When all fails and I am at a loss for something to write about, I can write about cold, my favourite subject. Especially in the context of Cork Distance Week coming in two weeks, when we had a few people pulled from the water with hypothermia last year.
For anyone involved in open water swimming in Ireland, the UK and other Northern Hemisphere cold water locations, being able to spot and diagnose dangerous hypothermia in a swimmer is an essential skill. To do that properly an understanding of hypothermia is useful.
It’s essential to understand that there isno such thing as sudden hypothermia. Most of us grow up hearing this myth, (for example I remember stories of survivors from the Titanic freezing to death in five degree water within fifteen minutes, and that fifteen minute myth is repeated all the time).
The heat in your body can’t instantly disappear. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is always the Universe’s governing and inviolate principle. Hypothermia is a developing situation over time. Your body has enough stored heat that even in zero degree water, you probably won’t develop severe hypothermia until about thirty minutes, though you will be subject to After-drop and potentially lethal consequences even if you emerge before that time. And Afterdrop itself isn’t a myth, as is sometimes inversely claimed to sudden hypothermia, it does exist.
Cold shock response is an entirely different thing to hypothermia, it’s the bodies response to sudden cold, with gasping reflex, hyperventilation and possible acute pain in hands, feet, face and head, and even cardiac events. The biggest danger in immersion is uncontrolled hyperventilation leading to sudden aspiration of water. You gasp and breathe water into your lungs and drown.
This is the main reason why a diving or jumping entry into cold water for people not cold-acclimated is absolutely a stupid thing to do, and not tough or macho. This response is attenuated in cold-adapted swimmers.
Definitions of Mild Hypothermia can vary depending on where you look but a core body temperature of between 35° and 36° when body-normal is 37° is a good measure, i.e. a drop of about two degrees is a good indicator. The hormone ADH, (anti-diuretic hormone) which controls urination in suppressed and some blood volume is shunted to the core so there is a decrease in blood volume and some dehydration also. There are no long-lasting effects of mild hypothermia, (such that it can be used as a medical procedure for brain protection during certain operations). Almost every serious open water swimmer in these waters will have experienced it as completely normal, and the body acclimates and adapts as we have seen before, by blunting initial response, reducing stress hormones, and increasing brown adipose tissue.
However, people with any diagnosed cardiac problems should avoid cold water swimming.
And also as we’ve often discussed previously, mild hypothermia leads to peripheral vaso-constriction, the reduction of blood flow in the periphery. With experienced open waters mild hypothermia is the completely normal and usual state, in Irish and UK waters. The swimmer will still be able to talk and will still retain motor control in the fingers, but often with reduced dexterity. Surface temperature will be decreased.
Mild hypothermia will of course lead to more severe hypothermia shgould the swimmer continue to be immersed or unprotected. Hypothermia will eventually result for everyone in temperatures under twenty degree is they stay swimming long enough.
There are no great concerns in recovering from mild hypothermia, just get dry and dressed quickly, following the usual procedure of dressing the torso and head first, and warming up with a walk. Do NOT vigorously dry the extremities even in mild hypothermia.
In diagnosing mild hypothermia, simply seeing if there is some chattering or shivering out of the water. In the water is more difficult, but the swimmer might have clenched jaws and have a minor difficulty speaking freely, or maybe report lesser claw-like symptoms in the hands (lessening on full hand motor control).
Cold, my favourite subject. With so many ways to talk about it.
Every year I note changes in my adaptation and responses. The fun in this, is that I can treat myself like a long-term experiment and see what happens, it makes the cold swimming even more interesting, adds more personal value to it. My main criteria is that for the last five years I’ve never been out of the sea longer than two weeks. The hypothesis therefore (and import of that) is that I never lose my hardening, the ability to swim in cold water. (It wouldn’t even be that long if I lived a bit closer to the sea). Last year I noticed a huge change in initial cold response to very cold water, where my cold shock largely disappeared with reduction in gasping and heart rate increase and pre-cold tension.
So this year, as we are within weeks of the normal coldest sea temperatures of the year, what I’ve observed is how one of the best recognised symptoms of cold for cold waters swimmers, the Claw, is now longer appearing during the times I am currently swimming. I have extended my cold swimming times from last year and at forty plus minutes in six degrees Celsius, my fingers are still closed and my hand is under control.
Above, we see again peripheral vaso-constriction in the hands, where there is no blood flow in the fingers. As often mentioned before, peripheral vaso-constriction is the body’s response to cold, where blood flow is concentrated in the core to retain essential body heat for survival. In more cold-adapted swimmers (and others) peripheral vaso-constriction seems to occur even more quickly.
Therefore I have to admit, I don’t really understand why my hand isn’t Clawing recently. I’ve certainly been getting cold. So for now I just put it down to another adaptation and if anyone has any thoughts on this I’d love to hear them. It does help to understand also that there no muscles in the fingers. Yes, no muscles, your fingers are operated by muscles running through the Carpal Canal or Tunnel, which connect via tendons to the bones. It’s the flexion of the muscles in your wrist and forearm pulling on the tendons that moves the fingers, but there are no actual muscles in your fingers so the fingers get cold easily, as there is therefore less blood flow.
