Category Archives: Cold

Dealing with cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas – III – Black Rain

Part 1

Part 2

Ten minutes after briefing and the swimmers were lined up on Lough Dan’s so-called beach for the group photo seen in the previous part.

Sometimes writing about the minutiae of swimming is really boring. Sometimes such reportage can mask some other truth. Sometimes I think that the more I try to explain the less I succeed.

Unlike a marathon swim that can take multiple hours, the Ice Mile swim was short enough to recall detail of each of the four 400 metre laps, especially for someone who is used to trying to capture sensations for writing. But an ultra-detailed analysis can often be to see the paint on the building rather than the architecture.

Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws
Me at the start, sighting on the pontoon, taken by Vanessa Daws

The entry and swim out to the start pontoon was fine. I can get into extremely cold water comfortably after years of winter swimming and the 3 degrees Celsius (37.4° F.) at the edge was better than wading through ice as we had the previous year. Entry is easier when there is no wind or rain and you are swimming with others.

I relaxed through the first two laps. Almost certainly too much in retrospect. I was much slower than normal for the first 800 metres.

At the start of the third lap, I allocated part of my awareness as a monitor. Its only job was to check myself, my perceptions and reactions for as long as was possible. Cold slows and thickens the blood, cognition becomes impaired but the hypothermic person doesn’t realise this. Those movies where a hypothermic person clearly realises they must get moving or they will freeze are mostly nonsense.

By the third lap I had developed extreme pain in my hands and feet. Please remember I am used to really cold water, and I don’t describe that pain lightly as extreme. I began to get nervous about one of the lesser-known possible side effects of extreme cold water swimming, that of nerve damage to fingers (not frostbite). So I started clenching my fists and fingers hard during stroke recovery. I also put the pain away, walled it off. It was severe, but I’m a distance swimmer so it wasn’t relevant and I ignored it.

That penultimate lap hurt. So much.

Finbarr passed me. Everyone else had already moved in front of me though I’d been first to swim away from the beach. (I had swum to the pontoon to start, which wasn’t necessary, but I had wanted to so do). On the third lap I had reached the 75% distance that mirrored my 75% pre-swim confidence. I touched the buoy on the pontoon for the seventh time and started the last lap. I never took any notice of Eoin Gaffney on the pontoon or the kayakers or the RIB crew for the entire swim, except for the occasional taste of diesel in the water.

I was cold, then colder. Into hypothermia. As you know, cold is a word that holds no meaning in this situation, but I don’t have a better one. Unless you are cold water swimmer you have no idea what I mean, you just think your experience of an ordinary cold winter day is analagous.

There was pain, present but also distant because I disregarding it. Still swimming. Still focused. Hands quite extraordinarily not in The Claw. Still slow. I tried increasing my stroke rate. I couldn’t hold it for long.

Going down the seventh leg in the last 400 metres, the Black Rain developed.

The Black Rain. I have not heard any other cold water swimmer describe this. I have suffered it once previously. Spots before the eyes is a poor descriptor. It is more like a shifting rain, starting very light, almost imperceptible. Varying sizes, speed and seeming distances in front of me.  Just like rain, except its colour.

I touched the far buoy for the last time. 200 metres to go. Then the swim in. Okay, just the 200 metres to worry about. I knew I would make it.

The RIB was near. There was a kayaker beside me. I could not tell what or if they might have been saying. I didn’t really focus on them, and didn’t think to try. I didn’t think of anything beyond monitoring myself. Swim in. That was all. That was everything. The Black Rain was heavier and I was developing tunnel vision. Not a metaphor, but actual vignetting of my sight. The boats were near but felt far away, not really having anything to do with me, on the far side of a veil. Head for the beach.

Cold blood. Cold enuf blood becomes viscus blood. Viscous. Swim. Thick blood. Thick blood flowz slowly. swim. coLd blub blood Passes oxigen 2 ur brain slowli. always swim. keep swim. Your thinking. ur Thinking gets slowly. never stop swimin. never stop, never stop. never stop cccold. izh beach. shallow. stand. colm’s son. Mr Awesome. OUt. Dee. gEt Drest.

I didn’t need to touch the pontoon at the end of the 1600 metres. Since the beach was further away I had de facto completed the distance. Warren Roche and Tom Healy helped me once got into shallow water and stumbled semi-upright.

*

Despite the ever-encroaching cold, I had never stopped swimming, never stopped making forward progress, never lost sight of what I was doing. Years of cold water swimming makes a difference. Deeply ingrained habits and patterns and thinking mean everything.

The last two legs of the swim had taken both zero time and infinity. Time travel jokes become inessential when time itself ceases to have meaning. Cold is the universe’s ultimate time machine encased in the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Time, like my trap, is a mental construct of swimmers. Time is a beast, or a wall, something huge, not the little parasites of seconds and minutes. If we are close enough we can’t see it all and it either slips away or fills our sight and becomes meaningless.

Immediately afterwards the freight train of Afterdrop took me harder than it ever has previously. Many people helped me as I was virtually unable to dress myself, but especially Tom Healy. I was almost unresponsive. My memory of the fifteen or twenty minutes post swim is hazy at best.

I’ve had mild hypothermia more times than I can recall, like most cold water swimmers. We don’t call it hypothermia of course, we just say chills and shivers. It sounds safer, doesn’t scare others. I have been in serious hypothermia (by my scale of experience) twice before. I’ve had memory loss. Loss of motor control. Inability to speak, to walk, to drive. So I can with confidence say that this was the worst hypothermia experience I’ve yet endured.

I am thankful specifically for the help of Mr Awesome Tom and his partner Rachel, Nicola Gilliland, Alan Smith, Colm Breathnach’s friend Warren Roche whom I thought was Colm’s son. (Should I apologise to Colm or Warren or both?)

And of course my regular accomplice Dee, who didn’t panic either and is still making fun of what she describes as the manic rictus of my face post-swim. I think she’s mixing it up with my regular face.

For reference, you have seen me write many times that I am an average range speed swimmer. The Sandycove Island Challenge each autumn is a similar distance when including the extra Ice Mile start and finish portions, about 1750 metres when the water is flat.

My time for the 2013 Sandycove Island Challenge, which had similar flat conditions and was maybe 14°C. , and my best ever race lap, was 25:30. Course record is held by Irish International swimmer Chris Bryan at 19:40 or thereabouts. My time for the same distance Ice Mile was astonishingly over 37 minutes. That’s what cold can do to a really experienced cold water swimmer. For reference I am 171 centimeters tall and weighed 76 kilos for the swim and my resting heart rate the previous morning was 53.

I had stopped shivering and was recovered and was out and about for photographs in under an hour, thanks to heat, hot water bottles applied correctly, glucose, rubbing and all the techniques used on a hypothermic person. Core temperature took a while longer to recover, until about the time we were half way home, two and half to three hours after the swim.

Seven of the nine Ice Milers finished. Colm Breathnach and Donal Jacob pulled out at 1200 metres due to not feeling right during the swim. You should recall that Colm is already an Ice Miler and a faster and better cold water swimmer than I. Fergal says, and I agree, having done the same myself last year, that for a swimmer such as Colm to pull out during a swim displays self-knowledge, confidence and experience that others should take note of and emulate, and hopefully indicates to others just how seriously this swim should be approached. I have great respect for both swimmers for the decision they made on the day.

*

Given a choice between a "heroic" pic and this one, there was little option
Given the choice between a “heroic” image and this one, I think the truth is more important

Did you think it might be different? More macho or inspirational?Something with less…pain?

I can’t do macho. Don’t know how. King of the Channel in the late 70′s, Des Renford used a phrase “Doing It Tough”. I did my Ice Mile tough. Frankly and honestly in my opinion this stuff is too dangerous to load  macho bullshit onto it.

Winning ugly” according to DeeNot pretty”, she also said, (though that may have been a general observation about me).

Getting it done. No need, no plan, to do it again, I swam out of the trap. I wish I could swim out of other traps.

The Ice Mile was awful, painful and horrible.

Cold is such an insufficient word.

*

Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before leaving the surface. Be afraid!
Similar images of Finbarr are often the last thing many water polo and open water swimmers see before departing the surface. Be afraid!

Afterward:

Later after warming up my heart rate was elevated for a few hours. Two days later I developed muscles pain for 24 hours almost identical to what I experience after the first five or six-hour pool swim of winter similar to what Colm reported after his Ice Mile swim last year. It felt like lactic buildup aches in my triceps, lats, pecs, along with lower back and thighs. The aches over the kidneys lasted another two days. I had an unidentified bruise and swelling on one finger, when I rarely bruise even after impacts. Minor issues and otherwise I am perfectly fine.

Here at the end of Part III, I’m taking a temporary break from the subject before returning with reflections and thoughts on the wider context of Ice Mile swimming, with the challenges, dangers, frauds, difficulties and some recommendations.

*

Fergal’s  writeup is here.

Vanessa’s excellent video is here.

Ice Mile Dilemmas – I – The Trap

Sometime back in winter of 2010, Sandycove Island Channel swimmer and local legend Finbarr Hedderman and I discussed attempting an Ice Mile.  At the time the International Ice Swimming Association was very new and less than a dozen people had joined its ranks, and half of those were the founders. For those unaware of the Ice Mile challenge:

1) You are better off.

2) It’s a mile (1600 metres) swum in open water of temperatures of five degrees Celsius or lower, wearing only standard swim costume and cap. It’s pretty much as least as horrible as it sounds, and in probably worse. It’s governed by the International Ice Swimming Association founded in 2009 in South Africa by five swimmers. The goal for the IISA is to have the Ice Mile introduced to the Winter Olympics.

InternationalIceSwimmingAssociation_logo

In retrospect the best time for me to have done an ice-mile would have been the previous winter of 2009/10 when I was training for the English Channel and doing a lot of cold water and the Association had just been founded but unfortunately my time machine is temporally out-of-order. (Gee, I wrote a time machine joke.). 

I’m going to put an important disclaimer and reminder here early on, and a subject to which I will return. I cannot stress these enough.

An Ice Mile requires experience, training, planning and safety and support personnel. An Ice Mile should not ever be attempted casually, and for most people should never be attempted.

The temperatures here in Ireland are marginal in two ways: For most of the year the temperatures are such that only experienced open water swimmers are comfortable in our cool water. The other margin is that the cold winter sea temperatures usually hover about six degrees Celsius, just above the prerequisite five degrees to allow an Ice Mile attempt.

Therefore any Ice Mile attempt in Ireland usually requires co-operative (cold) weather and there are only a few usable locations, the most suitable of which are cold mountain lakes.

As those who read this blog last winter will recall, English and earliest-and-coldest-ever North Channel swimmer Fergal Somerville hosted on an Ice Mile attempt at Dublin’s North Wall in February of 2013. We didn’t get the necessary temperature, and I suffered significant post-swim hypothermia due mainly to a then-recent  weight loss of almost six kilos. I’m not a big person anyway so that was not insignificant weight loss. I turned down another opportunity just a week later to join others of my good friends and personal heroes Finbarr Hedderman, Ciarán Byrne and Rob Bohane in an Ice Mile swim in the Kerry Mountains.  A few weeks later Fergal again hosted another Ice Mile attempt, moving location to Lough Dan in the Wicklow Mountains.

That day in 2013, surrounded by snow and ice, my mind mostly elsewhere, I decided against swimming the full mile, ans swam half the distance, partly because of the very low temperatures; one point four degrees through surface ice at the lake edge. And partly because I was just wasn’t at all mentally engaged for personal reasons that weekend. I remember saying to Dee that I didn’t have it in me that day to mentally go where I would need to go in order to complete the mile.

Indeed I wrote here afterwards: “most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but [knew they] would come with a physical price. And I also know that sometimes pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do”. 

I’ve got a little thing I like to say when appropriate. It’s not poetry or memorable but I really believe it very strongly and it’s my own open water mantra:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

That day Fergal, Colm Breathnach, Patrick Corkery, John Daly and Carmel Collins all completed the swim and became Ice Milers, all excellent cold water swimmers.

Glendalough log MG_1374_01 (Unsharp 3.0).resized
Taken at Glendalough Upper Lake, hours after the 2012 Lough Dan Ice Mile.

It was unexpected that afterwards people both commiserated with me and congratulated me on my decision, even at the CS&PF Channel Dinner in the UK. I wasn’t at all bothered by not doing the swim and was happier with making a personal educated decision to not swim the full mile, (despite irresponsible pressure from one swimmer). I made that decision based on knowing myself; my experience, my physiological state and my thought processes.

One year later, in this 2013/2014 winter, which isn’t as cold as last year’s bitter season, Fergal and The Eastern Bay Swim Club once again decided to host an invitation-only Ice Mile attempt in Lough Dan high up (relatively speaking, our mountains are low) in the Wicklow Mountains. The actual date stayed flexible to allow for weather and temperature changes. but the third and fourth weeks are usually the coldest water temperature here. The date was finally fixed one week beforehand and I indicated I’d accept the invitation and made my final decision to go only 24 hours beforehand. But honestly, with the milder temperature, I certainly did not think we would have the necessary low temperature, nor did most of the other attendees. And I wasn’t at all bothered. A swim at six degrees would suit me fine and I’d be hypothermic afterwards anyway.

Now let me say, and this is also important and key to this whole thing, that I’ve changed my mind about the Ice Mile challenge over the last couple of years since Finn and I first discussed it, starting before last year’s attempts and solidifying early last year. I was no longer particularly interested in the challenge for myself.  I’ll get into those thoughts about the Ice Mile challenge later in this series.

So this was the context of my first dilemma.

I write about cold water swimming. It’s my favourite subject, my favourite palette, and my articles on the subject (index on top right of the page!) are part of what define Loneswimmer.com.

I love cold water, love that bite. But it’s Hobson’s Choice: We don’t have warm water here so it’s cold water or no water, love it or leave it. I also believe in trying to help educate about open water and cold water swimming’s dangers and benefits.

And specifically, I also know that I like cold water, down to about six degrees Celsius (42.8° F).

Sure, I can and have, swum in water of five degrees and colder. But I don’t (always) enjoy it. The balance of reward versus difficulty doesn’t really work for me unless I also reduce the time commensurately. At five degrees, 15 to 20 minutes is fine. (For me). At four degrees, I don’t like swimming longer than 12 to 15 minutes. I also don’t want to increase my weight significantly, nor do I want to push the swimming time limit weekend after weekend, as I would need to do and have previously done, to increase my cold tolerance. For most of the coldest winter months here, I generally swim anywhere from twenty to forty-five minutes depending on the day and conditions and month. I want to enjoy it, to explore my own mind while doing so, to feel what inspiration may come.

But there’s an increase in attention to the International Ice Mile Association and the numbers doing Ice Mile swims are growing, particularly in such areas of regular cold water swimming as Ireland, the UK, South Africa and the northern latitude American continent. I started to feel pressured.

How can we take Donal’s writing on cold seriously? He’s not even an Ice Miler“.

It was a mental construct and a trap entirely of my own making. Sure, I knew it for the fancy that it was. But I couldn’t shrug it off and I still felt I needed to do an Ice Mile, if only for the sake of my existing cold water writing, rather than any particular desire to achieve the target.

We do this, us stupid swimming apes, build imaginary mental obstacles and make them real, and sometimes impossible. I’m a master at it.

*

Allied with this was another dilemma, what I think of as The Paul Kimmage Effect.

Paul Kimmage was a Irish professional cyclist in the late eighties and early nineties. He was not successful and retired quickly and wrote a very good expose of his experience and the drug culture of cycling, including his own use of prohibited substances. He later became one of the long-term key anti-Lance Armstrong journalists and subject to one of Lance Armstrong’s more famous and vicious attacks.

Because Kimmage (of whom I am a fan) had not been successful in his cycling career and because he had exposed something that many cyclists didn’t want discussed, he was heavily criticised and even disregarded.

