As open-water swimming becomes more and more popular, race directors are hosting longer and longer events. If you’ve entered one of these distance swims (longer than, say, 2 miles), you’ll need to take in some kind of nourishment, solid or liquid, during the race. If you’re like me, you have plenty of experience sitting at the dinner table and eating and drinking. I mastered that art long ago! But trying to swallow a few ounces of Gatorade in choppy seas can be a real challenge if you’ve never tried it before. On my first attempt at sea-level dining, I was following a friend in a rowboat and he handed me a cup of water in a mildly choppy sea. Most of it went up my nose or into the ocean. And the part that went into my mouth never made it to my stomach because I couldn’t swallow while bouncing up and down. I learned that I needed to practice "dining out" in a variety of different conditions.
If you are going to compete in open-water swimming, you have to spend some of your time training there — and you have to practice EATING there. The conditions in open water vary day to day and hour to hour. They are affected by moon phase and tides, wind, currents, waves or white caps, water temperature, rainfall, and jelly fish, just to name a few. You have to be prepared to swim in all kinds of conditions, so the more time you spend in the ocean, the more comfortable you will become in open water, and the easier it will be for you on race day. You also have to know what you can or cannot eat on race day so you have to experiment with different kinds of power bars, gels, GU, fruits (bananas), snacks (fig newtons), and drinks. As for drinks, you may want to have something warm for later in the race in case you get cold.
You don’t want any gastro-intestinal surprises during a race — like an upset stomach or gas or worse — and the best way to avoid this is to experiment with food intake during your training. Start by eating and drinking in the pool, where you don’t have to deal with any waves. Try to get a lane to yourself so that you can experiment. Pretend that the walls don’t exist, and practice eating and drinking while still moving FORWARD. Watching the sea otters on the Discovery Channel has taught me how to do this. The sea otters roll over and lie on their backs while they eat, and they continue to glide through the water without missing a beat. The human version is to eat or drink with one hand while sculling with the other. It’s always helpful to continue kicking while feeding so that you continue your forward progress. You always want to be moving forward during a race. Also you never want to allow your feet to go vertical while feeding because it takes too much energy to get started again. When you feel comfortable doing this in the pool, it’s off to the ocean, bay, or river in your area.
Repeat the process you practiced in the pool before trying to follow a boat or kayak, and become comfortable with feeding while experiencing different conditions in the open water. When you feel comfortable feeding in the open water, try it with a boat or kayak nearby. You’ll soon learn that the boat or kayak doesn’t remain in the same location while you feed. You don’t want to leave bottles or wrappers floating all over the course, so you need to find a way to them back to the kayak when you’re done. The simplest solution is to tie a string to everything. I’ve found that if you attached a string to everything container attached to a string and remember not to hang on or you’ll risk being DQ’d. When you are finished you can just let it go, and your escort can reel it in so as not to pollute the waterways. If you feed with a hand-to-hand exchange, be certain to keep an eye on your support craft as you feed so that it doesn’t get out of arm’s reach. You don’t want to waste time swimming with a cup in your hand trying to get back to the boat/kayak. Also, remember that you risk being DQ’d if you hang on to your support craft.
After you’ve finished feeding, you may find it helpful to swim backstroke to get going again. You’re already on your back, so simply start swimming, get some speed going, then switch to your stomach without dropping your legs. This will get you going faster and give you a chance to use some different muscle groups during the race. Backstroke also provides a good means to communicate with your support craft during a race so you don’t have to stop your forward progress.
Before the start of the race make sure that your crew understands your feeding schedule and your strategy. Always make room for more food and drink in case the event takes longer than forecasted. You may want to drink more fluid on a hot day and less fluid on a cooler day.
Remember: No reservations required when "dining out" in the open water.