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Interview: Anna Ploszajski, distance swimmer

Dr Anna Ploszajski is a materials scientist, engineer and communicator, and is a regular distance swimmer. She swam the English Channel in July 2018.


What place does sugar have in your world?

Last summer when I was training to swim the English Channel, I needed and experienced sugar as pure motivational energy. There are two elements to this. You've got your energy input which is the sugar you're ingesting, but when you're swimming long distances in really cold water, you're probably expending about 900 calories an hour, and even the most dedicated doughnut eater would have trouble putting that away. So you're always fighting a losing battle with getting enough energy in your system. The way you try and win is by stopping every hour or half hour to eat food and take on liquids.

Lots of people like to have a hot, high-sugar, high-calorie drink to make you feel nice and warm. I use high carbohydrate drinks made with maltodextrin, a type of sugar made from starch, which is easily and quickly absorbed by the body, but it's not very pleasant. You also have a solid treat, like a bit of cake, or tinned peaches, or sweet porridge. Chocolate mini-rolls are a Channel swimmer's friend. They float, and the chocolate keeps the seawater out. Sweets provide comfort, childlike happiness and motivation, and you can really feel these effects and emotions on an endurance swim. They are bodily tangible.

The other aspect which for me is more important, is the psychological boost that the 'feeds' give you. The support boat crew will wave at you and you'll swim over and they'll pass over the snacks in a cup on a stick, and those couple of minutes are your moment of connection, encouragement. This nice little interaction helps to break up the slog so you look forward to each next feed. You can always swim for another 30 minutes. The two things get linked in your mind after a while, the sweetness and the human interaction. Sugar works on your mind and body.
I don’t see it as fuel, it's maybe 90% psychological. We did a 6 hour swim recently, and I did it all on squash and Jelly Babies, and felt brilliant. I didn’t need the technical drinks at all. Right at the end of my Channel swim when it was all going to shit, they switched me onto this ultimate energy drink which contained about 4 espressos, fructose, double dose of carbo-loader, chocolate milk. It was incredible and instant. You can pack a lot of sugar into liquid, about 50% by volume, but a lot of it was the imagination of it, a special potion made for me by the boat pilot as well as the warm bodily sugar rush. Sugar structures the whole swim; the crew can support and control your progress with the timed feeds.

What is the most interesting thing that sugar does?

I've noticed the textural and sensory aspects of the sugar in your mouth and throat really helps as an antidote to the horrible salt water in there all the rest of the time. Some foods are better at doing that, for example tinned peaches are a relief in all that gooey syrup, and Jelly Babies are the best; you chew them up to make a sugary gel which coats your mouth for 5-10 minutes. When you're swimming you keep slimy strings of melted Jelly Baby in there for as long as possible to protect your tongue and gullet from getting pickled. I've realised I swim with my mouth open most of the time, so I still ended up with a tongue that looked like a cauliflower.


Swimming provisions

How does sugar relate to power?

The power you get from sugar is based on your body's biochemistry - if you're taking on 300 calories an hour, you have 2000 calories of glycogen in your liver, and you burn 14,000 calories in a channel swim. If you do the maths you will run out of energy - that's when you "hit the wall", after 3 to 4 hours you feel terrible and can't carry on. You recognise that if you do it regularly. It manifests itself in weakness but also in anger, and despair. American runners call it "bonking". Your body has run out of quick access carbs, so at that point your metabolism switches to burning fat, which is a greater store of energy; the average person will have about 150,000 calories of energy in stored fat, which is plan B after carbs.

There's a school of spots nutritionists who believe that if you are going to do that anyway you might as well prepare for it by eating a high fat, low carb diet in the run up to a distance event so you don't experience the wall. You can drink fatty energy drinks that enable fat burning. But to me, what is life without Jelly Babies! So I didn’t bother with that, because I need the psychological treat. On the Channel swim I hit the wall 8 hours in, which corresponded with the spring tide turning - like swimming on a treadmill - and I got very angry and shouted at everyone on the boat. But my pilot had predicted this meltdown; it's literally the carb crash metabolism switch kicking in.

Does your knowledge affect what you eat day-to-day?

When I was training, I would eat whatever I wanted all the time - not worried about gaining or losing weight. It was all just about having enough energy to swim, so I gave myself permission to do whatever, carbs, sugar. If I fancied an extra piece of cake it was guilt free. I'm more of an intuitive eater than a nutrition or calorie counter. I assumed that if I was low in iron for example I would go get some spinach. I did have protein shakes after swimming. My mother, hilariously, questioned whether the shakes "made me gay"! Maybe she thought that getting muscles was related. I don’t know.

How do you feel towards sugar?

Extremely favourably! When I was training I was eating cake like every half an hour. afterwards I was consuming sugar at the same rate and realised that most people don’t do that so I started to cut down on excessive sugar intake, just in case it was doing me harm.

Where does sugar happen?

I guess for me it's in your metabolism and in your brain.

Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

Mineral. Even though I am a materials scientist, and I know its derived from vegetable, it just feels mineral. I always think of crystals and geodes.

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