There are aspects of this challenge that I wanted to write about that I felt could be disregarded if I myself had not completed the challenge. Ironically, I had built that trap myself by completing the half mile swim last year. Had I said up front that I wasn’t at all going to even attempt that swim and proceeded from there, subsequent discussion may have been easier as I’d have just been an educated observer and commentator. Otherwise I’d have been one of the people who didn’t or couldn’t do it. So this really felt like a Catch 22.

I didn’t particularly want to do it, but I felt I would probably have to do it sometime.

Cold Water Acclimatization

This post was a companion to HABITUATION, both of which I wrote in early 2010. Since I revisited and largely rewrote that as Cold Water Habituation, my plan was to do the same in this post also.

Acclimatization (acclimatisation for those of us who forego the use of the z)  is a different factor to habituation.

While habituation is simply the process of adapting to getting into cold water, acclimatization is about a person’s ability to stay in cold water for longer.

(Acclimation is the same process but done in controlled or lab conditions).

In brief, as every open water swimmer knows, the more you train in cold water, the better you will be able to tolerate the cold, and the longer you will be able to swim in the water.

Acclimatization is a more difficult and often almost mysterious process than habituation. It takes longer to develop and longer to lose. It tests one far more, requiring a greater willingness to push ourselves.

I’ve luckily gotten to know a lot of cold water swimmers, originally through the Sandycove swimmers group, many of whom say you can think your way through cold, at least up, to a certain point. I know one swimmer and psychologist who helps people in this area, and stress overcoming the fear, that the swimmer should tell themselves that they are warm when they feel the cold, or to focus on different subjects, or to imagine they swimming in warm water, etc. These are classic sports visualization methods that are used to transcend different problems.

Guillamenes platform during winter storm, long exposure
The Guillamenes platform during a winter storm, (long exposure)

I have certainly found for myself that even getting into  6 or 7 º C., after the first minutes of pain, that I now have a definite whole-body feeling of warmth, (excepting feet and hands).

However, there is the problem that physics and the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. A favourite quotation of mine is  “eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over everything”. (Yes, I have a melancholy bent). However, this alludes to the fact that entropy increases and heat is lost in everything in the universe. As open water swimmers we are affected by such facts as:

  • One loses heat in water at 30 times the rate in air (thermal conductivity).
  • Heat loss is slower on sunny calm days than overcast windy days which strip body heat away even more quickly.
  • You lose 10% of your heat through your head, (in proportion with the rest of your body).
  • The ratio of heat loss is proportional to the volume and surface area, so larger people lose heat more slowly as the ratio of volume to surface area is increased.
  • Fat is an insulator and slows heat loss.
  • Insufficient food and fluids, alcohol intake, illness or not enough sleep all make one feel colder.
  • Pockets of changing water temperatures have a significant effect.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In a closed system, entropy increases. In the case of swimming, the closed system is the body, the air and the water. heat will flow from the warm body to the cooler water. You lose heat unless you input sufficient heat energy.
  • No-one is immune to heat loss or hypothermia.

Put all that together and all you get is what you already know. You get colder quicker in water, but the rate of change is dependent on a range of factors.

One factor I didn’t put in there is the mental aspect, because it’s difficult to see how thought (Werner Heisenberg & Quantum Mechanics aside :-) ) can have any effect on the rate of change of the system, i.e. how can thought slow your cooling rate? Many experienced swimmers will say you can think your way into extending your time in the water. I’d never been able to say this. I do believe that you can stay calmer, and accept what’s happening, which makes it feel easier.

I think that you get more used to being in cold, and you recognise your early hypothermia indicators better so you can push your limits more. You learn to swim further into your own cold experience. You get better at preparing and recovering. Some of those very experienced swimmers I know have learned to accept and box off the cold, realise it’s there, know the efficiency is decreasing but at the same time know there can be a long gap between the early hypothermia indicators and remaining period during which much swimming can still be done.

The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability
The simple positive feedback process of improving cold ability

There is also the case that with improving  habituation, that heart rate and stress hormones decrease, and therefore the person feels better about getting into cold water and less nervous. Less heat will be lost in the initial minutes, which also leads to greater capability. This is the positive adaptive feedback system that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The small improvements drive confidence, the confidence allows the swimmer to push themselves while staying more relaxed. The mental aspect of cold water swimming was the single thing I most struggled to understand in my first few years of winter swimming. It seemed too trite, too easy, without really saying anything useful. It is easy to say that mental attitude allows one to swim longer but it has taken me years of winter cold water swimming to really realise this, to integrate it and to try to convey it. To understand what it means and to comprehend the effect that thought has on my own cold acclimatisation and ability, and not least to be able to explain that better for myself and hopefully others.

It has not been a short journey. If I could do it, so can you.

Cold Water Habituation

HABITUATION was one of my very first posts, and the first post I wrote about cold and cold water swimming, over four years ago, little realising it would become my favourite subject. Although it is linked in the Cold Water Articles Index, I decided to air it out and rewrite it. (And change those capitals).

Back then I mentioned how I  had progressed in cold. I used myself as an example to demonstrate progressive cold water ability. I was previously a surfer, wearing wetsuits year round and thinking I knew what real cold was. I later realised I had only ever once been close to getting as cold as I regularly get as an open water swimmer after 30 or 40 minutes. I had been surfing for six hours straight with no hood in winter that time.

 I started swimming open water during summer, but wore a wet-suit for the first winter for very irregular swims, and I was still surfing regularly. Toward the end of my second winter of swimming, which wasn’t as regular as I swim now, I decided to do my first non-wet-suit swim of the year, which was in late March I think, only a month after what is usually the lowest temperature of the winter here. March is still very cold water. 

Ballydowane Cove across to St. John's island
Ballydowane Cove across to St. John’s island

I clearly recall, will never forget in fact, arriving at Ballydowane Cove on a cold Sunday morning, with chest high waves, and feel physical effects of profound apprehension, even fear.

I recall that first experience of 7 or 8 degree water like it was yesterday, and I swam for 10 minutes. Disappearing in the waves, and ending up swimming the short length of the beach, and taking ten minutes to so do, and having warned her I’d only be in for a few minutes, Dee thought I’d been drowned. It seems a long time ago. The fear lasted for the next few swims before it disappeared.

The process of getting inured to getting into cold water is called Habituation.

It is not special, it’s not a reflection of an innate ability to handle cold. it doesn’t mean or signify anything. It’s a purely physical response and almost everyone can do it. (Excluding people with cardiac problems or certain circulatory or cardio-respiratory illness or other underlying contra-indicated health issues).

It will hurt for a few seconds or even a few minutes. Increased adrenaline beforehand may elevate your heart rate before you get in the water. You will find it difficult to breathe the first minute or so. You may flail about for the first one hundred metres. You can just relax and float in the water, you don’t have to swim. In fact that’s what King of the Channel Kevin Murphy prefers to do in cold water.

But, you will also settle and relax and get used to it.

coldI know it won’t kill me.

This is a primary mistake that some people make. They think that other swimmers, (more capable or tougher swimmers than them, in their mind), don’t feel it. They do. I do. It just matters less. Of course I also feel the same about other’s swimmers capability. Somewhere is a swimmer who really is better at cold than everyone. It make be Finbarr Hedderman. Or Kevin. Or Fergal, or Lisa or Alison or someone else. But we are all on the same spectrum of tolerance, just in different locations.

When I wrote this in 2010, I’d just met cold water Sandycove legend and Channel swimmer Finbarr the previous weekend, river swimming in Fermoy in 7½º Celcius (45½F) water, in October. At the time of writing, I wrote that seemed too cold for me as a sudden transition  from sea swimming in 10º Celcius. And I had a few years of cold water swimming behind me already.

It made me feel like he’s good at cold and I’m not. But Finbarr is much taller than I, meaning an overall greater heat retention.  He is also exceptional in his ability. He swam 35 minutes in that temperature. I was seriously impressed. I’m sure it hurt him too though, just as much as a 10ºC (50F) hurt me then.

Finbarr's smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher's neck underwater.
Finbarr’s smile here belies the fact that his foot is planted on Liam Maher’s neck. Underwater.

In 2013/2014, I don’t consider that exceptional, and regularly swim the same or longer in that temperature. Of course Finbarr is swimming an hour.

The first few times you immerse yourself in very cold water will provoke a fight-or-flight response, elevating heart rate and stress hormones, potentially leading to anxiety or even fear.

I saw this with a friend recently when we were going for a swim at around 7.5º C. He hadn’t been in cold water for a couple of months so he was very anxious beforehand. He was utterly fine during his swim and afterwards.

Habituation just means becoming accustomed. In our case become accustomed to getting in cold water. It only takes four to six repetitions before the pre-swim anxiety abates and your heart rate to stay controlled. It become easier. The pain of immersion will decrease, though never disappear, and cold shock response will also reduce somewhat. Indeed there are few physical activities from which we can have such a speedy response.

More importantly, is you will realise that it’s not going to kill you. All the pre-swim anxiety will start to diminish. That the pain is not what you anticipated, that your imagination is worse than the reality. That every time you experience that initial response, you are reducing the power that cold may have over you.

You will start to see Cold in a different way, as a more intangible ghost over which you also have power. Until you too are part of this cult.

Cold Shock Response and the Mammalian Diving Reflex in cold water swimming – Positive & Negative Feedback systems

I read a blog recently about cold immersion and cold baths, and cold swimming to a lesser extent. The author was speaking about the positive physical and mental benefits of regular ice baths. Similar benefits to what we as cold water swimmers regularly experience. All well and good. For aspirant Channel swimmers without access to regular cold water swimming, the recommendation for cold showers and baths is old and trusted.

However in his explanation of what was happening in the body the author focused exclusively on the Mammalian Diving Reflex as the primary response of the body when being immersed in cold water and completely ignored or didn’t understand the effect of Cold Shock Response and its place in the equation. (I didn’t save the blog link, sorry.)

That blog wasn’t the only place you see this. If you search on Mammalian Diving Reflex you will see it widely referred as the (only) process  in action when people are immersed or submerged in (cold) water. It’s a classic example of people taking all their knowledge from Wikipedia, because it seems the same Wikipedia core text is used all over the place.

I’ve covered both before and as a cold water swimmer, rather than someone sitting into a cool water bath, and I’ve focused as  much on Cold Shock Response, and the issue of Habituation, the process of getting used to getting into cold water, (not the process of staying in it).

The blog author just cut and pasted a Wikipedia article on Mammalian Diving Reflex, and while the Wikipedia article wasn’t wrong, both it and the blog were incomplete from the perspective of a  cold water swimmer.

So what are each of these and do they interact?

While swimming in Tramore Bay the other day, the water having risen by a degree in two weeks to about 7.5 Celsius, I got thinking about these two responses and how one, Cold Shock Response could be considered a positive feedback system while the Mammalian Diving Reflex could be considered a negative feedback system.

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered about Positive Feedback in a biological sense in open cold water swimming. Previously I considered that the Habituation/Acclimatisation process in cold water swimmers could also be a positive feedback system.

The simple process of improving cold ability
The simple process of improving cold ability

In Systems Theory (and elsewhere) a Positive Feedback System is where a small change causes a further bigger change. Therefore positive feedback is often considered a de-stabilising process. One example might be the international banking system that led to the 2008 collapse: Increased risks led to larger profits which led to larger risks until the system collapsed. However positive feedback can also be a process for change or improvement: If you swim more, you get fitter and able to swim even more, i.e. the training effect. Or the more you get in cold water, the better you get at getting into cold water.

Negative Feedback is often considered a stabilising process, the most common example is a thermostat which regulates heats by switching off when it gets too hot, switching on when it gets too cold: Negative Feedback acts in the opposite direction to the initial impulse.

Cold Shock Response is the bodies response to sudden cold water immersion. It results in varying degrees according to the person’s habituation experience, primarily in elevated heart rate, and elevated stress hormones. It is the elevated heart rate which is dangerous, to lesser extent in the increased chance of cardiac arrest, but more commonly in the chance of aspirating water due to shock and subsequently drowning. Less habituated or experienced swimmers will note an increased heart rate and nervousness even before immersion occurs if they are expecting the cold. I noted some years ago that the first time I ever swam during winter without a wet-suit, I was literally terrified beforehand. Then the initial cold shock drives the heart rate higher. This is a limited example of Positive Feedback, where the initial is destabilised by something (cold) that acts on the input.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is another innate biological response to immersion. As the name implies all mammals exhibit this, human to weaker extent, but it exists to extend the time that animals can survive while submerged by reducing the need for respiration. This occurs in swimmers through two main biological reactions; decreasing heart rate (brachycardia) and therefore slowing the buildup of carbon dioxide in the body, (as excess carbon dioxide is what cause us to have to breathe); our constant companion, peripheral vaso-constriction, where the capillaries and blood flow in the extremities is restricted to allow more oxygenated blood to be available to the heart and brain.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is initiated when the fact is submerged, and this is the reason I have previously written many times that you should splash your face before getting in the water, rather than the incorrect but widely cited slashing water down your back.

The Mammalian Diving Reflex is obviously a case of Negative Feedback, where the body reacts in opposition to submersion to protect itself.

So we can see that there is both positive and later negative feedback in operation in cold water swimming, where the negative feedback occurs to stabilise and protect a human through adaptive physiological response. But the initial negative feedback of Cold Shock is very significant and should not be ignores, as so many non-cold water writers seem to do, as it carries its own significant risk factor.

The bottom line though, is that this is another way of saying, that ability in cold water swimming improves with repetition. Habituation improves much more quickly than Acclimatization. In a little as four to five repeats, people become much more comfortable with getting into cold water.

Now get out there!

The Worst Three Minutes

Over a year ago I wrote a popular post called The First Three Minutes, which investigated just the first few minutes of a cold water swim. (A real cold water swim, not your balmy 10 degree Celsius getting a tan (50F) water for softies).

We know, us cold water swimmers, that passers-by focus on the water and the time of year. They ask themselves and us, how could anyone possibly get into bitterly cold water in the depth of an Irish winter, without a wet-suit. It’s behaviour that borders on the insane to everyone else. It certainly is at best aberrant, definitely risky, beyond any conceivable reward.  The tourists, passersby and pass-remarkers extrapolate from their own personal experience of cold on land or an occasional cold shower and from that they believe they can understand our world. Or at least believe that what we are doing is a sign that we are lacking in something.

They cannot and will never comprehend why we do what we do and though I have explained why we swim in cold water, that explanation will only resonate with fellow cold water swimmers or similar adventurers.

I had long thought that those first three minutes though were not the worst three minutes. Nor indeed was the worst time during swimming , afterdrop or when enduring the usual mild or moderate hypothermia that many of us endure on a regular basis.

The worst three minutes occur at T-minus. That is, the worst part of cold water swimming happens before you swim, or at least, before I swim.

It’s a cold mid-January Saturday. It’s lunchtime, past mid-day, late for a weekend swim. I didn’t sleep much of the previous night, I’ve been oscillating into and out of insomnia for months now and the previous night I got almost no sleep, finally drifting off only shortly before dawn, and stumbling awake after a couple of hours. The morning was the cold wet grey that is Ireland’s other natural colour. On such a dispiriting morning the lack of rest sapped my desire to get down to the coast but I eventually bestirred myself and arrived at the Newtown and Guillamene car park about 1 p.m., with the car thermometer reading 2.5 degrees Celsius. The bay at least was calm but that only meant that the light breeze was cross-offshore which meant cold. Combine that with the air and the ambient temperature felt about zero degrees. Wind chill is a stupid phrase. Winter swimming is stupid.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain. Out in the bay the big Dunmore East RNLI Trent-class lifeboat was steaming toward Powerstown Head, quartering the bay. Dunmore East is about 10 miles away, the local big fishing port. The reason the Elizabeth-and-Ronald (as an entirely charitable organisation which receives no government funds, RNLI boats are named after significant philanthropists) was in the bay was to search for the body of a poor lost soul, likely jumped from Powerstown Head across the bay, two days previously.

