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Running on Empty

The importance of fuelling during a Marathon Swim is shown here in the amazing story of one man's journey to Olympic silver and to the very limits of his reserves and resolve ...

Although the distances between a running marathon (42.195km) and swimming marathon (10k) differ, the elites in each sport would complete the challenge in around two hours and the physical challenge is very similar. The levels of preparation, training and attention to nutrition needed to take on a marathon swim should also be similar to what you would expect to do for a running marathon.

During a marathon run everyone from elites to everyday athletes need to take on fluid and fuel. The same is true for a marathon swim. The elites in major open water swimming events take fuel on from specially designed feed stations or securely positioned gels and hydration packs on their bodies to enable them to take on vital fuel mid race. This often involves swimming on your back for a few strokes whilst taking on the fuel, before flipping back over to resume your stroke. Miss out on taking on vital fuel and you could be heading for trouble, as Team GB’s David Davies, the Beijing 2008 silver medallist, found to his cost.

Davies although a medallist (in the pool at 1,500m in Athens 2004) was a relative novice at the marathon distance. He set a ferocious pace in the early stages of the race. As the race progressed he successfully fought off countless attacks from his rivals.

The pace of the race eventually took its toll and led Davies, desperate for hydration and competitive advantage in equal measure, to famously drink the murky water he was swimming in rather than lose time to his rivals by slowing down at the feed station. This was to cost Davies dear. He was delirious from fatigue and from the rowing lake water and not able to follow the racing line.

Eventually, he held off his rivals and held on to his second place, a remarkable achievement considering his lack of sustenance. He collapsed soon after exiting the water. His appearance was not too dissimilar to Dorando Pietri, the infamous Italian marathon runner (and winner) of the first London Olympics in 1908. Pietri was disqualified for being assisted across the line. Fortunately, there was no over-eager marshal in the water in Beijing to prevent Davies from taking his rightful place on the podium.

The lesson here? Plan your hydration and fuel, as much as you plan your training for Marathon Swims. The Marathon Swims event (at London Aquatics Centre 11 November 2017) has a feed station which is passed every kilometre. Make sure you bring your hydration in an easily identifiable water bottle, so you can re-fuel quickly while out of the water.

By the way, even though the elite marathon swimmers do it in open water, the organisers of the event (and operators of the pool) would prefer you did not attempt to take gels whilst swimming in the pool or drink the water in the pool. That could lead to a DQ!

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