This summer, after 9 months of planning and preparation, I will load up a boat full of protein flapjacks, apply an industrial amount of sunscreen to every inch of my body, tighten my trunks and goggles and attempt the Longest, Unassisted, Non-Stop, Open Water Swim in history in support of Parley for the Oceans (a non-profit environmental organisation that focuses on ocean conservation). But how did we get here? Well, it’s a long story that needs unpacking and explaining. Fortunately, the media ninjas at PhD have been following this entire journey and are producing a series of Vlogs that show exactly what happens ‘behind the scenes’ during training camp to make a swim on this scale happen. In addition to this we’ll also be breaking down the nutritional science and key 3 areas that govern the foods I eat and supplements I use…
HEALTH AND RECOVERY
Firstly, (worth noting) this will be attempt no.2. after my last lake swim ended in hospital with hypothermia, a little kidney failure and a sprinkling of cellulitis after 53 hours in Loch Ness, Scotland. This is why this training camp was a little different to most others I’ve started, since it only started once doctors had given me the ‘greenlight’ and even then, there had to be a huge emphasis on health and recovery before I could even begin thinking about speed, pacing and performance. This is why the following supplements were the first things I added to the supplement cupboard once I arrived home.
Supergreens formula basically blends 18 nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables into a single powdered shake and whilst I would need to write an entire book to delve into the details of each, I want to focus specifically on spirulina and why the doctors recommended this during my recovery after my kidneys took a battering. This is all because when your kidneys are damaged, they produce less erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that signals your bone marrow to make more red blood cells. With less erythropoietin, your body makes fewer red blood cells, and less oxygen is delivered to your organs and tissues. Obviously not great for endurance athletes, but this is where spirulina can help. Containing a wide array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential amino acids, it also has a high chlorophyll content. Now, chlorophyll is crucial for photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. But, studies suggest it can also have positive effects on human health, including oxygen utilization and blood oxygenation. This is because its molecular structure bears a resemblance to heme, the iron-containing component of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin, found in red blood cells, is responsible for transporting oxygen from the lungs to various tissues and organs throughout the body. Its iron component plays a pivotal role in binding and releasing oxygen. Therefore, by enhancing the oxygen-carrying capacity of haemoglobin, spirulina indirectly influences oxygen delivery to tissues as supported by a studied published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology that I read in hospital. Gurney T, Spendiff O. Spirulina supplementation improves oxygen uptake in arm cycling exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2020 Dec;120(12):2657-2664.
ZMA (Zinc, Magnesium, and Vitamin B6)
ZMA is really simple in its formulation, since it consists of a combination of three essential nutrients: zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6. It is primarily marketed as a product to support muscle recovery and enhance athletic performance by aiding protein synthesis (the repair and regrowth of muscles) and reducing exercise-induced oxidative stress. But the reason it’s a staple in my supplement routine is because each nutrient has been shown to individually (and synergistically) have a calming effect on the nervous system which may help improve sleep quality and duration.
- Zinc: Zinc is an essential mineral involved in numerous bodily processes, including immune function, protein synthesis, and enzyme activity. Adequate zinc levels are crucial for overall health and recovery. Zinc has also been linked to improved sleep quality.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is another essential mineral that plays a vital role in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. It is involved in muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis, energy production, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Magnesium has been associated with relaxation and improved sleep quality.
- Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 is important for the metabolism of amino acids and the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. It is involved in regulating sleep and mood and in the production of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles) and deficiencies in vitamin B6 may contribute to sleep disturbances.
The next addition to our list is pretty obvious, but due to the sheer importance of this macronutrient to all athletes it’s only right we revisit and repeat the nutritional science of the world’s most popular sports supplement; whey protein. Now, how much we need as athletes is still debated by nutritionists today. The answer? We don’t know. The field of nutrigenomics ― how our individual genes uniquely interact with our food ― teaches us this varies from person to person. At best, we can make an educated guess and start with research from the often-quoted sports nutrition bible “The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition.” It states the International Olympic Committee Consensus on Sports Nutrition recommends strength and speed athletes consume 1.7g of protein per kg of bodyweight, per day. This is considered the optimal amount to help the muscles repair and re-grow. But what if you’re not a strength, speed or power athlete? Maybe you’re training for a marathon. Maybe you want to lose fat. Or maybe you just want to be generally healthy. Studies show this idea of 1.7g of protein per kg of bodyweight, per day is still a good base to start all because research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology states, “We conclude that bodybuilders during habitual training require a daily protein intake only slightly greater than that for sedentary individuals in the maintenance of lean body mass and that endurance athletes require daily protein intakes greater than either bodybuilders or sedentary individuals to meet the needs of protein catabolism during exercise .” Put simply, endurance athletes need protein to prevent their body breaking down. Train too hard or too long and the body will enter a catabolic state. Your muscles breakdown, the immune system is badly affected and injuries are more likely to occur. However, having an adequate supply of protein and you’re equipped with the “building blocks” needed to recover.