RNLI lifeboat in rain P1020036.resized.rotated
(Thanks to David Dammerman for the camera! A friendly and generous gesture more appreciated than he maybe realises).

Down on the concrete, the morning polar bear dippers had all left. Just myself, the breeze, the rain, the cold. Given the rain I put the box in the single occupant alcove which I only use in these circumstances. I took my thermometer out of the box and stood there and looked out. Rain dropped off the rocks into which the alcove is hewn, the yellow-green algae and lichen everywhere seeming almost to glow in the wet conditions.

The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.
The alcove, the box, the rock, the rain, the algae.

Clad in my heavy winter coat I gingerly went down the steps to the water’s edge, the algae on the steps having reached a dangerously lethal slippiness since last week. The tide was almost out, so all the steps were exposed down to the final ladder. Spring tide, over five metres range between high tide and low tide.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide. 

Such was the surface underfoot that I had to use the stainless steel railings on either side. The steel was colder than ice-cubes and utterly necessary. By the time I’d measured the water (7.4 degrees Celsius, ~ 45 F., up three-quarters of a degree since the previous weekend but the combined air and water temperature was colder) and made it back to the alcove, my hands were painfully cold.

Zero degrees. Grey skies, grey water, breeze, rain, low tide, cold water, tired.

No-one around for a quick chat or  hello. A lifeboat in the bay looking for the body of another likely victim of the recession in Ireland. Grim.

I started to get undressed, pulled my freezing cold and wet togs over my bare luminous white arse, there being no-one around to require the towel-dance. Togs on, coat still on, I stopped. I just … stopped.

I stood there. In the alcove, my feet getting cold, my hands sore even before I was ready. So tired that I knew the cold would hurt more than usual.

It wasn’t the first time. There have been other days, other winters like this. Every winter has days like this. If it happens, this is the worst three minutes.

All you have to do either swim or go home. Nothing will happen if you go home. The world won’t end. Except, you tell yourself, or I tell myself, maybe this will be the first crack. Fail to get in the water once for no good reason, and maybe the next time it’ll be easier to not get in. Worse, next time, maybe it’ll be easier to stay at home. Maybe not getting in the water means it’ll be all over for me. Maybe I’ll lose the thing keeping me going.

I stood there, and there was no epiphany. It remained desolate, cold, wet and grey. No lesson about anything here. I imagined I looked grey because I felt grey. Pathetic fallacy writ large. Nothing new for an open water swimmer. Nothing to see here.

And then I finished getting ready and I got in the water and I swam. And afterwards I went home.

They think cold water is tough? They don’t really know what’s the hard part. The worst part. And this week there was no Reverie. There was just paying the price of entrance, paying now for some warmer swim later or some other cold swim, swimming in the bay watching the lifeboats searching for another soul lost at sea, similar to me. And like all entry fees, there’s a single person supplement. A lone swimmer supplement.

A temporary sandbar appears at lowest tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy
A temporary sandbar appears at lowest Spring tide beyond the rocks at Benvoy. Maybe I am the only person who ever walked on it. I walked around the edge so not to leave even footprints.

The Reverie of Cold

Look away, look away.

My head whirls, sentences and clauses. Words and incantations. I need to hold the intent, remember the state. I need to write. I have swum, and now more than anything, I need to write. More than I need people or food, more even than I need heat, I need to vomit out the words.

This time we run
This time we hide
This time we draw
On all the fire we have inside.

My foot is heavy on the accelerator as I drive homeward, the car’s heater blasting warm air around me, an illusion of warmth, my core temperature still depressed, and dressed as I am in four layers of clothes with a heavy coat, gloves and a wooly hat over all. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

I’m in a fugue, and I know I will soon forget. I am one-millionth of a second displaced from the world and I am untouchable and redeemed. That one-millionth gap is a void. Lone swimming ninja ghost. Invisible, alone. I have tunnel vision and I feel like I’ve taken all the world’s narcotics. But I will warm up and then I shall be returned from the Fey Lands, rewarm and forget the connection. Forget the disconnection. Forget the Fey Lands, forget the fugue, start to distrust myself again. I will become normal and insufficient and lose the brief Redemption.

The Fey Lands. Jotunheim. Tír na nÓg. Tuatha Dé Danann and Lachlanach. Celts and Vikings, on the edge of the World. They knew. Earth, fire, wind and water. Cold also is elemental, a succubus. I can only get there in winter, in cold, through cold, with Cold. There is no map, no Google Earth, no App for the Fey Lands. When we leave the Fey Lands we forget their existence. To remember is madness. Others have found different entrances, different landscapes, different climates. Hell is ice not fire. I neither believe in hell nor heaven. Ascetics, hermits, ecstasists. All pilgrims to the Fey Lands. I’m a pilgrim of Cold. Holymad. I approach by swimming, in cold water, enrobed by cold, into Cold. Soon the Fey Lands will slip away, my memory of their existence will attenuate and dissipate, I will distrust my own words, you will think me cracked, the ecstasy of extremism lost to my mundane failed existence. I will forget the reverie of the Cold. Pools cannot ever do this. Other people are masking agents that stop me losing myself to the Fey Lands. Chlorine and warmth are bulwarks, palisades that stop me throwing down heaven, bar me from finding the Fey Lands. 

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

Do this. Don’t do that. Be careful of. You are not allowed. You will fail. You have failed. I am not capable. I couldn’t. I was not able. I failed. I’m embarrassed. I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t write it. Bollocks. Out there I am invincible, untouchable, inviolate.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

I swim to the edge of the Fey Lands. If things are sufficiently marginal, I will glimpse them from the water. I didn’t know, I never knew, I never know that I am swimming to the Fey Lands. 

Cold water. Cold isn’t cold. It’s fire. It burns your skin. Fingertips sting. The soles of feet excruciate. You feel the entire surface of your body at once, you feel the entire skin of the waters and the world. The Cold possesses you, becomes you. No. You become the Cold. The holy Cold. No synonyms are required, nor sufficient.

The currents were strong. Stronger than in years. Not as strong as me. Not this time. All my years there I never had to swim to avoid that reef. Swept past the steps and the concrete, the water still wants me but I turn back, fight back, swim back. I know, know it’s enough and the time doesn’t matter.

Then I broke loose
You weren’t around
So I raised banks
And trains until I tracked you down.

Out of the water, the first glimpse of the Fey Lands is gone. I only know later there was the glimpse. Or was there?  Illusion. Delusion. I get dressed and feel great, powerful, more alive, more life than one body can hold. I have a window of time. An absolute learnt span when I must get dressed before the Freight Train arrives. Grab my box, shamble up the steps.

Fifty steps. Sea to world. Why fifty? Why does fifty seem important? I know. But I feel great. I’ll go for a walk.

Open the lock box on the car. Fire my stuff inside the boot. It’s here. The Freight Train is here. The Freight Train always arrives, inevitably. No walk. I’ll just sit into the car, turn on the heater. Warm air, warm clothes. I’m on the Freight Train. I am in the fugue. Shivering and shaking, the Freight Train takes me. What will the ride be like this time?

We made some friends
But now it’s done
I always knew that we would
Never find the sun.

Short but intense. The Freight Train isn’t a commuter train. No light shivers here, it’s a ride of clattering shakes and chattering jaw.  I don’t feel cold. I never feel cold. I never feel cold. You misunderstand cold. You walked in the rain and got wet on a cold day? I am a connoisseur of Cold. The Fey Lands are different. Your commuter colours are pastel shades but my Freight Train is primary hues. I am alive on the Freight Train. No nodding off on the Freight Train. No mere commuters on the Freight Train. The Fey Lands are around me on the Freight Train. I see them. You cannot. Are you a pilgrim too? How long will I be on the Freight Train, this time?

Afterdrop. Hypothermia. Cold. Rewarming. Mealy words, accurate but inaccurate.

I just realised I am, what do I say, cool? Chilled is the word. Not cold. Cold, that cold, the Cold, the fugue, is a different state. Cold is sacred. The fugue is gone, I’m off the Freight Train. I catch a branch line back. I’ve left the Fey Lands. 

The words. The words weren’t right. I didn’t hold the intent. The fugue. The Fey Lands. The Reverie of Cold. So easy to lose, to forget. People, hot chocolate, fingers on a keyboard. I’m just a cuckoo again. What are these words about? They consumed me and I don’t know. Did I imagine it all?

I shall just have to swim again. In cold water.

Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t. 

So look away, look away
Hide your eyes from the land
Where I lie cold.

Look away, look away
From the lies in the stories
That were told.

Look away, look away
From the love that I hide
Way down deep in my soul.

__________________________________________________________________________________

* Words by Chowning & Randle

HOW TO: Annual advice for a Christmas or New Year’s swim in cold water for the irregular open water swimmer

[This is a repeat of a post from the last couple of years. This post is pretty popular at this time of year, some editing to previous versions. :-) }

With Christmas coming, many people who would never consider getting in cold water will be thinking of a Christmas or New Year's Day dip.

If you are wondering WHY you might or should do it, apart from taking part in a local tradition in many places, the great craic of meeting lots of people having similar fun,  doing something that will add more flavour to your Christmas dinner than anything, having a hot punch at the Guillamenes and supporting a local charityand the club I love, then read this.

The experienced cold water swimmers will not need any of this information. And those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are enduring hot weather and warm water have my condolences. And there's the South Africans, for whom the water can still be cold down there even in mid-Summer.

Guillamenes Christmas swim 2007

I’ll be down at the Guillamenes myself as usual, with the people who never normally go near the sea. The weather forecast for Christmas Day 2013 is pretty poor, winds and rough water, which will reduce the numbers but I’ll still be swimming unless it blows out.

The most important message I can give you is that cold is a skill, not a talent so it can be learned. But if your first cold swim is Christmas Day, you won’t do learn it on that one day. So instead plan and know what to expect. You cannot be too careful around cold water and rocks. Three days before Christmas 2013, the water in Tramore Bay was about 8.5 degrees Celsius, with a very cold strong wind, giving an air chill of two to three degrees Celsius.

PLAN and OBSERVE:

If swimming by yourself, make sure you inform someone where and when and preferably have an observer.

* If it’s an irregular visit, your most important pre-swim action to make sure you know where to exit the water safely. Do not rely on the wisdom of crowds. Many of the people near you will know nothing and some will be acting macho.

* Watch the water before you get in. Regardless of the amount of people in it, if the water is breaking or surging more than about a metre, on steps, rocks or a ladder, the exit will be difficult, dangerous or even impossible.

* If you have been drinking alcohol the night before, don’t do it. Alcohol seriously impairs the body’s ability to deal with cold. The same applies if you haven’t slept the night before. Bravado has no place around cold water swimming when you don’t know what you are doing.

* Consider putting your swimsuit on *before* you go to the sea. You will spend less time getting cold before you swim.

* Make sure you have: a swim cap (silicone or neoprene preferably). If you only have latex, wear a couple of caps; a towel; goggles. And plenty of warm clothes for afterwards. Including a hat and gloves. Warm clothes are many light layers rather than a few heavy ones.

* Bring sandals or deck shoes. Winter swimmer Jack Bright points these are nearly as important as the towel.

* Bring something to stand on while changing. A spare towel, a piece of cardboard, a car mat.

* Forget grease. It does nothing for cold protection and you won’t in long enough to worry about chafing. If you are in long enough to need lubrication, you need none of my advice.

* Neoprene (wetsuit) gloves and booties will significantly reduce the discomfort if you are not used to cold. Wetsuits are definetiely NOT ALLOWED.

Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011
Newtown & Guillamene club members, Christmas swim 2011

BEFORE THE SWIM:

* If it’s windy, disrobe from your lower body first. Keep your torso and body warm for longer.

* Change as close to the water as you safely can. You want to reduce the time exposed before and after swimming. Make sure your clothes are above the high water line though.

* Wear the sandals as close to the edge as you can. The ground usually will be colder than the sea. Cold = numb = lacerations = blood.

* DO NOT STAND AROUND TALKING once you are changed. Get to the water.

* IT’S NORMAL TO BE NERVOUS. Your body is adapted to avoid cold. Just be positive. Accept the increased heart rate. Tell yourself you are a swimming god.

* It’s not a competition. Depending on your location there may be lots of people who don’t know what they are doing in the water that day. There will be 100s at my regular spot, whereas the weekend before there’s just me. Stay clear and watch everything. Move carefully.

* SPLASH WATER on your face before immersion. This indicates to your body extreme cold is coming (by which I include temperatures of up to 12C/55F. I can’t take someone calling 14C/58F cold seriously, no matter how I try). It will allow your heart rate to settle quicker.

* Just as you get in … tell yourself it’s warm. It doesn’t matter if you hear the sucking sound of body parts rapidly shrinking inwards. Cold is partially about attitude. Tell yourself it’s actually better than you thought: Hell, it’s almost warm. I was worried about this?

* DO NOT DIVE IN. Just don’t do it. I don’t care how tough you think you are. Unless you are a very experienced cold water swimmer this is a dumb thing to do. It causes heart attacks and rock impacts. But don’t stand there trying to get in either. Walk in to your waist. Splash the water. Then off you go. No more than one minute getting immersed.

RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim
RNLI Rib on duty for the annual Guillamene Christmas swim

DURING THE SWIM:

* Without experience it is difficult to get the face into cold water. This is normal.

* Cold stimulates the gasp reflex through increased heart rate. After the initial 10 seconds It makes breathing difficult for the first three minutes. This is also normal. And why you splash water on your face and get in slowly.

* STAY CALM.

* Change your breathing pattern to head above water or breathing every stroke or 2nd stroke.

* DO NOT STOP IN THE WATER

* HAVE A GREAT TIME. Feel like a hero. Do 10 metres. Or 20 or 50 or 500 metres. It won’t kill you. Probably.

After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.
After a very cold 2010 and very low numbers in attendance, the Guillamenes Christmas Swim 2011 saw a return of the crowds, with thousands of Euro raised for charity.

EXITING:

* Watch your exit. Be careful. It is at this point most lacerations occur on the feet, legs and hands.

* Get your footwear on immediately and get to your clothes.

* If the temperature is below 10C, you will likely be a vivid lobster-red colour. Your skin will also be tingling all over your body. You will go from pain to numbness. There is no in-between.

AFTER YOUR SWIM:

* AFTER-DROP is dangerous. You have only a few minutes before its onset unless you only in a short time. After-drop is the body temperature dropping after you exit the water. It’s not a problem if you are only in a couple of minutes, though that time is less if the temperature is 5C (40F) or under.

* DO NOT VIGOROUSLY TOWEL YOURSELF. It speeds up the arrival of Afterdrop.

* Dry the torso first. Dress the torso.

* Then put on a hat.

* Then dress the lower body.

* Then and only then, have your chat, your hot chocolate or soup.

FEEL GREAT, job well done!

Go home and stuff yourself, secure in the knowledge you are a winter swimmer, at least once anyway.

Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012
Swimming Santas at Christmas 2012

Related articles

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? (loneswimmer.com)

Cold Water Swimming Articles Index

Snow & Ice on the platform
Once you’ve swum during snow, you’re a true cold water swimmer

This post is an index with a very brief explanation of each of the specifically cold swimming related articles I’ve written, so one can scan the entire list for what is most relevant for their question or area of specific interest.

I was a bit surprised to see just how many I’ve written.

Articles sometimes tackle a similar area from a different angle, some focus on one small aspect of the cold-water swimming experience. This is a body of articles with which I’m quite happy.

If I could impart one simple message, it’s this:

Cold water swimming is dangerous, difficult and requires repetition to improve. No-one does it naturally or easily and knowledge is your ally.

By exploring the many aspects of cold; environmental, physiological and psychological, I hope to help you understand cold better and therefore become a more confident cold water swimmer. These articles therefore are intended to help swimmers adapt to cold water swimming.

It is really important to repeat that most of us are not naturally good at tolerating cold. (I certainly am not). Cold should be seen as something you train for, the same as any other aspect of your swimming.

