Getting well fuelled – Carbs Carbs Carbs!

Not only a challenge in fitness, mental toughness and ability but a challenge of the food kind as well. To swim this far requires a lot of energy but swimming and eating don’t really mix.

Haven’t we always been told ‘wait until your food digests before you go swimming’?
There are many factors for the swimmers to consider:

• What to eat during the swim?

• When to eat it?

• How to eat to prevent seasickness?

• What to do in the lead up to the swim?

The answers to all these questions vary depending on whether you are a solo swimmer or team swimmer, but the bottom line is carbohydrate and lots of it.

As the race can take around eight or nine hours it is important that the body is well fuelled before the event and lots of carbohydrate has been stored in our muscles as glycogen. It’s important that in the week leading up to the swim and most importantly the day before the swim that considerable amount of carbohydrate is eaten. Carbohydrate foods are good sources of energy without being too fatty and heavy. All breads, pastas, noodles, rice, fruit, yoghurt and milks contain carbohydrate. It is best to have these as the main part of every meal to fill up the glycogen tanks in our muscles.

However, just like a car the tank will become empty, that is what happens as the swimmers make their way to Rottnest and use this stored energy source. So it is important for the swimmers to top up their energy tanks throughout the swim. Especially the solo swimmers need to stop and have something to eat while treading water. This is where the problems can start, especially if the swimmers haven’t been training their stomachs as well as their bodies for the event.

Training & Eating

It is important for swimmers to prepare their stomach for the ocean conditions by eating before training and then training with the food in their stomachs. Many swimmers train with sports drinks situated at the end of the pool, but during the swim it is important to have food to complement the energy provided by sports drink or other fluids which contain carbohydrate (e.g. cordial, fruit juice). A swimmer can’t really expect to do well if they consume only a carbohydrate drink for eight hours while exercising. The fuel is going to run out very quickly doing this.

So training with food in their stomach or stopping for a snack break during a training session will help swimmers acclimatise to eating and swimming.

What to eat during the swim – Duo’s / Teams

Foods like bananas, fruit yoghurt, flavoured milk and tinned fruit are all foods which are light to eat but high in carbohydrates. These foods are easy and quick to eat and are particularly good for swimmers in a team who have the time to sit on a boat and grab a snack.

What to eat during the swim – Solo Swimmers

For the solo swimmers it’s not so easy. It would be pretty hard to eat a tub of yoghurt while treading water so fruit cut into pieces, or a breakfast bar are better options. Some swimmers even blend up tinned fruit with juice or milk to make a thick drink which can be swallowed fairly easily. For a quick energy injection some fruit juice, sports drink, cordial or jelly beans will help but this always need to be followed up with more sustaining high carbohydrate foods like bread, fruit, pikelets and yoghurt.


Fluids are important so even if you are eating regularly throughout the swim you must continue to drink constantly as well. Aim to have about a glass, or large swig from a bottle every 20 minutes.

When to eat

It is important to have a light snack every hour and something a bit heavier like a sandwich and a piece of fruit or yoghurt every three to four hours.

How to prevent seasickness

Seasickness is a real problem, particularly if you can’t keep the food down. It is important to have a solid carbohydrate meal three to four hours before starting the swim and a small top up meal one to two hours before for fuel reasons but also because seasickness can be made worse on an empty stomach. If you do start to experience seasickness during the swim try just having a high carbohydrate fluid drink or some dry crackers – but not together.

If you get cold

Many of the swimmers experience extreme coldness, particularly the team swimmers who are constantly getting in and out of the water and losing body heat. This is where a thermos of hot milo or sweet tea can really warm them up and keep them keen to get back in the water.


The swimmers need to get used to training with the foods they are going to eat on the day. Going for a few small ocean swims with these foods in their stomachs will help them see how it feels and if they are comfortable or not.

The Rottnest Channel Swim is a great event and one that competitors should be well prepared for as it is a long way between the start and the finish. Getting fit for the event is only half the preparation. Getting your food and diet right is the other half.

If you are serious about your swimming regime then see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD) specialising in sports nutrition.

Links for nutritional sites include:

Australian Sports Commission and Gatorade Sports Science Institute