Feeding and fluid replenishment strategy

In order to ensure an adequate amount of energy over the four race days it is important that the paddler consumes enough calories of the right foodstuffs for sustenance over the period. Easy enough, just keeping eating (and drinking)!

It may be just as simple as that and many athletes have successfully completed the race without any thought of a structured feeding plan and just used common sense, experience (not always) and perhaps a bit of luck. There’s nothing wrong with this and if it works for you then great. But I’ve read a number of blogs and talked to paddlers where DW competitors have suffered from not eating the right things often enough and some of this is the result of a casual, hit-and-miss approach to feeding.

One way to ensure that paddlers consume enough food to provide the calories necessary for fuel and energy is to make a simple plan of what they should be taking on, when and where. A written plan would be invaluable to inexperienced Bank Support teams who are often recruited at short notice prior to the race. They are full of enthusiasm and keen to help but need to be instructed on what to do and how to behave. They would be far more effective if they had clear and concise directions on which food to have ready and to ensure that the paddlers had at least the minimum when they meet at each portage.

This is especially important on the senior race. In the wee small hours of the morning, paddlers are sometimes reluctant and can refuse point-blank to eat. The feeding plan can be used as a “weapon” to force the paddlers to eat as they will have “signed-up to it”. If that fails, then direct violence is the only option!

If paddlers run out of fuel then they are in trouble and it’s hard to recover from that type of situation. Most endurance athletes will have experienced “hitting the wall” or “bonking” as we call it in the cycle sport world. (titter yeah not!) It’s a weird feeling, you are convinced that you’re putting in the effort but you don’t seem to making any progress.

“The simple explanation for its occurrence is that long-endurance exercise depletes the body’s store of glycogen, which produces the energy required to maintain performance. When the glycogen depletes entirely, the body has no more fuel and instead burns fat, resulting in a surge of fatigue and a performance collapse.” Source: Bikeradar.com

According to the Science in Sport (SiS) web site, a cyclist needs 60-80 grams of carbs with 500-1000ml liquid per hour as cycling is prone to sweating. I would suggest that canoeing is a harder effort than cycling (unless going uphill) because there is no opportunity to free-wheel so I’ll use the 80 grams upper threshold.

In April we are not likely to be sweating much (although that is not guaranteed), so it’s a case of taking on enough fluid to maintain hydration but not too much that you require the loo too often. This balance can only be determined through experience as we all sweat differently and we hope to use the Waterside series to set a benchmark, but I’ll use 500 ml as a guide.

Carbohydrate is the best source of energy for endurance events and a guideline as to the amount of carbs delivered by certain food products is:

• A 65g SiS GO Energy Bar contains about 40 grams of carbohydrate.
• A 50g Sachet of SiS GO Energy delivers about 36 grams of carbohydrate per 500 ml serving.
• A SiS GO Isotonic Gel contains about 20 grams of carbohydrate.
• 36g of Jelly Babies (about 6 pieces) contains about 28 grams of carbohydrate.
• A medium size banana has about 23 grams of carbohydrate.
• Homemade marmite sandwich, 2 rounds of white bread plus margarine has about 30 grams of carbohydrate.

To create a combination of food stuffs in sufficient quantity to meet the 80 grams/hour requirement seems quite easy, but you have to consider how long it takes from eating and digestion, to the time it is actually converted to useable fuel to ensure it “kicks-in” when you expect and there are no “gaps”. Basically simple carbohydrates are converted quickly whilst complex carbohydrates are more “slow burning”. So there doesn’t seem much point eating complex carbohydrates in the last hour because by the time they are converted to energy, the race is over.

I have devised a simple schematic of a feeding plan. I’m not saying it’s right because I haven’t tested it, but if I can set something up based on science and logic rather than guess work, I at least have a formal starting point to make managed changes based on testing and analysis.

The timeline is for a single seven hour effort broken down into the minimum 80 grams of carbs and the type of carbs required per hour.

Minimum fuel requirement

Minimum fuel requirement

The rationale behind this is:

• Normal high complex-carbohydrate food the night before (pasta, baked potato, rice etc).
• Nothing pre-start due to nerves!
• Minimum 80 grams carbohydrates per hour. At least one energy bar and up to half litre of fluid plus anything else.
• Flip to electrolyte drink in hour three to break monotony, re-hydrate and replenish trace electrolytes.
• Change from bars to gels for the last two hours for faster energy return.
• Caffeine gel in last hour to get final boost before finish.
• Water in the last hour if the paddler is sick of additives!
• Recovery shake straight after paddling plus protein bars.
• Back to normal food to prepare for the next day.

Ideally food should be taken frequently in small amounts to maintain a constant flow of fuel. But the main logistical constraint is the challenge of getting access to the paddler at the portages.

Consider day one of DW, Devizes to Newbury, 35 portages in 34 miles. So that’s one portage per mile isn’t it? NO! There are no portages for the first 15 miles (but there are bridges) and that’s nearly three hours. Some of the locks are so close together they are considered a single portage and those that can be supported are infrequent and not evenly spaced apart.

So based on a 5 mile/hour speed, the number of times a vehicle-based Bank Support team can get to the paddler is:

The left scale is miles and the right scale is hours. Each access point is named plus the distance into the race.

Feeding opportunities

Feeding opportunities

It isn’t many. So the majority of the calorie intake will be through fluid as this is what the paddler can access the easiest whilst paddling through a drinking system.

There is a limit to what the paddler can eat, will want to eat, or have time to eat at the portages where there can be supported. This can be supplemented with paddler self-support but they must be “trusted” to take on nourishment.

On day two there are about 10 access points over 36 miles and on day three about 9 over 38 miles assuming that the Bank Support can get timely access. Obviously the tideway on day four has no access points.

The point of this narrative is to illustrate how important it is to have a feeding strategy with contingency plans to mitigate the potential risks if a feeding stop is missed or the paddler’s performance starts to drop as an indication of fuel starvation.

My plan is to support the paddlers by bike and attempt to feed little and often.

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