I am NOT saying my Claw is gone altogether, just for these shorter, colder times. I have no doubt that longer swims in warmer waters, doing two hours in ten or eleven degrees will see the return of the Claw, as deep winter is not the problem for us, but spring, when temperatures are slightly elevated but swim times must be much longer.
Edit: I should explain: As muscles get colder they contract. This is what pulls the tendons in the fingers apart. The swimmer’s ability to pull is compromised. It affects also the arms and legs so the whole stroke becomes shorter and less effective.
I should also add, the extent of the Claw is determined by your ability to close or touch fingers. A mini Claw will leave you unable to close your small and ring fingers, a full Claw will mean you are unable to touch your thumb and small finger. Unless you have a lot of cold water experience and safety cover, you should not be swimming with full Claw.
Everything on the site relates to open water swimming. But since open water swimming is part of my life, sometimes other parts of my life or some of my interests get pulled in. They may look tangential but it’s because I’m trying to contextualize my swimming life. Like all open water swimmers, you can’t extract open water swimming from our lives and somehow find the real person.
So I occasionally write about Ireland and Irish culture or humour, because it’s where I (mostly) swim. I write about pool swimming occasionally, because it’s where I swim half of the year. (But there are a multitude of better pool swimmers than me, so when I write about it, it’s from an average pool swimmer’s point of view).
I write about the sea, the weather, my dogs who accompany me to the coast, the books or media that inform or help my swimming. I write about my swimming friends, real life and online (I don’t distinguish, I don’t have to have met someone to consider them a friend) from whom I learn.
I was getting some aches as the training volume was building up so I had another massage at the end of the week. I was developing a tightness in the centre (belly) of my left deltoid (shoulder muscle) and a really deep and sore ache in my right trapezoid (upper centre back). I also has a serious pain above my left glute (butt cheek) that only expressed itself once a swim went over three hours, (so this wasn’t a problem much). The massage hurt like hell. The delt eased out completely, I won’t know about the glute until the next long swim. The trap was still really sore afterwards and I hoped it would ease out over the next 24 hours. To aid that I looked forward to the weekly (at this time of the year) cold water swim.
It was a horrible morning. Cold all week, it was a little bit warmer on Saturday while rest of Europe was being hammered on the anvil of an extreme cold snap, with even the sea-shore freezing in Britain. But the air temperature leaving the house was about 8 degrees Celsius. This is the advantage of Irish weather, it’s mild in average, no great summers, no terrible winters. But the sea water temperature was down to 6° Celsius (43°f). It was overcast, Force Three onshore wind and with about a two metre swell, but I didn’t care. Just let me out there.
According to Polar Bear Joe at the Guillamene, it was 41°f the previous day (5°C) with colder air, coldest water temperature of this winter so far.
The entry was fine, and the next 14 minutes were euphoric. That word actually came to me while I was swimming. Isn’t that part of the reason we swim, that feeling? I’ve been trying to explain that feeling for two years now. During the swim, all my existential worries evaporated and I was at peace for the first time in a week. At the fifteenth minute I noticed the cold pain beginning in fingertips and feet. Given conditions were a bit rough and I would need to navigate the rougher water returning over the Comolene reefs, I turned back before I reached the pier. I was in toward shore closer than my normal outside deeper returning track, and it was really rough passing beneath the last house on the cliff.
I was back to the steps at 41 minutes, stumbled upwards on my numb feet to my fake Crocs (thanks Nuala) high on the steps. Someone started talked to me as I fumbled to get my goggles, cap and earplugs off. All I heard was a voice. With the ear plugs off and as my eyes cleared, it was someone with an American accent standing right beside, I mean right beside me, asking me how far I’d gone. As I tried to mumble a frozen-jaw response I also tried to make my way quickly to my box to start getting changed as soon as possible.
41 minutes at six degrees Celsius is the furthest I’ve gone. I knew what was coming with the Afterdrop. It would tough. I needed to optimise getting dressed as soon as possible.
As I got changed, with some difficulty, trying to get covered as my core temperature was dropping due to the inward flow of cold blood, conversation continued about cold water swimming as I struggled to answer and make sense, not easy when in this state.
I was in that hazy post cold swim state of mild hypothermia, where I’m pretty certain that I am functioning fully and that I can remember everything clearly, but later realise it’s not necessarily the case.
Later I wonder to myself. 41 minutes at 41 minutes at six degrees Celsius doesn’t seem like that much to me. I know, as I always do, that I could have gone further, why didn’t I swim for a nice round 45 minutes? But I realise that in these circumstances, when I am by myself, I let my body and a sub-conscious experience decide my swim times. With doing 41 minutes in 6° Celsius, I now, finally, have no doubt that should we get a 5° degree temperature this winter, the ice-mile is well within my capability. But for now, I can’t actually prove that officially.