The Ten Commandments of Cold Water Swimming. I am a prophet of cold water! :-)

The Golden Rules of Cold Water Swimming. For when Ten Commandments are too much.

Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming
Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming

Habituation. The process of getting used to getting into cold water. This is where it all starts and was therefore the first cold water swimming article I wrote.

Acclimatization. the process of developing tolerance for staying in cold water.

Introducing a Precise Open Water Temperature Scale. This site’s most popular article.

The Reverie of Cold. What I consider the best article on cold or maybe ever, that I’ve written.

“What temperature of water is too cold to swim in”. The most common search term leading into this site.

“What temperature of water is too cold to swim in” Redux. An updated version of the above post with a fuller list of factors affecting the answer.

I just can’t handle the cold“. Part 1Part 2 (What is the Vagus nerve and why is it important?), Part 3 (Fear). This is a phrase I hear a lot. Why this belief is irrelevant and why you, or I, are not special when it comes to cold.

WHY would anyone swim in cold water? Trying to answer the LEAST asked question about cold water swimming.

One of my hypothermia experiences. It happens to us all. That’s part of the deal.

Cold water and cold immersion shock, the first three minutes. It’s really important to understand what happens the body in the vital first few minutes of swimming in cold water.

The Worst Three Minutes. A not-often acknowledged aspect of cold water swimming.

How To: Prepare for cold water swim. Practical precautions around cold water swimming.

Prepare, Monitor, Recover. A short article on part of experienced cold water swimmers’ ethos.

Men, women and cold. Understanding gender differences in cold water exposure and tolerance.

Brown Fat vs. white fat. Interesting and very relevant recent scientific findings that have direct relevance to cold water swimmers.

Brown Fat. A revised version of the previous post.

Merino wool, my favourite cold weather clothes for per & post swimming.

The cumulative effective of cold water swimming. How it feels to swim in really cold water for many consecutive days.

Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree water. The second toughest swim I’ve ever done.

Christmas and New Year’s Day swim advice. Comprehensive advise for irregular swimmers in cold water. Applies to any irregular swims and swimmers.

coldExtreme Cold Water Adaptation in Humans. A five-part series trying to tease out all the various factors  of cold adaptation: Part 1 Asking the questions about individual variability, Part 2 (habituation and acclimatization), Part 3  (metabolic responses), Part 4 (further physiological responses), Part 5 (conclusion).

How we FEEL cold water. Concerning the body’s thermo-receptive response to cold water.

Always wear a belt. A lesson learned (and sometimes forgotten) about cold water swimming.

Peripheral vaso-constriction. The bodies primary physiological response to cold, in picture.

Wearing a watch. The primary safety device on cold water.

The important of stroke and the deficiencies of Total Immersion type swimming in cold water. Following the wrong advice for cold water is dangerous. Stroke rate is very important.

“Is the water too cold to swim”? Another different take on this popular question.

Winter. I like it. I hate it. The dichotomy of a cold water swimmer’s thoughts.

Come with me on this cold water swim. As close as I can take you to my experiences of swimming in cold water during the Irish winter.

Cold water swimming and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Another experiential post of cold water swimming, with some musing.

Understanding the Claw. What is the Claw and why do cold water swimmers get it?

“Where did my Claw go?”  Further discussion on the Claw amongst experienced swimmers, the Claw being a common occurrence for cold water swimmers.

How To – Understanding Mild Hypothermia in swimmers. To address hypothermia, it is best to understand it. Mild hypothermia is more common than not amongst cold water swimmers.

How To – Understanding Moderate and Severe Hypothermia in swimmers. There’s nothing moderate about Moderate hypothermia.

How To – Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers. Understanding cold for support crew.

Speaking as a Coldologist… Analysing (and debunking) a claim to cold adaptation through meditation.

Cold water swimming and alcohol. They don’t mix and are a dangerous combination. This is important.

Ice Miles: My First Attempt, Part One (The swim). My First Attempt, Part Two (Post swim and analysis). My Second Attempt. Ciarán Byrne’s report of the successful Lough Iochtar Ice Mile.

What is Cold Water Diuresis in swimmers? Another physiological response to cold explained.

The relevance of shivering in cold water swimming. Yet another important to understand physiological response to cold.

The Magic Number. A consideration of transitional temperatures in cold water swimming.

The Magic Number

Cold water swimmers have a finely tuned thermo-receptive sense, an ability to judge water temperature reasonably accurately, just from how it feels on our skin. It’s something that develops with time, experience and swimming.

As an experienced pool manager my friend Clare told me that regular bathers will notice a temperature difference in warm water of half a degree. So you can imagine that cold water swimmers will probably have a similar ability.

I’ve written and often referenced my Precise Open Water Temperature Scale, one of this site’s most popular articles. It was a humourous attempt to convey some of that precision and personal experience. And the search term that still brings people in for this subject and is another of the site’s other most popular articles “what temperature of water is too cold to swim in“.

We refine this innate temperature-sensing ability as a result of regular immersion and the training of various aspects of the physiological response; habituation lowering our pre-immersion heart rate and eventually lowering stress hormones, and acclimatisation improving our cold exposure times, and we also get better at evaluating our thermo-receptive reaction. Of course you can only say that water feels like twelve degrees, if you have an actual thermometer so that you can do the comparison.

In those previous posts I’ve deliberately not put a precise figure on the question of what is too cold, because there are too many variables: the person experience, height and weight, the ambient air temperature and the local climate, the wind, the person’s drive to swim and more. I once read a Philippines swimmer say that water temperature of 21 degrees Celsius was too cold to swim. Of course the climate and ambient there is not just warm, but hot. Relatively cold water occurs at a higher temperature the higher the air temperature. The burden of constant cold for open water swimmers in Ireland, the UK and some other locations such as the Atlantic coast of South Africa, having no choice but to swim in cold water, is also an advantage, as we must acclimatise.

Nonetheless it is a fact that here in Ireland and in the UK and many other places such as the swimmers of San Francisco or Chicago, there is a Magic Number. That number is ten degrees Celsius, which (helpfully) is 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 10°/50° we could call it.

The Magic Number comes and goes. It goes when we get it in November or early December when the temperature is dropping and there’s rarely any temporary recovery. Once the water drops to 10°C, winter is here and there is little impetus to try to extend swims.

On the other hand we wait anxiously for the Magic Number to arrive, for the water to reach that level after the six long months of cold. The cold isn’t gone but at ten degrees hour-long swims can occur, often much more. Ten degrees, fifty degrees tease us more. The Magic Number may slide up for a weekend or a week only for the water to dip back to nine degrees again. It will probably, in a normal year, make its first appearance in April and dip again in early May.

Cold Guillamenes.resized.rotatedLocations that were out of reach over the winter are once more attainable. Tramore pier and back or Doneraile Head laps can resume. I can start swimming to the Metalman or around Brown’s Island again, each year like rediscovering those locations anew. The Sandycove swimmers will be double-lapping the island. Our swimming range extends and the world grows large again. 

At ten degrees Celsius, fifty degrees Fahrenheit, the watery world is ours once again.

What temperature of water is too cold to swim in? It’s not 10°/50°. That’s the Magic Number.

The relevance of shivering in open water swimming

- Apologies to those email subscribers who saw this earlier in the week and are seeing it now again.

For this post, let’s take all the usual pre-swim and first three minutes stuff for granted.

You’re in the water. The water is cold. And you are cold. We start there.

Thermometer

The water is about 10° degrees and you’ve been in for say 30 minutes (without a wetsuit). I’m picking 10° Celsius for a very specific reason, that most people will agree it’s either cool or cold, but many people will still start to stretch out their swimming times at that temperature. So 10°C and 30 minutes is a compromise. It may require colder water and longer times for some, and shorter times and warmer water for others.

The day is overcast and a little breezy. Therefore you are receiving no external heat input from the sun or the ambient temperature.

Donal's Claw
Donal’s Claw

You have The Claw and can no longer touch your little finger to your index finger. You still have 500 metres to get back to your exit point and you feel you need to warm up. So you swim harder. You metabolise more ATP, some of which provides the energy to propel your arms and legs faster, and some goes to produce excess heat, which helps warms you slightly. But your limbs are really cold and it can’t warm you enough.

Brown Fat distribution
Brown Fat distribution

Luckily , you’ve been swimming in cold water regularly and you have built-up some brown fat (Brown Adipose Tissue, aka BAT)  on your shoulders and lower back. BAT doesn’t develop all over like ordinary fat but in those specific parts of the body. You don’t realise it, but the brown fat has also been burning calories specifically to provide heat for you, as unlike ordinary white fat, BAT is metabolically active. Ordinary white fat provides energy by being an ATP store and of course it also insulates. But BAT along with some insulation, burns ATP to produce heat, the blood flows through the BAT and warms up. This is known as NST, Non-shivering Thermogenesis. NST is not sudden, it starts when you are exposed to cold and the BAT is insulating and protecting you immediately, and also providing heat.

BAT ubduced denergizationMaybe you’ve forgotten your watch, or made a distance mis-calculation or the tide is stronger than you realised, and result is the exit is still 1000 metres away. And while the BAT is useful it also consumes your energy reserves more quickly.

A kilometre is a long way when you are really cold. Now you can no longer touch your little finger to your index finger. Your fingers are fully spread. You can’t swim at the same rate you were and start to slow down. And then you get a little shudder. And then another. And then you are shivering in the water.

Shivering is the body’s last attempt to warm itself. Like with any exercise, like with all your swimming, not just at speed, your body is burning more ATP again in a desperate attempt to warm you up. Like all your metabolic processes this is an ancient evolutionary step, from the eons  before we had mastered clothes and heat, even before we’d shed our fur, cold nights on the African plains. And here are, us stupid swimming apes, voluntarily shedding our learned advantages and protections and stepping into a lethal environment where we no longer have a natural protection. And all we have left to protect us from death by hypothermia is a desperate last little biological process. A biological process that evolved … FOR LAND. Not for water where direct conduction of heat away from the body is 30 times the convection heat-loss rate of air. This isn’t the normal shivering we experience during Afterdrop, because then it is helpful for rewarming.

In water, shivering is dangerous and accelerates remaining energy and heat loss.

Shivering will not heat you in water. It will not protect you. Every experienced open water swimmer will tell you, that once shivering in the water develops you are in real danger. (And that’s excluding the fact that you were already in danger merely by being in the cold water to begin). This on our scale, where cold water itself is low down.

If shivering starts, get out of the water.

If you have started shivering you should have already been out of the water. If it happens when you are in the water, you need to get out immediately. If you are crew and your swimmer starts shivering forget about stroke counts or cognitive tests or anything else, and pull them out immediately.

Cold water swimming ability comes from experience. It’s not a talent. It is a skill. Skills can be learned. Part of the skill is developing the knowledge and experience to avoid swimming until you start shivering while still in the water. The learning process for some people (like myself) is facilitated by knowledge.

Guest article – Ciarán Byrne – Lough Iochtar Ice Mile

As long-time readers will know, Rob The Bull Bohane, Ciarán Byrne and Finbarr Hedderman are all Sandycove Island Swim Club members, English Channel Soloists and very good friends. Ciarán and Rob are two members of our 2010 Magnificent Seven Channel training squad. All three are very experienced open and cold water swimmers, and are three of the people I most like and trust swimming with (when Finbarr is not trying to drown me). 

Recently all three took part in another ice-mile, the week prior to the Lough Dan Ice Mile and I’m delighted to have Ciarán’s account of the swim.  (I was to be part of the attempt but for various reasons decided against it). I’ll stress that these three swimmers have a wealth of cold water experience, and the helpers and assistants as you can see below also have great experience. The location was in the Kerry Mountains in the south-west of Ireland. (Lough is the Irish for lake, by the way and is pronounced “lock”).

*

Ice Mile Lough Iochtar, Kerry, 10th Feb 2013.

Ram Barkai from South Africa set up the International Ice Swimming Association in 2009. To become a member you must swim a mile (1609.3m) in water of 5.0°C or under. At time of writing there have been 51 recorded ice swims by less than 50 swimmers.

Sandycove Island Swim club decided to join the fun. We scouted the sea and lakes in Cork and Kerry. Through Rob’s Kerry connections 3 lakes about half way up Carrauntoohil (Ireland’s highest mountain at just over 1000 metres- Ed.) were identified which were accessible by 4×4 vehicles.

Lough Iochtar
The peak of Carrauntoohill on the bottom right, small Lough Iochtar on the upper left, Coomloughra Lough in the middle and Lough Eagher on the right respectively.

Rob, Finbarr and I agreed to try one of these lakes on Sun 10th Feb.

Leaving Cork on the morning of the 10th the weather was great. Clear blue skies ahead. We went first to Lough Acoose to meet the great support team from the Sandycove Island Swim Club. Lisa (English Channel Two-way swimmer), Eddie (Triple Crown Swimmer), Carol (Lake Zurich silver medallist and Irish Masters Squad member) and Pascal (Finbarr’s dad).

We met the Kerry Mountain Rescue team of John Dowd, John Cronin and Angela O’Connor near the water treatment plant. We headed up in two 4-wheel drive cars including the fully equipped Kerry Mountain Rescue Ambulance.

When we reached the first of three lakes, Lough Iochtar, we stopped for a look. Lough Iochtar is a small lake approx 300m long and approx 75 metres at its widest point. It’s at 440m elevation. There was a small stone beach near the road. It looked ideal.

The next check was the water temp. Below 5C. We were in business. The temperatures taken
during the swim were 4.5, 4.9 and 4.8C. Average 4.7C. The air temp was 3°C. There was a cold wind and the wind chill was -3C.

The altitude didn’t adversely impact our breathing. That was something that had concerned us about the location. We unloaded the jeeps and set to measuring the swim distance. We went for old school. Rob had brought a measured 50m length of line. Rob and John used it to measure out a 100M course. We marked the ends with fluorescent jackets.

DSCN0047.resized

The plan was to complete eight loops of the 200M course, which was marked 10 metres from the start, the ends of the course to be marshalled by observers. The wind was picking up so we got a group photo and then got changed.

Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three
Ice Mile team. Finbarr, Ciaran & Rob are the centre three

Eddie and Carol put on their wetsuits in case they needed to help any of us out of the water.

Lisa helped set up the GPS tracker on my goggles. We were going for high and low tech on this swim. We each had an observer to count strokes and watch for signs of hypothermia. Eddie for Rob, Carol for Fin and Lisa for me. We had agreed that if there was a sharp drop in stroke rate that we’d be pulled. We pre-arranged a signalling system to warn us when we had to come out. The back-up was that in the event of no response Eddie or Carol would swim in to get us out.

We got changed on the beach. One standard silicon cap, ear plugs, one pair of standard togs and goggles. A little Vaseline under the armpits for chafing. Pascal gave words of encouragement. We shook hands and set off. The large stones were sore on the feet. The water biting at the feet.

DSCN0050.resized

The first couple of metres were shallow. There was then a sharp drop off so we slid into the water and into our stroke. The experience in the first 100M was not unlike our experience in Tooting Bec Lido at the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships. The hands soon got icy cold. The arms felt tight at the stretch. The first 200M passed quickly. I had completed the Endurance swim (450M) at the CWSC so I knew I could go that far. However I was concerned that I was so cold so early. The next 200M were tough. My hands were as cold as they were in the endurance swim and I had another 1200M plus to go! Nothing for it but to keep swimming. Concentrate on the stroke.

DSCN0070.resized

Eddie manned the nearest mark and Carol the far one. Turning at the end of the 100M was a
challenge. Once you passed the fluorescent vest you had to turn in deep water. I had a near collision with Rob after the 600M turn. He had turned ahead of me and I was breathing to the right looking for the mark. No damage done and quickly back into the swim. After 600M I started to settle into the swim. I was closing in on the half way mark. I wasn’t getting any colder. My stroke was holding up. The sun had come out and was very welcome. After 1400M my feet got very cold and borderline cramping – I knew if I kicked too hard I would cramp. We got the whistle for the final loop. Head down and go for it.

