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Nutrition for an Atlantic row

One of my latest projects is with a Cornish team rowing the Atlantic next year. This is a 50 day journey where the crew row 2 hours on, 2 hours off ceaselessly.


50 days at sea with 12 hours of exercise a day clearly has some unique nutritional challenges.


Through this post I will discuss the nutritional factors which need to be managed and my suggestions to train for the event.


Atlantic rowing team and sports nutrition advice


 

Sections


 

Nutrition challenges of an Atlantic row


Firstly, all nutrition must be held on the boat. The main nutrition is going to be freeze dried meals. After 50 days I expect the palatability of these to be reduced; decreasing the amount of nutrition the crew are able to consume.


Freeze dried food is often low nutrient density due to the main ingredient being water. This presents a challenge to meet requirements.


dried meals for atlantic row nutrition

Leading nicely into the next challenge. With such high physical activity levels, energy requirements are extremely high. In Ben Fogles books he estimates he was using 10,000kcal a day when he rowed the Atlantic in a double with James Cracknell. This high expenditure, combined with limited food availability, means requirements will not be met.

 

What can be done to prepare nutritionally


With requirements not being met, the body will turn to its energy stores. Carb stores will be exhausted rapidly and fat will be used. The body doesn't normally like using fat and will complain to the brain. This will influence mood, concentration, hunger, gut transit times and other bodily systems. For this reason, it is prudent to be familiar with performing exercise fuelled by fat stores before the event.


Adaptation to fats depends on the individual, but research suggests 5 days to 3 weeks is required for adaptation. Doing this on land, before the event, makes sense to minimise the effects of the adaptation phase. I have written a blog exclusively on fat fuelled exercise.


In addition, the intensity of the exercise possible when fuelled by fats is highly adaptable by training. Ordinarily our bodies like to be fuelled by carbohydrates and fat stops being used beyond very low intensity exercise.



Training with low carbohydrate availability at specific intensities will improve the intensity fat can be used as fuel. I suggest this is the intensity that is used for the event (or lighter). The team are currently conducting tests to find the highest level of exercise fat is used for fuel (called FatMax in research). After these results we can develop specific training to drive this adaptation.


With such large energy deficits weight loss is inevitable. It is prudent for the crew to gain energy stores before the event. 1kg of body fat contains 7700kcal - 9000kcal, depending on the research you read. The crew could be losing up to a kilo of fat a day! In practice this is unlikely: metabolism will shift to become more efficient and reduce energy usage. Regardless, significant weight loss is to be expected and preparing for this with significant weight gain is sensible.


Weight gain is not healthy (unless you are clinically underweight) and, therefore, the diet to achieve this is not healthy. Anything you're familiar with avoiding because it is 'unhealthy' I recommend in this situation. In fact, as I've brought it up, I have a problem with labelling foods as 'unhealthy' as this term is contextual. In this context milkshakes, doughnuts and pizza are healthy: not gaining weight for the Atlantic row increases health risks and could be considered unhealthy!


This will also be good practice to learn skills to eat more. Nutritional intake will be difficult when fatigued and bored of the available food. Mental and behavioural techniques will need to be developed to maximise food intake.


When I was an elite rower I struggled to eat enough to fuel my 3 training sessions a day. I found the same when I cycle toured New Zealand. I ended up researching competitive eaters techniques. They stretch their stomachs in preparation with food and fluid. They also maximise intake in a 20 minute window before hormones make you feel full in response to protein and fat in your stomach. I have more details available on this on an instagram reel. These techniques may be necessary to maximise nutrition intake during an Atlantic row.

 

Some foreseeable issues


The Atlantic has potential to be rough. Seasickness could be a problem. There are pharmaceuticals which treat seasickness, however these have side effects. There are some foods which can help. Ginger is often discussed to reduce seasickness. Trials have used 8mg of Gingerol (ginger extract) and produced positive results. Other nutrients with a positive effect on seasickness are hesperidin, menthol, vitamin C.

Some behaviours can reduce seasickness. Stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system through breathing, listening to music or another relaxation technique can reduce symptoms.

Nutrients which aid seasickness

Ginger

Menthol

Hesperidin (citrus fruit extract)

Vitamin C

Bland, cold, low fat foods

Seasickness and the resulting nausea can decrease energy intake which, as I've already discussed, will be hard enough to achieve. Relaxing before meals times will help. Additionally, bland, low fat, cold foods are more tolerable when feeling nauseous. That sounds like I've just described the freeze dried meals, perfect!

 

How and when to eat on the boat


This will require trial and error. My first thoughts are food should be consumed within 20 minutes of finishing a 2 hour row. This is the most important time for recovery as blood supply is still high to the muscles and nutrients can be delivered to the muscles more efficiently. The muscles are also more porous to nutrients at this time. If it is possible to eat again before the next row this is ideal, but I imagine appetite and fatigue will become barriers to eating enough. Therefore, the minimum I suggest is eating immediately after finishing a rowing stint. This has the added benefit of allowing the 2 hours off to be as relaxing as possible.


 

Please comment any ideas you have to make nutrition in this event easier.

Follow for updates on the team and their progress.

See their website for more information and how to sponsor them.

 

Information sources

References

Burke, L. M. (2021). Ketogenic low-CHO, high-fat diet: the future of elite endurance sport? Journal of Physiology, 599(3), 819–843. https://doi.org/10.1113/JP278928

Burke, L. M., Hawley, J. A., Angus, D. J., Cox, G. R., Clark, S. A., Cummings, N. K., Desbrow, B. E. N., & Hargreaves, M. (n.d.). Adaptations to short-term high-fat diet. 4, 83–91.

Gaesser, G. A. (2015). Carbohydrates, performance and weight loss Is low the way to go or the way to bonk? Agro Food Industry Hi-Tech, 26(6), 35–38.

Nunes, C. P., Rodrigues, C. de C., Cardoso, C. A. F., Cytrynbaum, N., Kaufman, R., Rzetelna, H., Goldwasser, G., Santos, A., Oliveira, L., & Geller, M. (2020). Clinical Evaluation of the Use of Ginger Extract in the Preventive Management of Motion Sickness. Current Therapeutic Research, 92, 100591. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.curtheres.2020.100591

Rahimzadeh, G., Tay, A., Travica, N., Lacy, K., Mohamed, S., Nahavandi, D., Pławiak, P., Qazani, M. C., & Asadi, H. (2023). Nutritional and Behavioral Countermeasures as Medication Approaches to Relieve Motion Sickness: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients, 15(6), 1320. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061320



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