Swimming, like everything else, is governed by entropy, which always increases, therefore order (or you could term it information in certain circumstances) is always reducing. Entropy is a measure of disorder. Eventually the dead hand of the Second Law will hold sway over all, as scientist and author Stephen Baxter once wrote, it’s the ultimate scientific explanation of the universe’s evolution, which is governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a closed system, entropy increases, and the universe is a closed system. Within the smaller system of the earth, the human body is a closed system. It loses heat unless energy is input back into the system to offset loss. As cold water swimmers, we understand experientially the Second Law better than most. Hypothermia will always get you, regardless of experience. If the water temperature is below normal core temperature, no matter how high otherwise, it just will take a longer time. Because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics we get cold. So we need heat and food, two forms of energy, since mass and energy are the same thing. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is always there, always swimming with you, always waiting for you.
I have a deep integral sense of the numinous wonder of the world and the universe, that for me, expresses itself most deeply and is felt most strongly in open water swimming, in immersing myself in the green waters. The world is extraordinary, the sea is transforming, my friends are a value beyond price. But that’s just my own world view.
2:25 p.m. I’m just in home within the last few minutes. It’s one hour and 13 minutes since I got out of the water at the Guillamene.
8 a.m. I weigh 75.5 kg. I have dropped 2.5 kg since I resumed pool training seven weeks ago. I forgot to check my pulse after I woke, (yet again). Last time I checked about a week ago, it was 53 BPM. It’s Day 6 of my week, tomorrow is the rest day. I was more tired this week than I expected and not swimming well.
9 a.m. It’s the weekend so I allow myself a coffee and continuing read One Hell Of a Gamble, the inside story of the Cuban missile crisis that is based on US and Russian official documents.
10 a.m. I have fried rashers, black pudding, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms on wholemeal toast for breakfast, along with another coffee. I heard yesterday on the radio about a bacon jam that I’d love to try.
20,000 years ago. Ireland is covered in ice sheet.
November 2011: Ireland has its mildest November in 150 years.
10.45 a.m. Put a towel in the swim box in the car, make a flask of hot chocolate, put the dogs in the car. Make sure I have my camera as always.
Two weeks ago: Winter arrived. The average daily temperature is about 4 degrees Celsius.
11.45 a.m. Get to the Guillamene car park. The car thermometer says the air temperature is 6 degrees Celsius (43 F.). There’s only one other car present and no people around. Let the dogs play around for a while and take some photos. The sky is cloudless and a watery blue. There is a bitter north-westerly wind. My hands are already cold, as I am not wearing gloves.
12:10 to 12:08 p.m. Dogs back in the car, I head down to the platform. Two of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming Club Polar Bears have arrived at the same time and we chat while changing. I check the water temperature with my infrared thermometer but it’s sill reading incorrectly. It’s certainly not the 12C it reads. It’s been inaccurate for weeks despite opening it up and drying out the electronics. Time for a new one.
16,000 years ago: The ice sheets retreat and Ireland start to recover. The ice scoured the land and the clearing of the flora and fauna means Ireland will have a very low species biodiversity in the future. The eliminated weight of the glaciers means Ireland will gradually rebound from the sea, even as the sea-levels rise. Ireland becomes separated from Great Britain and the Continental land bridge. The thermohaline circulation system and the Gulf Stream will dictate Ireland’s year’s weather pattern.
12:09 p.m. I’d forgotten my main togs, and only had a horrible pair of Slazenger backup togs, they are too narrow at the waist and quite thong-like, and the string had slipped back into the waist holes and I only realised this after getting ready. I wasted two minutes trying to extract it while I got colder. By the time I was ready to swim the other two guys had already finished their three-minute dips and were back out. I wore two silicon caps, ear plugs, and greased under my arms and behind my neck, an area that recently has again started to chaff more. The concrete was very cold, I put on my deck sandals for the 10 metre water to the steps.
12:20 p.m. With the sun in the sky, although cold, it’s easier to get in the water. Having left the sandals at the top of the steps, I walked down to the water and stood waist deep. The water was fairly flat, but there is a low amplitude but long period groundswell coming in, which meant the waves will not break high but would be powerful. I splashed water on my face, gave my ear plugs a final push in and dove in.
12:20 to 12:22 p.m. The water was cold of course but I didn’t experience the cold associated with 5 Celsius degree water, and I’ve been doing this for a while. I took the first two minutes to adjust easily while I swam out of the tiny cove but my breathing was fine and there wasn’t much cold shock. After two minutes I could start to really compare to my last swim seven days ago.
12:22 p.m. The water was colder than last week. I was feeling the wind on my shoulders and upper back, but the sky was clear and the water was calm. Off to the pier. Concentrating on the technique I’d been doing (re-doing) for the past seven weeks.
12:40 p.m. Approaching the pier, I decided to go past the harbour entrance, down another 100 metres then turn.
12:42 p.m. I turned back into the swell. Sun was directly ahead.
12:52 p.m. At thirty minutes I started to feel the soles of my feet cold and sore. Unusual.
12:55 p.m. I realised I would be back before 45 mins had elapsed so as I passed the Colomene rocks, I angled outwards in order to add a few minutes.
13:02 p.m. A few hundred metres to go, the steps and metal railings caught and reflected the sun as I angled in. My hands were starting to claw. I opened it up and sprinted in, switching to mainly right side breathing.