After 3 months of religiously and meticulously working on my recovery and rehab, I was ready to resume training and turn my attention to performance (and specifically metrics relating to pacing, speed, duration and endurance). Granted, during the first few sessions I wasn’t setting the world alight with my swimming abilities, but slowly (and steadily) I began to reclaim some level of fitness and a few things that hugely helped were caffeine, creatine and beta alanine:
CAFFEINE (CHARGE PRE-WORKOUT)
Caffeine is one of the most tried and tested sports supplements to ever hit your sports bottle. This is because thousands of studies have discovered hundreds of benefits, but (for me) I will use caffeine to:
(1) Reduce Perception to Fatigue: This is too often overlooked, but caffeine can reduce your perception to fatigue. Experts believe it does this by stimulating the production of the neurotransmitter beta-endorphin and this may explain why, when caffeine is coupled with carbohydrate supplementation to ensure muscle glycogen levels are fully topped up, athletes are able to maintain a higher intensity and maximal output for longer.
(2) Increase Your Power Output: A study by Lane et al (2013) found caffeine, even when taken in low doses can improve your power. This is because the study served to analyse cycling power output and found that a dosage of 3mg/kg increased power by up to 3.5% when compared to a placebo group. Granted this might not sound like a lot, but it could be responsible for the new one rep max you put up on the bench press. Equally, research conducted at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada found that caffeine supplementation could ‘permit athletes to train at a greater power output and/or to train longer by producing a more favourable ionic environment within the active muscle.’
(3) To help battle the negative effect on performance of training in the morning. Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, training early will decrease power output due to your circadian rhythms, ingesting caffeine can equalise this, allowing you to train in the morning with no ill effects.
BETA ALANINE (CHARGE PRE-WORKOUT)
One of the best (also under appreciated) supplements in my opinion. This is because at Florida Atlanta University it was found that beta alanine and creatine improved “aerobic power, ventilatory and lactate thresholds and time to exhaustion” after 4 weeks of supplementation. Researchers believe it’s beta alanine’s ability to positively affect a substance called carnosine in the muscles which produced this improved performance since a similar study at the University of Tsukuba found that high levels of carnosine could help to reduce lactic acid build up in the muscle (the burning sensation you get in the muscles when you’re running hard).
BODY COMPOSITION AND FAT LOSS
The very last area of my sports nutrition that I focused on was body composition and fat loss. This is because the water temperature in the previous swim in Loch Ness, Scotland, was 7°C (44.6°F) which is why I bulked up to 105kg (231lbs) to add layers of fat and insulation to protect me from the cold. Granted, it turns out I needed more since hypothermia still found a way to take me out. But for this next swim, we are changing locations to the sun-soaked lakes of Italy all in the hope I can create a leaner, faster and more streamlined physique and (hopefully) hypothermia doesn’t find me again. Although I don’t have a specific target weight in mind, I am finding that 86kg (189lbs) moves efficiently through the water, which is why I wanted to list 2 key products that have helped me with fat loss and 2 products that you might not expect.
The truth is benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are so diverse it could have been listed in any category (from health and recovery to performance). This is because omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for overall health and play various roles in the body, including supporting health, aiding in recovery and boosting the immune system, let me explain:
- Heart health: Omega-3s have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease by improving cholesterol levels, reducing triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, and preventing the formation of blood clots.
- Brain function: The brain is composed largely of fat, and omega-3s, particularly a type called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for brain development and function. They support cognitive function, memory, and may reduce the risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Inflammation and recovery: Omega-3s possess anti-inflammatory properties, helping to reduce chronic inflammation in the body. By modulating the inflammatory response, they can aid in the recovery process from exercise-induced inflammation, injuries, and various conditions such as arthritis.
- Immune system support: Omega-3s play a role in supporting a healthy immune system. They help regulate the immune response, enhance the function of immune cells, and reduce excessive inflammation. By promoting a balanced immune system, omega-3s can contribute to overall immune health and better defence against infections.
- Mood and mental health: There is evidence to suggest that omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), may have a positive effect on mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. They help regulate neurotransmitter function and reduce inflammation in the brain, which can contribute to improved mental well-being.
But the reason I have included them in the fat loss and body composition section is because studies show EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) can actually help burn body fat by increasing the level and activity of mitochondria within the cell. Since mitochondria are often called the “powerhouses” of the cells, it’s not surprising that by up-regulating them scientists believe we can stimulate thermogenesis, which not only oxidizes body fat but also increases energy expenditure.
SMARTBARS (PROTEIN BARS)
Listing the PhD Smarbars as a fat loss supplement may seem odd, but so often nutritionists fail to focus on dietary adherence and behavioural strategies. I always say the best diet in the world is useless on paper if someone can’t follow it. Research from the International Journal of Obesity agrees too. In a huge Meta study — a study of lots of studies — it was found there was no perfect diet. Instead they concluded, “Regardless of assigned diet, 12-month weight change was greater in the most adherent,” adding, “These results suggest that strategies to increase adherence may deserve more emphasis than the specific diet.” With that said, you will struggle to find a better tasting source of protein with reduced carbs, calories and sugars than a PhD Smarbar. Which is why when I am cutting calories from my diet in a bid to produce a more streamlined physique, my swim bag or kitchen cupboard is NEVER without a stash of birthday cake or cookies and cream flavoured PhD Smarbar.