I came into the finish. Fin had finished first, well ahead. The Lough Iochtar Monster. He came into his own in the second half of the swim and left us behind. Rob was in next and I came in not too far behind.

After the turn
After the turn

I tried to get in as close as possible to avoid wading in over the rocks. They were going to be painful. I was very unsteady on my feet and Pascal helped me up and gave me my crocks. Lisa was waiting with my towel. Carol came over to help Lisa get my jacket on. Then straight into a warm Jeep to get dressed. Lisa was great, organising my clothes, getting tea and making sure I was ok. Once dressed I got into the front into the heated seat – pure luxury.

DSCN0052.resized

We were all a bit unsteady on our feet when we go out. Fin didn’t need the car to get changed. He seemed unfazed by the swim and probably could have done a double. Rob got changed outside but soon joined me in the jeep and recovered quickly as well.

DSCN0056.resized

After about 20 mins we were all in good shape. The wind had picked up and it was starting to rain. We certainly got the best of the weather for our swim. We decided it was time to get our gear together and head back down to Killarney.

Selection_057

I’d like to thank the great support we got from our Sandycove friends, Lisa, Carol, Eddie and Pascal, Angela from Caherciveen and the two Johns from the Kerry Mountain Rescue. These events are not possible without volunteers who freely give their time to help others reach their goals. We believe this is the highest altitude ice mile in Europe.

Lough Dan Ice Mile Swim Attempt

Late last week the opportunity to make another Official Ice Mile attempt was offered by Dublin and English Channel swimmers Fergal Somerville and John Daly, this time the attempt to be made in Lough Dan, up in the Wicklow Mountains. Since the previous attempt I had already turned down another opportunity the previous week in the Kerry Mountains, (a report of which I’ll have for you soon).

I told Fergal I wouldn’t be able to make it, and that was still pretty much the case only 24 hours beforehand. However, after a night with four and half hours sleep, lying awake at five a.m., I decided I’d at least attend, and maybe consider it. And so it was that Dee and I left at seven a.m. for the estimated two-hour journey up. Passing Hollywood, (not quite like the better known, younger and more brash American version) we rose gradually up to the Wicklow Gap, and minus four degrees air temperatures with two inches of snow, staring down the long miles of the Wicklow Way to the dawn sun briefly breaking the clouds and shining on the distant Irish Sea. It was stunningly beautiful of course, and nerve-wracking to drive. We were driving almost an hour from when we encountered the first snow and ice before we arrived at Lough Dan just before nine-thirty a.m.

The Wicklow Way and the Irish Sea on the horizon
The Wicklow Way from the Wicklow Gap with the Irish Sea on the horizon

Lough Dan is a Scout and hiking centre and site for overnight camping in the snow, so there were many people about and most of the swimmers and crew were already present. One swimmer from the previous attempt would not be with us, having decided to attempt it by himself, and instead Carmel Collins, a Sandycove swimmer, joined us. We moved the cars down as close to the lake edge as we could, about a hundred metres, and proceeded to check the temperatures.

Lough Dan_IMG_1304.resized

3.7C
3.7C

The tiny bay from where we had lake access was about only ten metres across, and half-covered in ice. So it was immediately obvious the temperature wasn’t too high this time around. And there was no wind, which is important. My first measurement in the shallow water indicated the horrifically low reading of 1.4 degrees Celsius. I moved out along the rocks delineating the east side of the cove to get to deeper water and took a long measurement which read 3.7 º C.

Ice in Lough Dan cove_IMG_1309.resized

An Official ice Mile, as you probably know, requires water temperatures of 5 º Celsius or less, measured at three different locations, by temperature probes reading 30 centimetres below the surface. 

The swim course would be a 400 metre loop, beginning at a pontoon about 50 metres off the shore, and leading down into the lake and back, with four full loops required for the pre-requisite 1650 metres, with a little extra distance padding built-in for anyone swimming the full course.

RIB going in through ice
RIB going in through ice

We had a RIB (rescue boat) and a kayaker, a doctor and plenty of other helpers. Irish English Channel record holder and paramedic, Mr Awesome, Tom Healy, and his partner Rachel were also on-hand for extra safety along with others including Vanessa Daws, artist, open water swimmer and video documentarian of the Irish open water swimming scene.

(Note: I only met Tom for the first time in Dover when both he and Alan Clack were preparing to swim their respective solos on the same day). I met him and Rachel again the day afterwards, and I rubbed the tattoos on his arms. “No. they don’t come off” he said. “Actually“, I said, “I was checking if the awesome would rub off on me“).

Ice in Lough Dan cove
Ice in Lough Dan cove

We had to wait a while longer than expected before we could start, (and why that is, is a story I hope to return to soon in a separate joint-authored post with Finbarr Hedderman). I thought about the swim, thought about how little sleep I’d had in the previous 48 hours, about how my weight is only one kilogram higher than it was for the previous attempt, thought about how the water was colder than I expected or hoped, (4.9 to 5.0 would have been my preferred but difficult to achieve temperature). I thought about the 40,000 metre training week I’d just completed, without expecting this as the end and even the fact that I hadn’t been in the sea for almost two weeks, my longest absence in a year. I thought about my distracted mental state. And I thought most importantly about whether I wanted to actually to attempt the full swim, and decided I didn’t. I realised I was not capable of it that day. So I decided I’d (almost) certainly only do a half-mile. After all, it would still be a decent swim, in water colder than I’d ever had an opportunity in which to swim.

From left,Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel
From left: Vanessa, Fergal, Donal, Patrick (behind), John, Colm, Carmel

We had the safety briefing, and just after eleven a.m. Fergal, John, Patrick Corkery, Colm Breathnach, Carmel Collins and myself finally entered the peat-black water with Vanessa in her wetsuit and her trusty Go-Pro. I dislike slow entries, while I also don’t like to dive into cold water I don’t know. So wading out behind Fergal, I got my hands and face in for a good splash, let my breathing settle for a few seconds and then started swimming, while it was still shallow and everyone else started swimming virtually immediately.

Start, wading in, I'm into the water
The start, wading out, I’m swimming. The yellow pontoon was the start and turning point

As you’d expect, water somewhere between three and four degrees really hurts. I hope you didn’t expect me to say something more profound. As with all cold water it hurts most in the hands, feet and sinuses. It just hurts more acutely and more quickly. I seem to have control over the sinus pain this year, (I’ve only noticed in retrospect) and each year I’ve noticed some improved aspect of my cold tolerance. This water didn’t cause any stabbing sinus or face pain. But my hands and feet were immediately painful and the pain didn’t abate. And I was almost unable to kick from the start, as kicking when your feet are painful with cold seems to increase the pain. By not kicking, the blood also flows more slowly in your body. It’s not really a conscious decision, just one of those possibly individual quirks of cold water for me, though it’s then more difficult in the reduced buoyancy of fresh water lake to maintain a horizontal streamlined position.

Once past the left side of the tiny cove, I immediately went too far to the left, while most of the rest went too far right and we met at about 100 metres out half way to the buoy. Patrick, Fergal and I were together to the first turn, with the kayaker providing a watchful eye, with me inside on the turn. I came out of the inside turn somewhat at a disadvantage to Patrick, shall we say. I’m normally up for the full contact aspect of open water swimming, but this swim wasn’t one where I was so motivated. Patrick and I stayed together with Fergal in front pulling a few metres ahead. We touched the pontoon at 400 metres and turned back. Approaching the end of the third leg Patrick and I were still together and I was going to get caught between him and the buoy again, so I dropped back and swam over his legs to his right side to go wide around the turn, which allowed him to open up five metres. It wasn’t relevant, I was heading into my final 200 metres.

Donal finishing
Donal finishing

Approaching the pontoon again, I somehow got a mouthful of water, in flat water! Which made me splutter, and further confirmed my decision that today wasn’t my day. I swung right, and into the cove. It was very difficult to walk over the stones of the hidden lake floor with my painful soles and Tom Mr Awesome Healy waded out to assist my landing, such as it was. Dee and Carmel’s partner Gordon helped me get dressed, and we moved back the car. I’d swum somewhat over 800 metres, I was in the water for 16 minutes. I wasn’t obviously as hypothermic as I’d been after the previous attempt, in fact I was able to kind-of-jog back to the car.

Twelve minutes or so later Colm finished first, as always, followed by Fergal, Patrick, Carmel and John. Since we were back at the car however, we don’t have photos of the rest finishing.

It was a fantastic achievement for them all, and all deserve Congratulations: Fergal Colm, John, Patrick and Carmel. There were different levels of post-swim hypothermia but that is to be expected of course. The safety cover and assistance and help were excellent, top class in fact, with no worries about anyone. I recovered in about 40 minutes, unlike the much longer recovery of the previous attempt.

I have never been so happy with a decision to NOT complete a swim. I’ll repeat my favourite safety aphorism for you again:

Safety decisions are best made OUTSIDE the water.

I’d left myself the small possibility of attempting the full swim but I knew before I started that it wasn’t likely. My weight hasn’t changed much, I’m still lighter than in three years at least, but most importantly, I knew I was unwilling to dig into the mental reserves I knew I’d have to access in order to complete. I know how to find and access those mental reserves for swims but it would come at a physical price. And I also know that sometimes that pushing myself too far isn’t the wisest thing to do. The full mile would have been too far for me. It was a fantastic achievement for the five swimmers, as it is for all ice mile swimmers. By exiting to plan, I didn’t encounter, or cause, any of the safety issues that we’ve seen or heard about on a couple of recent ice-mile attempts in various location. I also had a fantastic experience by reaffirming to myself that I am capable of entirely making my own safety decisions for myself, regardless of what anyone else is doing and as such the day was an enormous success for me also.

You sometimes hear marathon swimmers say they swim to find their limits, and this was one of those times for me. I am very happy with the exploration.

Check out Fergal’s report on his blog.

(On the way home we stopped in beautiful Glendalough, where it almost seemed someone had helpfully placed a single washed-up log, ideal as a photographic focal point!).

Glendalough upper lake
Glendalough upper lake
Infrared hands

What is cold immersion diuresis in swimmers?

That is: Why you pee more during and after swimming.

Diuresis is the medical term for increased urination. Cold immersion diuresis is common to cold water swimmers and is the strong desire to pee after (and sometimes during) swimming in cold water.

As we have now discussed many times, swimming in cold water leads to peripheral vasoconstriction, by the cold of the water leaching away the heat of the blood vessels closer to the surface. The blood vessels constrict resulting in reduction of blood flow in the body’s extremities to conserve heat in the cold.

This reduction in blood flow to the periphery therefore actually leads to a quick increase in blood pressure. The body attempts to compensate for this increase in arterial blood pressure by relieving itself of liquid elsewhere. The easiest, quickest and least costly expenditure from a metabolic (energetic) point of view is urine. So you will often find as cold swimmers do, that walking into cold water even before you are fully immersed, you will develop a sudden urge to urinate caused by this blood pressure increase. And during a swim liquid also builds up in the bladder but without practice, they are unable to urinate in really cold water while swimming, many swimmers, even very experienced cold water swimmers will have to stop or momentarily pause to urinate. Also when you exit the water the demand to urinate can reach quite powerful levels as the muscles finally relax.

A consequence of this increased urination often forgotten is mild dehydration. Marathon swimmers in cold water, such as the English Channel are taking most of their food as liquid carbohydrates. The volume of water needed or used is generally close to one litre an hour, and because of cold diuresis, more of the liquid processed by the kidney, instead of being absorbed back as is normal, goes to the bladder. Part of this mechanism is that the cold suppresses the production of ADH, aka vasopressin, the anti-diuretic hormone that suppresses diuresis (urination). The swimmer urinates more, so the swimmer needs more liquid to compensate for the mild dehydration. And you have a self-sustaining cycle as long as the swimmer is immersed in tolerable cold water.

Thus … the well-nourished high weeds behind the Sandycove Island parking spaces.

Related articles:

Hypothermia mortality rates in Ireland.

Mechanism of cold diuresis in rats.

The Eastern Bay Swim Club Official Ice Mile attempt – Part 2 Post-swim and analysis

Part 1.

Post-Swim Events

I struggled to get my sandals on, then climbed the steps to my swim box to get changed. It was another struggle, as my swim box wasn’t against the wall on the bench, as the other guys had filled up the space before me pre-swim. Instead it was balanced on the low wall above the steps. And there were people coming and going.

Struggling to get dressed
Struggling to get dressed

Many of my carefully learned post-swim processes and timing slowed.

I’d brought too many post-swim clothes. But I got dressed, putting on ski-pants instead of trousers, easier to pull on and very warm, then received some brief assistance from someone behind me to get the difficult first top base-layer on, as I was struggling with it, as usual. Afterdrop was coming on very hard, worse than usual. I may have taken ten minutes to get fully dressed instead of my usual five to six minutes and I only wore Crocs and Socks instead of shoes. Patrick Corkery shoved my woolly hat on my head.

A severely hypothermic Ger Kennedy being attended to by volunteers
A severely hypothermic Ger Kennedy being attended to by volunteers

The crowds and my position were very difficult, entirely my own fault. I noticed one swimmer being attended to, wrapped in thermal blankets and clothes, surrounded by people, but I didn’t see who it was and I wasn’t focused as I normally would be at such. Only later did Fergal tell me it was Ger Kennedy, who’d been removed from the water a couple of hundred metres from the end after he’d grabbed the kayak and asked for help, unable to swim the final couple of hundred metres.

Patrick Corkery’s brother John-Paul helped me back to his car to rewarm, my car a hundred metres further on must have looked too far, as I was walking somewhat unsteadily. I stayed there in the heat for about 20 minutes. I was quite hypothermic, extremely slowed speech and even cognition. I rang Dee to tell her I was okay, she later said I didn’t sound normal. But do I ever? :-)

Fergal was so comfortable after his swim he had time to speak with one of his fans. He was actually able to speak!
Fergal was so comfortable after his swim he had time to speak with one of his fans. He was actually able to speak clearly, unlike me.

Eventually I moved to my car. Fergal, apparently entirely recovered almost immediately, drove us back to his house for home-made soup and brown bread and cake from his wife Mags. (The joys of open water swimming include how we can eat, returning to that time when we were teenagers and food can at every meal or snack become your entire world, with no guilt, no long-term ramifications).

I left Fergal’s house about two hours from the end of the swim, completely recovered and I had plenty of time to reflect on the way home.

Analysis

As the blood cools, it thickens and slows, the increased viscosity therefore reducing the oxygen available to the brain. Cognition is impaired. It’s why I’ve previously stressed so often the importance of repetition, of learning what you are doing when you are really cold. It’s why we make out safety decisions outside the water, not when we are already cold. It’s why following a plan is important.

When you are hypothermic, you are still you, but you are also very distinctly not you.

In retrospect, it was the second worst hypothermia experience I’ve had, second only to the  Blackwater to Cobh swim in 2007, early in my cold water swimming, when I’d had brief memory loss for ten to fifteen minutes afterwards.

The value of most of what I write here, is that I learn it all myself the hard way, and often make mistakes. And we all know mistakes often have more value than success.

I did complete the swim but it was maybe ~7°, maybe as low as 5.6°, not the necessary 5°, so it wasn’t a failure for me per se, but it was more difficult than I expected. For anyone experienced with cold water, that’s a wide temperature gap, as we all repeat to each other; every degree drop brings a new level of difficulty. This left me asking the question:

  • Why was I so hypothermic afterwards?

At home I checked my swim log: On the 1st of December I’d swim in 7.2° Celsius for forty minutes, by myself, and not been as hypothermic, driving safely away from the Guillamenes after about 40 minutes. Not that I wasn’t hypo, after every swim at the Guillamenes I usually spend about 20 to 30 minutes before I drive home, including the very short but very useful climb up the steps to my car.