13:07 p.m. I had difficulty getting out even though the water was calm because the long period swell power pushed me past railing for a few seconds and I had to make a second pass to grab on. Very unusual.
13:07:30 p.m. Holding the railing I moved up the steps. The wind was really cold blowing across my wet skin. A silhouette was talking down to me from in front of the low sun. I awkwardly removed my ear plugs to hear what they were saying as I put my sandals on and walked immediate to my box. Something about “how long was I in”? I gave a swimmer’s answer, in distance terms, and got it completely wrong. The two important things were the difficulty I had in moving my jaws and the simple mistake I make, which I then corrected. My feet were really really painful from the cold and from the upturned plastic knobs in my sandals. I need new cheap flat, easy to slip on sandals for winter, I reminded myself. Again. Nuala Muir-Cochrane has suggested Crocs, but can my image stand the damage?
13:08 to 13:12 p.m. Standing on a cheap €2 rubber car mat, I tried to get dressed as quickly as possible.
This is the most critical time, I was now racing Afterdrop, when the cold blood in my periphery moves back into my core and I get very cold. It would take 10 minutes or so for this to take full effect.
It was very cold on my hands, head and legs and feet. I gave my hair a peremptory single towel run , same for my torso, and pulled on a merino wool t-shirt. I was still half damp, but since it’s Merino, the damp didn’t matter. Next were two merino wool long-sleeved base layers, medium wool weight. Then was a jumper (Irish name for sweater). Next was my English Channel woolly hat. I was alone by now on the platform. My co-ordination is not the Mae West. My top clothes were not put on smoothly and were bunched. I rubbed my legs with the towel, took off my togs, realised that even thought there was no one around I better drape a towel around me. I would never have done this if I was warmer. I got my underwear on, and dried my legs a bit better, but with no vigourous rubbing. With difficulty, I pulled a pair of merino wool long-johns on (thanks Aldi). Then pants. I couldn’t close any buttons except at the waist as my dexterity was poor, but I learned long ago to wear a belt. I pulled on a coat and then turned to the final but most difficult task of getting my socks and Dr. Marten’s boots on. My feet were more painful, and I had difficulty opening up the laces more to get my feet in but finally did. I didn’t even bother trying the tie up the laces. As I finally pulled on gloves, one of the gents came back down, he was keeping an eye on me, and told me that Polar Bear Joe had been down for a swim and already left while I was in, and had measured the water at 43.5 Fahrenheit, (under 6.4 Celsius). All the older members think in Fahrenheit, I think in Celsius. We agreed that seemed maybe a degree low and I know Joe’s measurements were previously about a degree Fahrenheit lower than mine, so the temperature was probably between 7 C and 7.5 C, definitely colder than last weekend.
It’s now 15:15: Thirty-five minutes since I started writing this, just over two hours since I emerged. I feel fine, I am still wearing everything except coat, hat and gloves. I realise I forgot to turn on the heating so the house is cold. My hands are fine but the back of them feel very cold as I press them against my face.
13:32 p.m. I got back to the car and opened the Keypod, and put my stuff inside. I didn’t let the dogs out. I sat into the car and the Afterdrop was coming on hard. I poured a cup of hot chocolate outside the car in case the shakes caused me to spill it inside. I left it on the dash for a minute. I turned on the engine, and switched the heating to max. I should really have gone for a walk for a better warm up, but the cold wind and Afterdrop made me decide to do other than the best thing. I started to hunch over without thinking about it and started to drink the hot chocolate, only able to hold the cup in both hands to calm the shaking.
13:42 p.m. Since I’d driven down, the car heated up quickly. Thirty five minutes after I’d emerged from the water, the shakes passed and I was able to drive safely. I drank two cups of hot chocolate. Their benefit was twofold. The volume and heat difference of a hot drink make little difference to heating up a body, the thermodynamic equation is too unmatched, because the volume of the human body is too great beside a cup of hot chocolate. But there are benefits: First, psychological; drinking something hot just makes you feel better. Second, it defers the raging Zombie-like hunger I would otherwise encounter on the way home, when I would have to pull over and scour the car for anything to eat.
13:47p.m. I arrived at Tesco Supermarket, but after five minutes I decided I didn’t need anything urgently, and it was cold, though I knew it really wasn’t and I also knew I needed to buy something for dinner. I went back to the car and headed home.
14:01 p.m. Almost an hour out, as I passed the Waterford & Suir Heritage small-gauge steam railway, I saw they were opened for a holiday Santa run and I realised my jaws were starting to relax, without having previously noticed how tightly clamped they were.
14:12 p.m. I was about five of minutes from home, and I realised that my jaws didn’t actually relax previously but they were now. At the same time I became aware I am sitting on two lump of cold meat, as my arse-cheeks were the slowest to recover.
15:35 p.m. I am out of the water slightly over two and a half hours as I finish this up. Time for a warm shower and ready to be productive again. I wanted to write this while it was fresh.
