. Swimming makes you hungry! I’d worked hard in the pool and I could get away with eating pretty much whatever I wanted between sessions. Ashleigh, my new nutrition, had other ideas.

We used Rottnest as an experiment to find out what suited me best. The swim was a large learning curve. How do you carb load and when? How do you hydrate most effectively? What foods would aid my recovery?

I learnt that there is no exact science when it comes to individual nutrition. Trial and error and an open dialogue with your nutritionist are essential as you work out how to get a comfortable and effective feeding pattern.

A few months after Rottnest, a spot opened up for an English Channel swim during the current 2018 season.  The idea of doing it a year early appealed – I had a good base from my Rottnest preparation and my coach thought I was ready. I had a great nutritionist on board in Ashleigh, so I decided to put all my ducks in a row and give it my best crack!

I had a limited time to prepare myself both in the pool and from a nutritional point of view in order to be ready for the demands of the Channel. I needed to increase my swimming mileage, put on a little bit of weight and work out a feeding plan for some long ocean swims in the lead up and of course the day itself.

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I was on such a high in the lead up to the swim. Full of excitement and anticipation! This saw me through seven weeks of intense training, with my mileage peaking at about 50km per week. I was still talking to Ashleigh and tweaking my feeds right up until the start of my Channel swim.

I felt confident we had quite a few feed options on offer in case I felt ‘feed fatigued’.  It’s hard to know for sure what you will feel like over the course of 13 to 14 hours of swimming. I had options such as Maltodextrin, Gatorade, Staminade, Hydralyte, Coke, Mars Bars, gels and peaches in syrup.

Quite a smorgasbord of options and certainly enough to keep me interested. I can only recall finding the flavour of orange Staminade totally vile at around the nine-hour mark. No big deal, there was more to choose from.

It took me 13 hours, 20 minutes and 15 seconds to reach France. With the current, I swam approximately 55km.

I felt well fuelled and hydrated all the way through my crossing. I felt strong. I kept telling myself that I had prepared well in advance, I had done the training. If I kept focused and positive and my nutrition was on target, I would succeed.

I owe a huge thanks to Ashleigh for keeping my nutrition on track. I was not the ideal client. A little picky, a bit adverse to the healthy ingredients on offer but your patience paid off and we got there.  Thank you for helping me achieve my goal!

Sam Abeshouse