Pre-swim everything was done right, I didn’t get cold, I’d eaten enough, I was a little short of sleep but it shouldn’t have been a factor.

I have written on more than one occasion that you can’t out-think the Laws of Thermodynamics, heat will always leave the body in cold water, cold will always win. The rate that heat leaves is based primarily on body size, body fat, cold water experience and movement. The first two are obvious physically limiting factors, the third doesn’t seem to be but is also.

Recapping the three aspects:

  1. The larger the body, the greater the ratio of volume to surface area, so the slower the heat-loss. It’s why Polar animals are large, for example.
  2. Fat is obviously an insulator specifically designed by nature to protect from cold.
  3. As experience in cold water grows, heart-rate and stress hormones decrease, blood is not being pumped as quickly internally so heat loss is slowed.
  4. I was swimming hard(-ish).

Since I have plenty of experience, and I wasn’t stressed about the swim, the problem could likely to be in the first two items. And this is where the big change has been with me recently.

Loneswimming
Loneswimming

Here’s that picture of me from last autumn, pre-Coumshingaun swim.

I’m not the tallest of people, 170 centimetres. No change there except as I get older, I must be starting to shrink! No, the fact is that since November I’ve lost about seven kilograms. In fact I am lighter than I’ve been in at least four years, having dropped below my pre-Channel training weight. My winter swimming weight pre-Channel used to be about 75 kilos, whereas I’m now about 73 kilos.

No disrespect to my fellow swimmers, but I am somewhat significantly smaller than all of them. Only Ger is anywhere near my weight but probably still 10 kilos heavier. I’d guess the other four of them had 20 to 30 kilos of weight advantage on me.

IMG_0152.resizedAbove is a photo of me greasing-up taken before the Ice-mile attempt. Since I didn’t know it was being taken, there was no belly-sucking, though I guess my torso is stretched, but both photos are from the side. I was genuinely surprised looking at the second photo how apparent the weight loss was (to me anyway).

Checking my log again, five days before that 7.2° swim in December, I was still 76 kg, three kilos heavier than now.

The other significant difference with Saturday’s swim was that I was actually swimming harder than my usual winter swims. That meant higher blood flow. I don’t know how to calculate the offset there. Swimming faster burns more energy and therefore produces more heat. But ironically that could have meant a greater exposure of warmed blood at the surface so it would cool quicker. I have no idea how to calculate the balancing factor here, but my feeling based on experience is that it was probably the smaller part of the story but at the same time, still important.

There’s yet another important factor: Colm was first out of the water at about 26 minutes. I was about 34 minutes. 34 minutes for 1600-odd metres is really really slow and I was swimming fast. And 26 minutes for 1600m is slow, especially for Colm. The return leg had taken us twice as long into the flood tide as the outward leg. All this indicates the strength of the flood tide we were swimming back against. Not the very best conditions if I was marginal on cold-exposure at that temperature.There could have been ten minutes extra swimming time. And remember also that I missed the turn, which probably added at least a minute. At this temperature spending extra time in the water wasn’t the optimum situation for me.

And I made another mistake. Earlier in the week I’d hoped to stay in the Dublin the previous night and hopefully have my sister accompany me, but she was working. Prior to the swim I should have taken a better changing location, knowing how hard it can be from experience AND I should asked for a designated person whose function was to help me dress afterwards.

I said to Fergal on Sunday that it felt like low 6° to me. A few days later Patrick Corkery told me he measured 6.7° out in the water on his watch, and swim watches almost invariably read a degree higher, even in very cold water, due to body heat (enough that swimmers often adjust for this). This puts the temperature potentially much closer to 5.5°.

So there you have it. I did the swim. I struggled afterwards. I made mistakes. Some factors were out of my control, some weren’t. At my current weight swimming in a temperature of three or four degrees for a sustained time is probably beyond me, but five might be possible.  The official Ice Mile is still waiting for me. 

Next time?

Next time I’d designate my helper.

Next time I’ll be more sure of the turning point.

Next time I’ll avoid flood tides for this type of swim.

Next time. 

Thanks to Fergal and John, Eastern Bay Swim club, Dublin Sea-Scouts, the other swimmers and all the volunteers who assisted.

It’s worth closing with a comparison, and a warning. The day before this swim Finbarr Hedderman and Rob Bohane of Sandycove Island Swimming Club, two of the world’s finest *cold open water* swimmers swam 600 and 800 yards respectively in Totting Bec in 1.8C°. Speaking with Rob some days later, he’d suffered some nerve damage, having developed constant pins and needles in his fingertips. Lewis Pugh on his zero degree Antarctic mile suffered fingertip nerve damage that took 6 months to heal.

I’m not all about constant warnings here, I only give the occasional one. But cold water is dangerous. Almost all these people in Dublin and Tooting Bec are very experienced cold water experts . I try to give you as much information as I possibly can about cold swimming to help you. (In fact I don’t think you’ll find more anywhere else). But there is still risk. I’m not telling you shouldn’t take risks, but try to balance the risks with your capabilities. That point where risk and capability pivot about each is different for everyone.

Eastern Bay Swim Club Official Ice Mile attempt – Part 1, the swim.

Most of the Sandycove Island Swimming Club were away in London at Tooting Bec Lido for the British Cold Water Swimming Championships at the weekend, living it up in the 1.8° degree Lido water.

Earlier in the week however, Dublin English Channel soloist, and North Channel Aspirant Fergal Somerville circulated an email from himself and fellow Dublin English Channel soloist John Daly, looking for anyone who was interested in making an official ice-mile attempt in Dublin Bay run by his club, the Eastern Bay Swimming Club. (Anyone that is, who was regularly swimming in cold water and had a good swim record).

Along the Bull Wall, into Dublin Bay
Along the Bull Wall, into Dublin Bay

And so it was that six of us assembled, with a veritable army of helpers and Doctors, volunteers, Sea-Scouts and safety crew, film-crew and photographers, well-wishers and looky-loos, at the outermost shelter on Dublin’s Bull Wall in Dublin Bay on Saturday morning.

The requirements for an official ice-mile are pretty straight-forward: 1600 metres in water that must measure 5° Celsius or less, verified using three different submerged thermometers, 30 centimetres under the surface. Swimmers swim under English Channel regulations; single cap, goggles and swimsuit, with lubrication sufficient only to protect against chaffing. The swimmers also must provide an ECG taken within 30 days before the swim.

The weather was very cold here for the previous two weeks but water temperatures had risen on the south coast. The previous Saturday’s swim at the Guillamenes was 8.6° Celsius, but the east coast of Ireland is always colder, and Fergal and John had measured 4° C the previous Saturday. However during the week safety officer and English Channel soloist Ger Carty measured the water at 6° C.

The morning was bright and cloudless on the Bull Wall, which runs from out in Dublin Bay back along north-easterly along Bull Island, marking the northern edge of Dublin Port harbour. Across the harbour is Dublin Landmark the Pigeonhouse power station. Measurements on Saturday morning indicated a temperature of 7° to 7.2° Celsius, well above the required mark, but there was no thoughts of us not swimming, treating it at least as a training swim.

Pigeonhouse Power station
Pigeonhouse Power station

I’d slipped off a rock while taking a photo for my blipfoto account earlier in the week and bruised my ribs and hadn’t been able to swim much in the pool, as I was hurting on  tumble-turns, push-offs and  backstroke, all aspects of swimming which luckily I didn’t need for open water.

I’d eaten enough that morning, and while my night’s sleep was shortish, it should have been sufficient.

Looking south across the harbour from above the Bull Wall toward the twin chimney's of Dublin's Pigeon House Power Station
Looking south (up) across the harbour from above the Bull Wall toward the twin chimney’s of Dublin’s Pigeon House Power Station

The swim was to be back along the Bull Wall toward the city, to just past the Golf Club. There were plenty of Sea-Scouts on kayaks and a safety boat also, and volunteers walking along the path watching us. The turn was to be just past the Golf Club and indicated by a flag on the wall.

The swim route. Nothing much to see here.
The swim route. Nothing much to see here.

At 10am we assembled in the easternmost shelter at the end of the wall to get ready and assembled on the steps at just before 10.10 am. I’d greased slightly under my arms, something I’ve haven’t been doing for  my recent swims, I seem to have finally gotten over the need to prevent chaffing for swims under 30 minutes, but I didn’t want any possibility of getting chaffed if I was really cold. The six swimmers were organisers John and Fergal, myself, Ger Kennedy and Colm Breathnach and Patrick Corkery, (Ger being the only one I didn’t really know), but all experienced open water marathon swimmers. We lined up for a photo beforehand, I was on the far side of the railing and struggled to peek out from behind The Wall of Men.

A wall of men. Big men. Manly men. What the hell am I doing behind there?
A wall of men. Big men. Manly men. What the hell am I doing behind there? From left to right; Colm, Fergal, myself peeking out, Patrick, Ger, John.

The water down along the wall was rippley but fairly flat. The air temperature was 4° C but the breeze felt cold and the wind-chill surely dropped the perceived temperature to about zero.

I’d been a bit nervous for a couple of hours the previous day, before I got over it. Sure the local temperature I’d been swimming in was higher and I hadn’t been training specifically for this swim, but I was as always swimming in the sea every weekend and I’d wanted to try this for a few years with no opportunity. I’d even had a sketchy swim only two weeks previously when a combination of wind strength and direction, swell and tide turned a 30 minute swim into a stern battle, that had been an appropriate training swim for this.

I felt confident beforehand, nice and calm, no internals symptoms of anxiety that would elevate my heart rate and make me get cold quicker than normal. We all entered the water just after 10.10.

The water was cold of course but nothing exceptional. No searing sinus pain, which tends to happen me when the temperature is six degrees or lower. Hands and feet were cold but not immediately on fire, no extreme gasping. All was good.

The swim group IMG_0183-resized

The group stroked off down the wall, Patrick out in front, Colm, a former national 400m champion, and probably one of the fastest open water swimmers in the country, quickly catching and passing the group. Fergal, Ger, John and myself together in a group before Fergal and I went to the front of the four, and swam shoulder to shoulder for a couple of hundred metres.

On the Bull wall there were plenty of people, volunteers and helpers and bemused morning walkers.

Fergal and kayaker
Fergal and kayaker

I felt great, swimming nice and strongly, breathing only to my right instead of bilaterally, to allow me put a bit of extra effort in. When I swim by myself most winter weekends, I just cruise. I rarely swim for speed, except for the final few hundred metres sprint. This time, I had upped my tempo a bit. Fergal and separated and he swam closer toward the shore and we each had picked up separate Sea-Scout kayakers. The water was very murky and sandy and my watch wasn’t visible, so I hadn’t been able to check time for the first five minutes elapsed. I hadn’t even started to look for the Golf Club or turn flag, when I realised I had passed someone on the wall waving 25 or 50 metres, and had paid no attention. Now the kayaker was shouting at me, which of course I couldn’t hear with my ear plugs in. I’d swum right past the turn point. I stopped and checked with the kayaker, and turned back. That was fast! Fergal told me afterwards we’d reached the 800 metres turning point in less than 12 minutes. Now turned, everyone was in front of me, heading back to the shelter.

Donal, left, and Fergal, right
Donal, left, before the turn, and Fergal, right, after the turn

My hands and feet were by now feeling painful, but not to the extent of the almost unbearable pain that occurs to me at around 5 degrees, the thermoceptors, the cold-receptors in my skin enervated but not quite overloaded.

I paid no attention to trying to catch anyone, I wasn’t treating this as a race, just concentrated on swimming, in case I forgot how. I was still breathing to my right so now I looking across the bay past the kayaker to the well-known twin chimney’s of the Pigeonhouse Power Station and the city and Wicklow Mountains beyond, the peaks still snow-covered after the foul weather all week.

After a long period I decided on a forward position check. There was a changing shelter on the shore coming up. It wasn’t the larger one at the end of the wall that we’d started from, but there was another one a few hundred metres beyond, hopefully that would be the end. Head down again I swim on. Next check I had still not arrived at the next shelter. Another swim, another check. The shelter was clear but it  wasn’t the end.

What i hadn’t realised, and was only apparent afterwards when I looked at Google Earth, is that there are only three shelters along the wall. After the very quick first half returning toward the start was much slower, and just getting to the first of the three shelters, only 300 metres past the turn took almost as long as the first half of the swim. Usually you can feel when you are being slowed by a current, but when the location is new and the water is cold it’s not always apparent. I still felt I was swimming quickly, but didn’t realise how much the incoming tide had slowed my return.

Colm finishing first
Colm finishing first

The swim continued as a plod onwards, hands and feet still painful but still manageable, fingers still in control. The last shelter finally became apparent, the white vinyl banner of Eastern bay Swim club on the railings visible.

Fergal & Pat
Fergal & Patrick

300 metres, 200 metres. I engaged my kick a bit more strongly. Slow progress. My hands hadn’t Clawed, I didn’t feel blown. And then the strangest thing happened. I noticed what looked like black dots in the sky when I looked skyward on my breathing.  Calling them black spots in front of my eyes would a bit too strong but very definitely noticeable and they were there for the final 100 metres. So I reached the railings, and exited the water.

In Part Two, after the swim and post-swim analysis.

Donal
Donal, always wearing my CS&PF Channel cap
John Daly -resized
John – photo of the day I think, he looks totally unphased

The Golden Rules of Cold Water Swimming

Thanks the people who responded with their thoughts on this list, Finbarr, Lisa, Carl, Jack.

The post on the advice for Christmas and New Year swimmers, all the other posts on cold water, well, that’s a lot of information. Sometimes too much. So I though I’d try to come with a short list of essentials. Brevity is not my long-suit.

270px-Bernard_d'Agesci_La_Justice

1: Swim in groups.

That’s rule number one. But you’re an adult so if you MUST swim alone, make sure someone knows where and when.

2: Plan your swim and your exit.

Most safety decisions (and consequently mistakes) are made outside the water. Decide your plan based on current water and air temperatures and conditions, not what it was three weeks ago. Then stick to your plan. If you can’t be sure of getting out safely, don’t get in.

3: Watch the time.

If hypothermia starts to take hold, knowing swim time, stroke rate and time to exit can be vital. I’ve previously said a watch is my number one item of safety equipment.

4: Stay warm as long as possible before you get in.

Once you are ready to swim, swim, instead of standing around talking.

5: Get dressed and re-warming as soon as possible afterwards.

Exercise is the best way to safely rewarm. Have your clothes ready for immediately after your swim. Do it before you go for your swim. Multiple light layers are better than one heavy layer. Showers and sudden heat are to be avoided.

6: Don’t swim if you have been ill, or drunk alcohol in the previous 24 hours.

Macho idiots don’t impress. Tiredness also affects your cold-withstanding ability.

7: Splash water on your face before full immersion.

Or walk slowly into the water. This gives you a few seconds to adjust your breathing to the cold, this makes a big difference to your first three minutes which are the toughest.

8: Don’t dive in.

Concussed macho idiots don’t impress me.

9: Wind is dangerous.

It strips away body heat rapidly, changes water conditions and currents, and almost all the rules.

10: You can’t out-think the Laws of thermodynamics. Given enough time cold will ALWAYS win.

Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming
Loneswimmer returns from the sea, with the commandments of cold water swimming, (and a nasty rash on his shoulders from not shaving beforehand).

Cold water swimming and alcohol don’t mix

A couple of days ago I noticed some incoming traffic from a discussion thread on boards.ie.

Swimmers there planning a pre-New Year’s swim mentioned drinking whiskey and swimming afterwards. I though they were saying they’d consider it. In the same thread they mentioned my post on advice for a Christmas and New Year’s swim.

I was annoyed by such stupidity. It turned out to be a misunderstanding. One of the posters contacted me to explain they also were neither condoning drinking alcohol nor irresponsible behaviour and were planning significant safety measures. Thanks to Paul for explaining.

This time of year remains a good time to repeat this reminder (along with the rare sunny summer holiday weekend).