Despite all the times I’ve done this, I made small simple mistakes; I forgot my preferred swim togs, I didn’t check the backup pair was ready before I got undressed, I wore boots instead of shoes, (more difficult to put on when you have lost dexterity). None of them had a huge effect.
I could have swum further, but we always can in these conditions, that is the danger of cold and hypothermia, it lures you into a sense of calm. Swimming five minutes further wouldn’t have had much effect but I think ten minutes would have made a significant difference.
On this weekend last year, the temperature was 4.8 degrees Celsius and I swam for 14 minutes. At equivalent temperatures to now last winter, I was swimming half the time I am this year, between 20 to 25 minutes whereas I am still swimming around 50 minutes. Though I could easily have gone further last year, I didn’t have the drive to do so that I have this year.
Every year there are improvements. We can all get better.
Anyway, I hope there’s something of interest here. I wanted to try to take you inside my head for a normal December swim.
Next year’s Cork Distance Week will have a record number of attendees, many from outside Ireland. Some will be coming nervous or terrified about the potential temperatures especially if they heard any of 2011′s details.
They need a scale of reference for that fear and we need a common terminology!
I remember Finbarr once saying to me that; “10ºC is the point at which you can start to do some proper distance”. But that’s when the temperature is going up in the late spring. What about when it is dropping in the autumn and winter?
I think it would be fair to say that many, if not most (but not all), of the (serious) Irish and British swimmers would fall into the 7% category, it’s getting cold under 10° C.
So here’s my purely personal swimmer’s temperature scale:
Over 18°C (65°F):This temperature is entirely theoretical and only happens on TV and in the movies. The only conclusion I can come to about the 32% who said this is cold are that they are someone’s imaginary friends. Or maybe foetuses.
16°Cto 18°C (61 to 64°F): This isparadise.This is the temperature range at which Irish and British swimmers bring soap into the sea. The most common exclamation heard at this stage is “it’s a bath”!!! Sunburn is common. Swimmers float on their backs and laugh and play gaily like children. They wear shorts and t-shirts after finally emerging. They actually feel a bit guilty about swimming in such warm water. Possible exposures times are above 40 hours for us. It’s a pity we have to get out to sleep and eat.
14°Cto 16°C (57° to 61°F): Aaahhh,summer. All is well with the world, the sea and the swimmers. Exposure times are at least 20 to 40 hours. Sandycove Swimmers will swim 6 hour to 16 hour qualification swims, some just for the hell of it and because others might be doing so. Lisa Cummins will see no need to get out of the water at all and will just sleep while floating, to get a head start on the next day’s training.
13°C(55° to 56°F): Grand. You can do a 6 hour swim, and have a bit of fun. Daily long distance training is fine. Barbecues in Sandycove. The first Irish teenagers start to appear.
12°C(53/54°F): Well manageable! You can still do a 6 hour swim, it’ll hurt but it’s possible. Otherwise it’s fine for regular 2 to 4 hour swims. This the temperature of the North Channel.
11°C (51/52°F):Ah well (with a shrug).Distance training is well underway. Ned, Rob, Ciarán, Craig, Danny C., Imelda, Eddie, Jen Lane, Jen Hurley & myself, at the very least, have all recorded 6 hour qualification swims at this temperature. Lisa did 9 hours at this temperature. Swimmers chuckle and murmur quietly amongst themselves when they hear tourists running screaming in agony from the water, throwing children out of the way…
10°C (50°F):Usually known as“It’s Still Ok”. A key temperature. This is the one hour point, where one hour swims become a regular event when the temperature is rising. We start wearing hats after swims.
9°C (48/49°F): “A Bit Nippy”. No point trying to do more than an hour, it can be done, but you won’t gain much from it unless you are contemplating the Mouth of Hell swim. Christmas Day swim range. Someone might remember to bring a flask of tea. No milk for me, thanks.
8°C (46/48°F): The precise technical term is “Chilly”. Sub one-hour swims. Weather plays a huge role. Gloves after swims. Sandycove Swimmers scoff at the notion they might be hypothermic.
7°C (44/45°F): “Cold”.Yes, it exists. It’s here. The front door to Cold-Town is7.9°C.
6°C (42/43°F):“Damn, that hurts”. You baby.
5°C (40/41°F):“Holy F*ck!“That’s a technical term. Swimmers like to remind people this is the same temperature as the inside of a quite cold domestic fridge. Don’t worry if you can’t remember actually swimming, getting out of the water or trying to talk. Memory loss is a fun game for all the family. This occurs usually around the middle to end of February.
Under 5°C (Under 40 °F).This is only for bragging rights.There are no adequate words for this. In fact speech is impossible. It’s completely acceptable to measure exposure times in multiples of half minutes and temperatures in one-tenths of a degree. This is hard-core. When you’ve done this, you can tell others to “Bite me, (’cause I won’t feel it)”. (4.8°C 1.4°C is mine, Feb. 2013).Carl Reynolds starts to get a bit nervous. Lisa make sure her suntan lotion is packed.
2.5°Cto5°C.South London Swimming Club and British Cold Water Swimming Championships live here. If you are enjoying this, please seek immediate psychological help. Lisa might zip up her hoodie.
