There are few sports that place a greater demand on the body than cold-water swimming. Between using every part of your body and trying not to let your body temperature drop, it takes a special kind of physical and mental discipline to handle the near-freezing temperatures and the sheer effort needed to keep moving forward. One such person is Kate Upshall Davis, a vegan swimmer from Newcastle, England, who is taking on one of the greatest challenges in the sport, swimming the English Channel. Upshall Davis will be swimming as part of a six-person relay team during the final week of July, each taking turns in the choppy, cold water of the channel.
Upshall Davis, 39, has been vegetarian since age 12, when she first recognized the connection between the animals her family owned and the meat on her table, making the switch to a completely plant-based diet last November. In addition to running half and full marathons on both sides of the pond, Upshall Davis began cold water swimming in 2009 and has taken to the water across her native United Kingdom, as well a half a dozen other nations around the world.
With just a few weeks to go until her relay—which has taken two years to plan and train for—we spoke to Upshall Davis to find out how she keeps her body fueled on a vegan diet.
VegNews: How have you trained for the English Channel Relay?
Kate Uphall Davis: I had to swim for two hours in under 16 degrees Celsius to qualify to take part. You’re allowed to wear only a swimming costume, so I’ve had to get acclimated to the cold water. As part of our training, a group of us went to Estonia in February, where the water was .8 degrees Celsius. We also have to get used to difficult conditions, as the sea will be choppy, and there’ll be huge wakes from the ferries and tankers.
VN: While you’re in the water, you’re burning thousands of calories per hour. How do you keep up your energy?
KUD: You do burn a lot of calories, more because you’re keeping yourself warm. You need to have a carbohydrate-based diet for cold-water swimming, as you need the carbs to produce the body heat. I eat natural protein bars on the way to training. Porridge with rice milk and bananas is a good breakfast. I generally eat a lot of pulses, rice, tofu, and avocados for lunch. I also make smoothies with green vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, and pea protein because natural stuff is best. If you have too many energy gels and artificial energy drinks, you can end up with a bad stomach.
VN: What advice can you give to athletes who are considering going vegan but are worried about getting the right nutrition?
KUD: I would say go for it! It’s really not that difficult. It’s easy these days to eat a wide range of foods. I did do quite a bit of research into nutrition when I first went vegan, but once you’ve got your head around it, it’s straight forward. In the mid ‘90s, I was vegan for four years, but for a few reasons I fell off the wagon. I had to go to specialty shops to buy my food, and there were never vegan options on restaurant menus. Now, there are loads of choices in supermarkets, and lots of restaurants have vegan options, or even a separate menu. There are a lot more of us now, and there are Facebook groups to keep you motivated and to let you know about new products.
VN: What’s your next challenge?
KUD: I’m not really thinking past the channel at the moment, as it’s consuming my life. I would like to get back to running, though, and do the Great North Run again next year. I enjoy obstacle races, too, and am looking forward to a swimming holiday in Crete in October.
Trent Cannon is a writer, gamer, and distance runner with a passion for cooking and the environment.
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