I’ve probably swum skin longer, in colder water, than most people. I have repeatedly explained the physiology of cold water swimming. I didn’t write about not swimming after alcohol to fill space.

No whiskeyI have never, EVER swum after taking alcohol, not even once, nor has any other Channel swimmer that I know done so, (& I know a lot), and to do so is stupidity, not courage, and usually leads to someone more experienced taking responsibility for the person that does it.

I’m not generally about telling people not to do things, but in the case of mixing alcohol and swimming, think about the other people put at risk by doing so.

You can run across a road without looking and with your eyes closed and get across, but it doesn’t mean you’d do it every time. Most smart people would never do it.

And just because you’ve done it previously and been fine is not a meaningfull argument. If you do it, you also tarnish all responsible swimmers, because when the media covers your death, they won’t follow-up with the inquest results which will outline your stupidity as the cause.

Alcohol and water might mix, but alcohol and swimming never mix.

Why would you swim in cold water?

I’ve written so much about the mechanics, physiology and psychology of cold water swimming, but I haven’t addressed the underlying assumption thatare taken for granted. So why would you swim in cold water? (And let’s set aside any possible health impacts for this discussion).

In the middle of Irish summer when (or some years, if) the water reaches a glorious 16 Celsius, and hardened long distance swimmers can seemingly swim forever, it’s very easy to imagine swimming easily through the cold water of winter.

October passes with water temperatures between 10 and 12 degrees, where we still feel comfortable. An occasional day may even be warm.

November arrives with the first real days of winter from a sea-swimmer’s perspective. The water will almost certainly drop to under ten degrees, occasionally at first, clawing back above 10 C but inexorably the average always dropping. I’ve previously called the sub-10 degree decrease The Big Drop. If you are hardened though, ten degrees is still fine, you can certainly swim for an hour if you are acclimatised. But before the end of November at least one of the days that is real winter will unveil itself. Hard frost on the vegetation before you leave the house, or freezing fog. Having to consider ice on the drive to the coast.

The wind. That bitterly cold north or east wind that impales when you arrive and exit the car, instantly seeking out fingers, ears, exposed flesh. It leaves you cold and uncomfortable before you even get changed. The occasional visitor asks you in dumbfounded amazement if you are actually going to swim? I’ve had entire families stand around waiting to see me get in, assuming I’ll turn around and get out immediately, when in fact I swim off past the Comolees, out of sight, and they are long gone, back to their warm cars, before I finally emerge.

Years of cycling, running, surfing and open water swimming have left me convinced November is one of the worst months in Ireland. It is invariably one of the wettest of the year, (no mean feat in Ireland) and that couples with wind and cold, and suddenly shortened days to make it profoundly grim and grey.

The certainty of those summer days, when you’ve dismissed winter swimming as something you do with ease, evaporates. Each swimming day done becomes part of a year’s long process or project, but not easy. All the difficulties we forget, even in Ireland cool damp summers, return. We finally remember that there is a question that we don’t ask in summer: Why, given all the discomfort and even pain, would we swim in such horrible conditions, when the act of immersion carries actual physical pain, and continued swimming can (and probably will) lead to  hypothermia? Why do we put ourselves through that?

In summer and autumn we often even forget that question exists. But it’s manifest when you are balancing on a car mat trying to stay off the freezing concrete as long as possible, metres from a two metre choppy swell driven by an easterly wind, struggling into a pair of Speedos, while you keep a warm cap on to keep the wind off your head as long as possible.

December in Tramore Bay
December in Tramore Bay

There are two simple answers.

We’ve discussed the shutting off of blood in the skin and extremities; a swimmer who emerges from cold water will have the warm core blood flow back into those areas. While I’ve cautioned repeatedly about the dangers of Afterdrop, the sudden post-swim drop in body temperature caused by cold blood entering the core, the fact warm blood flowing back into your extremities also carries with it a sense of euphoria every time, the first powerful answer. Your skin and muscles tingle and feel powerful and you feel completely alive. And unlike any substance that produces a euphoric effect, you don’t need to keep upping the dosage. Once the water is cold, you will always feel a post-swim euphoria.

The second is also obvious in a way. Despite all the trepidation before a cold swim, the discomfort of those first few minutes, once those are past, when you are out there in the winter, knowing almost everyone else would never consider doing what you are doing, that itself is a powerful feeling. You feel strong, confident and even dare I say, invincible. Those are not insignificant feelings, and always easy to achieve. Something that makes us feel good about ourselves must be good, there are too many things in the world that make us feel otherwise.

In December the sunlight is lower, the light levels are poor on dull days, but some days dawn with a glittering intensity and the water is calm and cold and the air is clear and you are the only person alive in the world.

Why swim in cold water? Why not.

Understanding The Claw as a hypothermia indicator

The Claw isn’t a fist. With The Claw, all fine motor control is lost and the fingers spread apart, and the swimmer in unable to close them. Remember I’ve said previously that there were no muscles in the fingers? The tendons contract due to impaired peripheral blood flow and the fingers bend slightly, like a person imitating a cat’s claw-strike.

Donal’s Claw, seen underwater

For those used to cold water, appearance of the Claw is normal, and only experience by the swimmer can track its progression from the initial barely noticeable slight weakness in the little finger, who spreads out ever so slightly from the ring finger, so slight you may not notice it has moved mild to the state at which it indicates immediate water evacuation is required, where are fingers are spread and the best will in the world won’t close them. However The Claw is not a useful external visible indicator for others, only the swimmer can accurately determine both its presence and extent.

Above, after a brief 5 minute swim at Cap Gris Nez in, CS&PF English Channel pilot Paul Foreman shows peripheral vaso-constriction in the hands,as seen by the extensive white, of an non-adapted person.

With worst case Claw, when I am in my most hypothermic state, I am still able to hold a feed bottle. Also, as experience progresses some swimmers, (including me) report the incidence of Claw decreases, but all other hypothermic warning signs are still relevant.

In fact, Extreme Dan Martin had a very interesting comment here on the linked piece above when I wrote it last year, such that is worth putting here as it adds an important piece to the overall cold puzzle:

I spoke to a hand and forearm surgeon on a swim camp in Jersey and she said that it’s due to the nerve running through your elbow. Apparently it’s one of the closest to the skin’s surface (it’s the reason why hitting your ‘funny bone’ hurts/numbs so much). She told me that when the nerve gets cold it jams on and this causes the muscles to contract causing the claw. I think it now being there when it’s very cold is that we’re not in long enough to chill the nerve down as other things pack in first!

This would have to be the Median Ulna Nerve (thanks Ryan!), which passes under the Carpal Tunnel (which when pressed on too much, causes Carpal Tunnel Syndrome).

(I was going to link a video of fingers being articulated by retraction of the tendons in an opened wrist, but decided graphic surgical video content may not be your thing).

I say all this because I think it’s important to be accurate about cold and not rely too closely on formulaic solutions or warnings. Understanding is better than rote.

Where did my Claw go? (loneswimmer.com)

Speaking as a Coldologist…

Here’s a 20 minutes long video of almost nothing happening. You don’t have to watch it all. The  YouTube poster says:

“In this demonstration I show how using advanced meditative skills one can remain warm and comfortable in temperatures well below freezing.”

So the guy claims this is difficult, and that sitting without clothes in -4C is special. I thought I’d use this video to demonstrate something about cold water swimming (and debunk this guy’s invalid claims).

My experience is in cold water swimming, I know little about meditative bio-feedback, other than claims that it exists, and there may be some evidence that people can voluntarily slow their own heart rate.

There is also evidence from Lynn Cox’s Swimming to Antartica, than when tested in cold water, he core temperature rose. She makes no claims about special meditative powers.

Let’s start with three key observations of the video:

  • The subject isn’t moving.
  • There is no wind.
  • He has some fat around his abdomen.

Let me say:

This isn’t special. Many people could this with no training or aid.

In cold water, heat is dissipated about 30 times faster than in air. Last weekend I swam for 51 minutes in 48F (8.8C), without a wetsuit. I have swum at air temps of -3.5C, and in water temperatures of 6C for 20 minutes. Because it’s more difficult and dangerous than this video, I do that only through acclimatization training and I don’t claim any mental superpowers, since there are many people around the world who do this. And I repeatedly explain it without seeking to make it a mystery.

To recap, when the body gets cold, blood flow to the periphery is shut off to conserve core heat. In 5C water, much colder therefore to a person than -4C cold but still air, it will still take 45 minutes, maybe longer, to kill an untrained person, regardless off what you saw on Titanic or Wikipedia.

  • Without movement, blood flow is reduced and muscular thermogenesis is reduced. The primary survival method for cold water shipwreck victims, is to move as little as possible. Because the reduced blood blood, cooler blood can form a thermal barrier under the skin. Movement would ironically reduce this claimant’s comfort. By sitting still he dissipates little heat.
  • There is no wind, as you can see by the vegetation. This means heat loss is significantly reduced because the dissipation rate is slowed. Wind is the most dangerous factor in cold as it conveys heat away quicker. I’d give this more credence if there was an anemometer on view.
  • His build is pretty similar to mine, he may be taller though. Abdominal fat is ubiquitous for cold water swimmers, as it provides another insulating layer for the core.

What we don’t know: How much he does this. What happened off camera.

If he does this regularly, or even if this is only his 5 or 6th time, he has already passed the worst initial phase of hardening and acclimatization and begun a physiological adaptation. He may indeed have already initiated Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) growth, aka brown fat or baby fat, which is metabolically active and grows in response to cold expose, and provide further slight insulation but more importantly, unlike white fat, actually generates body heat. Also repeated exposure to cold decreases stress hormone production (though that is more related to swimming).

References for all my assertions can be found in the various and many articles on cold I’ve written here, along with my own experience.

Though I don’t consider this hugely difficult, (except sitting like that, my knees would give out, the sitting is the difficult part!), there is also what happened after he left the camera view. Though I cannot see this causing other than Mild Hypothermia (a core body temperature drop of 1 degree, we regularly swim into Moderate Hypothermia here), even if it caused moderate hypo, once he starts moving, he would have 3 to 5 minutes before any chills, shivering or shakes initiated, as cold blood flows into the core, what we call it Afterdrop. After I leave the water, I must get dressed within 5 minutes because after that I will no longer be easily capable. He could be hypo and you wouldn’t see it manifest for a longer period, probably until he was dressed and sitting somewhere warm.

But I doubt this was harder than a cold shower.

This guy may genuinely believe what he is doing is special, but that doesn’t make it so. I wonder if he tried sitting in -4 C before he started meditating, as a control, to see how he improved. We swimmers see how we improve because we can swim in cold longer due to training. But if we wanted to test this guy’s claims, we would take him, another person of similar weight, height, age and gender, with similar body fat % and NO cold experience and me or any cold water swimmer. And then see what happens. We could guess, but then we’d be making stuff up, like this guy. Simple rigorous testing and comparison instead of claims of special powers.

Cold isn’t a mystery. This guy seems to imply that it is. Almost anyone can do it*.

(Some exceptions aside, like heart conditions, Reynaud’s Syndrome).

Cold water immersion and cold-shock, the first three minutes

I’d hazard a reasonable guess that what puts people off real cold water swimming is not what I write so much about, that is, hypothermia and cold exposure over long periods. Instead I’d postulate that it is the thoughts and fear of the initial cold shock and of the difficulty and pain involved with immersing oneself and the immediate reaction thereafter.

It seems obvious that if you’re not used to long immersion in cold, then the initial pain is all you can relate to, and it becomes the whole story. I say this based on two specific reasons:

  • Conversations seem to indicate almost everyone seems to have an innate and visceral antipathy to the idea of getting into water as cold, or colder than, liquids in their refrigerators.
  • My own reactions (I am after, all my own best test subject).

In human evolution, we have lost much of the defences against cold that other mammals have. We have no immediate protection of either fur or significant fat to protect in case of sudden cold immersion. Instead we have evolved as tool-makers, and provide our own thermal micro-climate in the form of clothing. To go voluntarily into cold water without external protection therefore strips away the defences we have developed, casts us back a hundred thousand years, and we go into an environment against which we cannot win or survive.

Cold water swimmers are time-travellers, returning to a state from our evolutionary past when all modern physical advantages are stripped away, but we can still use the main tool, the primate brain, to understand what is happening.

Cold water, which in sea survival terms is defined as water as high as 25º Celsius, will always eventually make you hypothermic.

Before I get de-railed into another discussion of non-shivering thermogenesis (another day), I’d therefore say that our avoidance of cold immersion is an autonomic subconscious defence mechanism. Fire, heights,  cold, there are all environmental factors that could and would have instantly killed our ancestors, so we evolutionarily selected to be fearful of these dangers.

Along with this seemingly universal response, there are my own reactions as a trained and experienced cold water swimmer. I’ve been swimming in skin through the Irish winter since the winter of 2007/2008, in preparation for the two-way English Channel relay. Not as long as some, longer than others.

On a cold morning, even earlier in the winter, it is still not easy to start. I sometimes faff about for a while, watching the water, chatting to anyone around, fiddling with swim gear, all seem to be a subconscious avoidance mechanism. I finally get changed, and once that is done, I move quickly to the water’s edge. Because bad as it sometimes is to get in, staying out longer will only make it worse. I often find myself in those few seconds prior to immersion, whether at the edge or waist deep, standing on freezing concrete and steel steps, asking myself what the hell I am doing, dreading the immersion. And then unlike the summer, I need a few seconds to settle internally.

I’ve written before about the drop in stress hormone production that was key for me understanding the exposure increases in experienced swimmers. Though I am always a bit apprehensive prior to cold water, let’s set that arbitrarily today at about 8º Celsius, it hasn’t for a long time resulted in increased pre-swim heart rate. There’s no longer any specific strong physical manifestation of pre-cold-swim nervousness. But there remains a certain mental edginess. This is of course attenuated by the invaluable knowledge that comes to all experienced cold water swimmers: It hasn’t killed me before, there’s no reason to believe it will kill me this time. This sounds melodramatic, but it simply means that I have valuable experience, not that I consciously worry if the cold will kill me. However it is a fact that non-swimmers worry about precisely this fact. And if I, as a very experienced cold swimmer carry this nervousness, then it stand to reason that the less experienced you are with cold, the more that immersion shock worries you. I simply understand that immersion in cold water will hurt. It’s simply a fact, regardless of experience.

Back to me, standing there at the Guillamenes. We’ll assume a mid-tide, it’s not important, but it allows me to stand on the new metal platform below the steps. The water is up to my knees.

Stepping into cold water isn’t that bad. Walking down the concrete steps will make the soles of my feet cold. The rest of my feet and lower legs don’t have a high density of thermoreceptors, so there isn’t much cold pain. During deep winter, I’ll take a few slow deep breaths and ensure I feel calm. A last push on of my earplugs and make sure my goggles and cap are correctly in place. Then I splash the water on my face. Once that is done, I am ready and dive out.

The first ten seconds seem the worst (but in not in fact). For a new swimmer to deep water this is very difficult though. For cold water, relative to your experience, but the thermo-receptors suddenly start sending lots of messages to the brain, that are indistinguishable from pain. I’ve discussed thermo-receptors previously so we won’t divert there either.

So we are overwhelmed to some lesser or greater extent by the pain of cold sensations. By thirty seconds into the swim, we enter the most dangerous phase, cold shock. Humans have a mammalian diving reflex, which is an autonomic response to sudden immersion, which causes us to hold our breath, and slows our heart-rate and circulation. However cold water, and for this specific case, studies by Frank Golden identified this as water under 15° Celsius, the mammalian diving reflex is overcome by cold shock. Cold shock doesn’t occur immediately, but from 30 seconds to 3 minutes afterwards.

  • Breathing rate increased from normally around 10 breaths per minute, to 60 breaths per minute.
  • Your usual ability to hold your breath decreases from at least a minute to 10 seconds.
  • Surface blood vessels close down, causing a sudden increase in blood pressure.
  • Most critically, you may inhale or gasp, even if your face is underwater.