1.5°C to 2.5°C:Lynn Coxiantemperatures. You are officially a loon.
0°C to 1.5°C:Aka “Lewis Pughian” temperatures. Long duration nerve damage, probably death for the rest of us. Lisa considers putting on shoes instead of sandals. But probably she won’t.
*Grand is a purely Irish use that ranges from; “don’t mind me, I’ll be over here slowly bleeding to death, don’t put yourself out … Son“, to “ok” and “the best“, indicated entirely by context and tone.
The temperature at the Guillamene took its first real drop of early winter last week, down to 11.3° Celsius (52.3° F.). After a sub-seventy minute swim, it was like meeting an old acquaintance. Little finger dexterity gone, reduced co-ordination when getting dressed, and wearing a wooly hat afterwards. No big deal, it’s not below 10° yet, but there’s six months of this in our future.
Next day, the temperature was about the same, it was cloudy and there was Force 5 onshore southerly wind. After only 57 minutes, and much less distance covered, my nose was raw, and I’d been battered by the one to three metre chop and waves. I’d dropped below my one hour minimum target for this temperature. One metre waves off the Guillamene, but up to three metres where the waves were jacking up over the Comolene reef, as always happens. Go in or out the bay, there’s no escape. It seemed strange that it was less than a week since the pleasant swim on the previous Sunday. It’s the ambient temperature, the winds, the lack of direct sunlight, that’s driving the temperature down but mostly the feeling that it’s cold. In early summer I’ll swim longer in this temperature, the expansiveness of sunlight leading me on.
Swimming back from Doneraile past the Pier, there were two anglers on the pier end, and I glimpsed them between the troughs and being hurled upwards, crashing down, utterly without grace, wondering did they even see me. You feel sometimes invisible when very close to people in the water, sometimes you feel unusually visible, both are probably wrong. One of the things about swimming inwards, and why I prefer to swim outwards in solitude, is that a road and path runs along the cliff top, and swimming I am conscious of people walking and looking out at me, or imagining them doing so.
Sometimes before, but mostly afterwards, when changing, and especially during swims, my thoughts stray to catchphrases about cold and what articles I can write about it this winter, after writing so many last year. And today I wondered if there really is yet an end to writing about cold for me, at least for now. It is I think, at least about myself, one of the ways that I define swimming. Swimming is cold. I swim, I’m cold, I write.
I’m not good at it, the cold, but I’m pretty good at it. I mean it’s not a natural talent, I’ve had to work at it. Which is part of why I like writing about it. Every time you swim in cold, it’s even more of an adventure than a simple one hour open water swim in 14° C. The open water is an adventure and the cold is an adventure.
Cold. I hate it. I like it. I hate it. I like it. I hate it. I like it. I hate it. I …
The temperature at the Guillamene last Sunday week (October 16th, 2011) was about 13° Celsius (55° F). That’s far warmer than what most people will imagine, not far off the highest normal summer water temperature (about 15° to 16°, excluding unusual warmer pockets or days) for Ireland’s South Coast. And by the end of last week it was down to about 11.5° Celsius.
The weather is changing though, autumn and early winter storms have shown up and the water is rough most days. There’s been fog that has lasted for days,and the days of grey skies and continuous rain. Days and nights are cooler (though given the crap summer, again, in Ireland, that’s not much of a real change, only about 4° to 6° Celsius change for now.) Surely, many people will say, the water is cold!
Occasional swimmers have changed to wetsuits weeks back. But experienced swimmers are still, should they desire, putting in two or three hours without wetsuits, (if they haven’t gone back to pool training or like me, have slackened off for the end of season).
So this is a critical time for those considering a big swim for next year, or wanting to improve their open water ability. Time when you should be asking yourself:
How much more do I really want to able to do?
You can stop now, leave the sea, and just do pool training. or you can retain your sea swimming. You can use a wetsuit, and get used to the sea in winter. Or you can stay in skin, and discover that for maybe another three or four weeks, it’s not that cold.
You can approach this as a multi-year project, this winter just keeping swimming regularly in rubber, maybe dumping the neoprene for a few minutes of skin only here and there, and then next year going a bit further before donning it. The only mistake is to expect to be able to handle cold without doing any work.
An important thing to remember now is Rate of Change, rather than deciding what temperature is your cutoff (because without experience you won;t know anyway). The water temperature will drop soon, (I’ll let you know when The Big Drop happens, it could be as soon as three weeks or could be as long as six or seven). The Big Drop is when the water temperature goes below ten degrees Celsius 9 50° Fahrenheit). Yes, yes … don’t tell you can even get that low, I can hear you from here.
Last year the coldest day was late November, after the coldest spell Ireland had in something like 60 years. And it recovered afterwards. By Christmas the temperature was back to normal for that time of year, at about nine degrees (48° F.).
So now is the time and chance to do address two big issues:
1: Your perception of the world around you, especially the sea.
2: Your perception of yourself, and your limits and capabilities.
I know what some of you are thinking: but this guys is already experienced at cold, and I couldn’t do it. Nonsense. Anyone can, as I keep repeating, you just have to decide whether you want to or not.
There’s already lots of writing about cold on this site, see the top menu bar up there? ^^^
Go beyond your limits. Go on. Do it. I’ll meet you at the Guillamene.
P.S. As I was wondering what images to add to this, I really wished I had one of a swimmer with a meat thermometer stuck in them. But, apart from the pictures of Gábor, this is a Safe For Work site.
I mentioned T.I. in an email to a well-known record-setting swimmer and we thought I might write a post on it. When someone who has set a new record thinks it’s a good subject, you write!
Many of you will be aware that Total Immersion, (T.I.) is a method of teaching swimming developed by Terry Laughlin, which focuses on long strokes and gliding through the water. Swim like a fish, is the motto of T.I..
When I’ve occasionally helped swimmers, especially triathletes, I’ve used some drills that apparently have come from T.I.. T.I. is particularly popular amongst triathletes worldwide, because of its focus on energy efficiency and gliding, so triathletes can use T.I. to finish the swim leg having expended as little energy as possible to be more ready for the cycling leg (triathlons are rarely won or lost on the swimming leg). (T.I. got some extra attention last year in a TED video by Tim Ferriss.)
With triathletes especially it’s best to reduce the flailing, to try to get them conscious of gliding through the water and of relaxing, rather than fighting the water. Pretty much what all swimmers learn, but in a more compressed time.
But one consequence of T.I. is a reduced stroke count, which is imparted, it seems to me, as the most desired result, at least this is how those people I’ve met who have learned T.I. impart it to me. Having read some of Terry’s many thoughts on T.I. and this subject, it seems that he himself is not as rigid as many of the people who go through T.I. training here seem to be, when he himself advocates having a quiver of responses ready for varying open water conditions, something I’ve said myself previously about for example, breathing patterns.
It should be remembered as very important that many or most triathlons (all here in Ireland and the UK) require the triathletes to wear a wetsuit. Indeed Alan Smith, Waterford local multiple Ironman triathlete and Channel Aspirant told how just a couple of weeks before his Channel attempt he was forced to take the black and wear a wetsuit for a paltry short swim of about 1k because the rules required them.
Some months back I discovered (too late) that one EC Aspirant, whom I was occasionally advising through email, was actually using T.I., as the athlete had come from a triathlon background. With very little time left I had to stress they dump the T.I. approach immediately.
Why? Simply, it would not keep them warm in the Channel. Let me give an example, again I think I this mentioned it before.
Some months ago I was walking down the steps at the Guillamene, when I saw someone coming in from the Pier, rare enough. And I immediately noticed they had a very low stroke count, so low that I stopped to count (which I’ve never done before). I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was in the 40s. I was concerned for whomever it was, because a stroke rate that low, unless they were a large person with lots of experience, was looking at getting cold very quickly. And it turned out to be a friend, whom had been advised to reduce their stroke count to extend the glide on the extension. Someone experienced who never previously got cold, got really cold that day and it was a warmish summer day (by Irish standards). it was incorrect advice from someone who didn’t know, whose open water experience came from a book. It wasn’t exactly T.I. but quite similar.
At the weekend, indeed I was talking to the swimmer who had given that advice, who was wearing a wetsuit, and in winter pool training was focusing exclusively, as I expected, on stroke count reduction by increasing distance per stroke.
Oh, I just remembered, Penny Palfrey, probably the best (non-FINA) marathon swimmer in the world right now, apparently has a stroke rate of 80.
Triathletes using T.I. have a wetsuit to cushion this effect of slower stroke rate to keep them warm. Removing a wetsuit and keeping a low stroke count is a recipe for hypothermia in cold water. More than anything else in cold water you must be able to maintain a steady consistent stroke rate. A 10% variation in a marathon swimmer is a big variation. Most of us won’t vary by more than about 5%. I’ll use again the example of my E.C. I was 70 strokes per minute almost every measurement , never dropped below 68, never went higher than 74. An old S.I. article on Doc Counsilman’s EC solo in 1979 (from Evan) mentioned his metronomic pace of about 64 (same for example as Ned). Gábor stayed at 68 if I remember correctly, after he settled down after the first two hours (he was up toward 80 at the start, excitement and the effects of tapering priming him for a nervous muscular explosive start).
I don’t actually have a problem with T.I., it has its uses, I like what I’ve seen of the drills and some of its ideas, and when I read it, I also like Terry Laughlin’s own blog and his thoughts on the mindfulness of swimming, something I think any distance swimmer can appreciate. I like his meditative frame of mind and consideration of swimming, after all many times myself I’ve compared the purity of night swimming in particular to meditation or how we operate mentally on long swims, something I have a post planned on again.
After years of open water, I know my stroke is 70 +- 4 spm. Anytime I check it in the water, it’s 68 to 72, unlikely to outside that unless I am increasing speed or slowing down. I can just feel the rate by now. This is a vital skill and very different from pool swimming. I know people who have come from a competitive pool background and never once thought about stroke rate. Your SPM might be 58 or 64 or whatever, it’s your stroke rate, the one that works for you as a consequence of your fitness and size and training and background. I’ve noticed bigger people tend toward lower stroke rates but I don’t think that’s a rule or anything.