All these changes can lead to

  • Hyperventilation from the breathing rate increase, which can cause dizziness and confusion.
  • The increase in blood pressure can cause cardiac arrests or strokes.
  • Sudden inhalation coupled with these, can lead to aspiration of water, and drowning.

If you do not experience a cardiac arrest of stroke, there is still the possibility of swim failure, which can lead to drowning, due to water aspiration, weakness or confusion.

These are all the worst case scenarios, but all real and happen more regularly with boat crews. Regular immersion decreases all these possibilities and symptoms, but does not eliminate them. The Golden studies mentioned above show cold shock can be reduced by 50% after only a week of cold showers. Fitness also decreases the cardiac arrest and stroke possibilities.

If the water is under about 8° Celsius, I feel that real shock only after those first few seconds and it lasts long than at 10° or above. I don’t really fell any above 14°.  My stroke is ragged, and I don’t try to fight it. I deliberately flail and swing my arms. My breathing rate is elevated, I am not bilaterally breathing as I usually do, but breathing every second stroke, to accommodate the hyperventilation. I swim across the Guillamene Cove, 75 metres wide, passing Ballyheigue rock, following the coast. Once I reach 100 metres, outside the cove, I can feel, for me, the worst has passed. For others less trained, the difficult period will last longer. For those with little training at all, having got through this period, they may never reach a state of comfort in the cold, the cold/pain from the facial thermo-receptors remaining strong enough that they must exit the water.

Our fears of cold immersion are based on a visceral knowledge that sudden cold water is dangerous. We usually don’t know why, but the reasons are all sound. The dangers inherent in entering cold water are higher than of hypothermia, more deaths are caused by sudden cold immersion than by hypothermia, but are ameliorated by training and regular exposure.

So swim in cold water. It will make you safer.

Extreme Winter Swimming #1
Extreme Winter Swimming #1 (Photo credit: Andrey 747)

Related articles

Is the water too cold to swim? (loneswimmer.com)

What temperature of water is too cold to swim in? (loneswimmer.com)

HowTo dignose & address Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers. (loneswimmer.com)

Peripheral vaso-constriction in swimmers in pictures. (loneswimmer.com)

Come with me on this cold water swim. (loneswimmer.com)

Exercise in the cold (sportscientists.com)

First day

First day that was there was heavy morning frost on the vegetation.

First day that I thought about bringing a flask with hot chocolate (and then forgot).

First day that the water was down to 10º Celsius.

First day that I was certain it was too risky to swim toward Newtown Head.

First day that my sinuses hurt after diving in.

First day that I swam exactly 55:55.

First day that my thighs got cold.

First day that I thought about double-capping (but didn’t).

First day that I wanted wool socks afterwards.

First day that I realised the Amphibia neoprene changing mat would be too thin for freezing winter concrete and wasn’t designed for open water winter swimmers.

First day that I decided tying my shoelaces afterwards could wait until later.

First day that I remembered I need to start wearing a belt again to ensure post-swim trouser retention.

First day that I was walking around the supermarket afterwards with a bit of a chatter going.

First day that I was still chilly when I got home.

First day of winter.

LoneSwimmer … on the water

HOW TO: Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers

In a world of short attention spans, why write one post when I can write two three?  :-)

I had intended the previous post on Moderate and Severe Hypothermia to include diagnosing hypo in swimmers, and what to do when it happens. In fact that was how I started writing this series originally. And I’m not writing anything particularly original here. There are articles on hypothermia all over the web. What’s different here, I’d suggest, is that I’m aiming it at swimmers and swim support staff, and I’ve experienced mild and moderate hypothermia myself, like most North Atlantic open water swimmers. The things I do for you!

As we’ve seen, the effects of Moderate Hypothermia are exaggerated and extreme versions of those suffered during Mild Hypothermia. Violent shaking and shivering, great difficulty or even inability to speak, impaired cognitive function and greatly reduced dexterity.

Diagnosing hypothermia in swimmers

It’s best to assume you are acting as safety officer, crew or observer for this, rather than as a swimmer.

  • If you are watching a swimmer for a while keep a check from early on of their stroke count. Give them time to settle into their regular stroke for five or ten minutes after the start and then do a simple count over one minute. Repeat the count at a regular interval. Once you have an idea of this you have the vital baseline for seeing moderate to sever hypothermia develop. With the onset of hypothermia, the stroke rate starts to drop. If the swimmers rate drops toward 10%, tell them they have to increase their rate or they are out of the water. It is not fair to the swimmer to pull them if they can recover, and it is often possible to recover for some period of time. Crew and swimmer are a partnership. More than a 10% drop is probably irrecoverable and the swimmer should probably be removed from the water at this stage.
  • For those of you thinking this is a very marginal percentage, note that experienced swimmers have consistent stroke rates. (My stoke rate for the entire English Channel was 70 spm plus or minus 2). For  less experienced swimmers you will need to act more quickly.
  • Look at the swimmer’s position in the water. Though not conclusive, hypothermic swimmers will lose the ability to kick and may slip into a more vertical position in the water. This is probably also irrecoverable as the vertical aspect will slow them further, reducing efficiency and speed significantly.
  • The simplest diagnosis tool is verbal questioning. Get the swimmer to talk by asking them questions. If you have no idea whether they are hypothermic, require a verbal response to see if they can speak. Are they mentally alert? If you are unsure, ask them some moderately complex question, the day and date or the days of the week in reverse, or counting backward. Don’t spend a long time at this or you further exacerbate the possibility of hypothermia, a few seconds should be sufficient. Don’t worry about very complex questions or that you think the swimmer needs to be counting backwards in prime numbers. When someone is genuinely hypothermic, simple questions become complex as oxygen supply to the brain is slowed. Listen also obviously of the swimmer complains of cold. OR, and this one is from personal experience and some friend’s swim reports, if the swimmer is indicating pains or cramps in the thighs or groin. These are good indicators of hypothermia.
  • At feeds, watch the swimmer’s ability to handle feed bottles. Can they open a simple bottle cap? Inability to so do indicates a loss of manual dexterity.

Remedial actions for Moderate Hypothermia:

A swimmer who is experiencing violent shivering should be immediately removed from the water.

Reduce further heat loss. This is the most important immediate step.

  • Get the person out of the water AND out of the wind. Wind is your enemy.
  • Remove wet swimsuit/wetsuit. Get the person dry as quickly is possible, WITHOUT vigorous rubbing. Watch for the Afterdrop effect. They will get colder AFTER they are removed from the water. However it’s is more important to get them covered and removed from wind exposure than dry. So just get them covered in blankets or a sleeping bag. As much as possible of the person should be covered, creating a hypothermic wrap, for most swimmers this will mean multiple layers, including hat and gloves. Moderately hypothermic swimmers may be unable to dress themselves. Help them. Carefully. They may not be able to stand or balance, their hands may have little to no strength or ability to grasp or pull. Use whatever is available to protect the swimmer, even newspaper. You may remember I suggested a heat blanket in your first aid kit on my article on first aid kits? This should go around the swimmer AFTER they have been otherwise covered, NOT next to the skin (as it will conduct heat away).
  • If further heat loss is stopped, a person will rewarm themselves at a rate of about two degrees Celsius per hour.
  • Encourage urination. You’ll recall that hypothermia suppresses ADH, the hormone that controls urination. Along with that is cold diuresis, where the contraction of surface blood vessels puts additional pressure on the bladder. If the person urinates the bladder will fill and protect/conserve heat within the body. Do NOT tell the person to urinate on themselves for the heat. It will evaporate and add to further cooling. It is because of these impulses that the weeds grow particularly high at the back of the parking spots in Sandycove, being quite well fertilized. By the men. I feel sorry for the women.

Add fuel through food.

  • Do NOT give alcohol or caffeine. Alcohol is a vasodilator. It expands the veins so cold blood from the exterior will flow into the core quicker. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor so will slow the flow of warm blood from the core. Let the body operate to attain balance.
  • Give the swimmer some food and/or hot drink (hot chocolate, hot Maxim, again, not caffeine or alcohol). Something that is an energy source. Make SURE you do not scald them as their mouth will be cold also, and they will burn easily.

Initiate activity.

  • For a mildly hypothermic person who is shivering, physical activity will increase  rewarming.
  • For a Moderately hypothermic person, who may be shivering violently, they may not be able to move much more. The violent shivering and shaking is the bodies attempt to rewarm. It is a good (if uncomfortable) thing. DON’T try to suppress shivering. DON’T force someone to move who can’t. DON’T start rubbing them.

Add heat (but only carefully, slowly and after time has passed).

  • Heat should NOT be applied immediately after the person exits the water as this will accelerate Afterdrop.
  • No heat source should be placed directly on the skin.
  • When applying a direct heat source after getting the person covered (like a hot water bottle or gel pack), remember to first cover it, and only place it on locations where major arteries are near the surface, inside the upper thighs and under the armpits. Placing heat on arms, legs  or torso ACCELERATES Afterdrop.

On a good note: to date, only three Sandycove swimmers have been hospitalized after marathon swims over the years, and only one of those was hypothermia-related and he recovered within a few hours.

Hypothermia treatment

Maybe you’d like print off this chart (not mine) and put it in your swim gear for reference.

Severe or profound hypothermia is not a subject I will be covering. People with profound hypothermia should not be moved and need immediate Emergency Medical Treatment.

HOW TO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Moderate & Severe Hypothermia

Previous article: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers: Mild hypothermia.

Moderate hypothermia is obviously more serious than Mild hypothermia which I covered previously in the first part of this series. I’m always a bit bemused by the medical terminology of hypothermia. Many serious open water swimmers will have experienced moderate hypothermia and can tell you there’s nothing moderate about it. Moderate is from 35° C. down to 32.5° or even 32° Celsius. Experienced Sandycove swimmers will regularly swim into or experience Moderate Hypothermia during Channel training, (but they are too tough to call it that, they’s just say it was a bit cold).

Something I’ve noticed is huge variation in defining the differences between mild and moderate hypothermia. Hypothermia itself is body temperature below 35° Celsius. In Part 1, Understanding hypothermia for swimmers, Mild hypothermia, I said mild hypothermia was 35° C. to under 37°C (normathermia). Yet I have seen medical articles that define Mild Hypothermia as 32° to 35° C. and Moderate as 29° to 32° C., with Severe Hypothermia as under 29° C. We could argue this point but here’s my specific point for choosing the higher ranges: hypothermia is dangerous. You want to play around with more risky definitions in cold water? More power to you but that’s your own call.

I made the point in the last article, worth repeating, that you can’t become hypothermic in water instantly.  Your body is a heat reservoir, so hypothermia develops over time.

Take a good look at that chart. 0° C. is a safe zone (assuming you exit, and excluding any cardiac problems). In fact the chart indicates lethality occurs post one hour at freezing temperatures.

At a temperature of 10° Celsius you are in the marginal zone of survival until about three hours. Equate this with moderate to severe hypothermia. Also, that doesn’t mean that you definitely can survive three hours at that temperature, nor that you are definitely going to die. Think of it as a realm of possibility.

Now, if you have one, put on your cold water swimming cap, and look further along the x-axis. We know however that some Sandycove swimmers (Lisa, Finbarr, Rob, Ciaran, myself at least, no disrespect to other SISC swimmers who’ve done the same) have swum six hours at under 11° C. Lisa has swum nine hours at that temperature. So wear  an SISC cap (actually we don’t have those), and the zone of lethality moves. And for these articles I’m talking about hypothermia in the spectrum of swimmers. You can see it’s a moveable target.

Another point from this chart; hypothermia is inevitable at temperatures up to about 15° C. I can’t quantify that from any other sources. Theoretically, at any temperature under body neutral, hypothermia should always result. This would exclude acclimatisation, the amount of bioprene (body-fat), using food to offset the extra calories requires or thermogenesis (heat generation) from swimming. Think of 15° Celsius as an average English Channel solo temperature and we see that there is a variability in resulting hypothermia cases among soloists.

I keep stressing experience, because that means acclimation to cold, which really means as I’ve said previously, we/they are PHYSIOLOGICALLY adapted to tolerate cold easier and for longer. This is NOT just a matter of will-power or a psychological advantage or strength. You cannot think your way into cold adaptation. You may be the world’s most confident person, a 5k per hour swimmer, with no self-doubt, but without physiological adaptation due to repeated cold immersion it will mean little.

You train to swim longer and further. You train to swim faster. And you train to swim colder. The human body responds to physical stress by adapting. This is the Training Effect. Adaptation to cold from training in cold, is another less discussed training effect particularly important to open water swimmers.

Effects:

One of the most dangerous effects of hypothermia is the slowing of thought processes and the person’s consequent inability to gauge their own condition. As blood cools in the body, bracycardia (slower hear rate) ensues. The blood undergoes partial coagulation, in effect becoming thicker and more viscous, and so less oxygen gets carried to the brain. Therefore, like the previously headlined item above, you cannot think your way out of hypothermia.This makes hypothermia deceptive, it sneaks up on you, those not familiar with cold shock and initial responses imagine hypothermia as a prolonged intense cold whereas it enfolds the sufferer gently, lulling them into a gradually more dangerous state. This is partly what makes hypothermia so dangerous, with thermoceptors overloaded, the sense of cold is reduced or eliminated, the cognitive functions are impaired and the person won’t or can’t realise the danger.

Violent shivering in or more commonly out of water is a symptom of moderate hypothermia. Violent shivering is the bodies attempt to warm up through exercise, by muscular contraction. Almost every distance Sandycove or Irish or UK swimmer has had happen this post-swim. This happens five to ten minutes after exiting the water, when the cold blood in the periphery reaches the core (Afterdrop). How do you tell violent shivering from normal shivering? Normal shivering can be stopped voluntarily, violent shivering can’t. We all know what it’s like to stand talking after a swim with severely chattering teeth, difficulty standing still and straight and pain in the lower back.

When swimming distance in cold water, one point of danger is when the person starts to feel warm, after being cold for a long time. This is not just acclimatization, this is paradoxical undressing, which on land can cause people to shed clothes when they are freezing. The swimmer will have passed through violent shivering to get to this point but it may also arrive for swimmers without violent shivering . Again, many distance swimmers will have experienced getting this feeling of warmth while swimming, but those who understand what they are doing will recognise it as an immediate warning sign to exit the water as soon as possible. As swimmers we have to recognise and deal with the problem that we have the Immediately option, having to swim to a safe exit point. There’s no point getting out where you have no access to clothes. About 25% of the deaths caused by hypothermia arise from poor judgement and decisions made by the hypothermic person.

It is also important to always be cognizant of ambient conditions. Irish and UK open water swimmers training through the winter and swimming in five or six degree water will have similar air temperatures and at least in Ireland, wind is a fairly constant factor. (Ireland in fact is one of the windiest countries in the world and that’s not including all my writing here). High humidity and wind means heat stripped from the body faster, both in the water when shoulders and arms can get cold even more quickly, and especially outside the water when wind can cause violent shivering within minutes. For example, last Saturday Ciarán Byrne & I were swimming at Garrylucas, water temperatures were very variable from about 10 Celsius to 13 Celsius, the day was warm by Irish standards at about 20° C. but at the 90 minute feed on the beach, there was a howling offshore south-easterly and we were both shivering violently within less than two minutes. Swimming in cold water on the Northern European seaboard generally means constant cool or cold air temperatures.

Experience, and I mean significant experience, not just the initial four to six immersions required to blunt cold shock, does allow a swimmer greater awareness of their own hypothermia progression, though this is a variable process with a lot of external factors which vary every time, and therefore is not to be advised. Even the most experienced cold water swimmer can’t tell for sure exactly much more time they might have while swimming before moving further up the scale of hypothermia severity. However we live in a world where we are seemingly perpetually warned about the dangers of everything, and if this is something you choose to do, then you should choose to do it with knowledge and awareness. /End short rant.

Next article: Diagnosing and addressing hypothermia in swimmers.

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