T.I. might teach you to monitor your stroke rate very closely, but it won’t teach you to increase it to keep your internal heat production high enough. Maybe it’s fine in warm water, but at any water temperature lower than about 28 degrees, you are losing heat. You must combat this by internal thermogenesis.
By the way, in winter pool training, (oh, I’m later going back to it this year than ever before, I’m still in the sea), I do actually work on DPS, distance per stroke.
I’m personally wary of any absolutes when those absolutes are just opinions, like one particular swimming style. That’ll come as no surprise to long-term readers here.
Separate from the heat retention aspects, what I find myself is that there are consequences to my stroke that come from open water swimming. If you watch most OW swimmers, you will see that they have a high hand recovery, quite different to pool swimmers, which comes about as a consequence having to lift the hand higher to avoid it crashing into chop. It’s a rare day in the sea that you can have a high elbow recovery. This is sure to also reduce your rotation, which in turn increases your stroke rate. Then there is the effect of sighting, where you have to lift your head, like you never would in the pool, which again, will change your body position and therefore stroke mechanics. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Maybe it’s different in warm water, (apparently there are places in the world with warm water, it’s been reported), where you don’t have to worry about cold. But remember, at any temperature below about 24° Celsius, eventually, you will become hypothermic. For those of us for whom 24° C is much warmer than we ever get, we tend to forget this.
But in cold water you must swim to keep yourself warm, because you are literally swimming for your life.
Sometimes something is such a habit that you almost cease to realise its presence or utility. Such is the case with the wristwatch.
I was at the Guillamene, there by myself as more usual these days, when I realised that I wasn’t wearing my watch. The last time I’d swum open water without a watch was when we’d had to remove it for the five-hour Torture Swim on the penultimate day of the 2009 Distance Week. I recall that day that I found that really disconcerting, as it was intended to be. And I wasn’t the only one, most of us wear watches when swimming open water, (even those who don’t wear them pool training).
Even during my E.C. solo, (contrary to what I was advised), I wore a watch, though I didn’t look at it until I was stuck fighting the tide outside Calais.
But at the Guillamene, the air temperature had dropped significantly overnight. The water was calm with just some small swells, and the sky was blue but there was a chilly wind. Summer was definitely well and truly over and we were jumping right into early winter.
My plan had been a swim to the beach and back, my most common swim at the moment. But without a watch I realised suddenly how much I relied on it.
For unaccompanied open water swimming, my most usual swimming, I use my watch constantly, to monitor my speed and progress.
The most obvious use is to check arrival at spots where I know my time window should be, for example getting to the beach should take me 30 to 35 minutes (condition and training dependent). The actual time isn’t important but what is, is any significant deviation from the normal time window for swimming a known distance. This will tell me if there is an unusual current in operation. Getting there very quickly but unexpectedly, will warn me I’ll have an adverse current on the return.
Another potential use is if I feel I am getting cold, that I can fit this information into my experience and adjust the time I plan to swim accordingly. This happened last Sunday in fact, when I took two people who didn’t know the area, but strong swimmers, out to Newtown Head and the caves. I was in skin, they in wetsuits, and while I slowly circled and swam and we floated around outside, I was getting chilly. By 30 minutes I knew I had to go back to my normal pace or pay the price. Without my watch even a ten minute delay would have seen me get colder, whereas I knew if I started swimming harder by 35 minutes, i would not get too cold.
Or even if I find I am getting cold when I don’t expect to, a check on elapsed time will tell me if I should be worried or careful and cut my swim short.
The day without my watch was fine, the conditions were good, and in fact the time passed more quickly than usual. But I wish I’d had my watch with me. For safety.
I swam in Whiting Bay this evening, I measured 15C but it felt like the warmest water I’ve been in since the Channel last year, even warmer than Dover 3 weeks ago. It may have been 16C so a few metres out from the shore.
I noticed someone was searching for these. Let me say though that all the experienced Irish open water swimmers have noticed that this summer is significantly colder than last year (and that wasn’t the best).
12.5C at the Guillamene last week (similar most days)
12C at Clonea last (Clonea can get warmer in the shallow water more easily)
About 13.5C at Valentia last Saturday week.
The last few days have seen an improvement.
Sandycove seems to be between 11C and 14C.
Kilfarassey yesterday was 12 to 14C (Lot of variation)
I’ve often talked about vaso-constriction. As a reminder, upon immersion in cold water, in order to retain core warmth, blood flow to the extremities and skin slows. Upon exiting cold water a swimmer’s skin will feel really cold, even if the swimmer is experienced and may actually feel completely comfortable.
I watched the BBC’s Wild Swimming programme (synopsis, pretty poor). In talking about cold though they had a few useful images.
To set the scene, this was in an outdoor pool with temperature of 16 °C. (Really warm for many of us). But the presenter had no cold experience. At 16 °C she was gasping and going numb. After what seemed like two lengths, she had lost limb coordination and was having difficulty getting out of the pool. But that’s not why I bring it to your attention.
They had an infrared camera. Those images are useful for us, because regardless of your experience they apply at some stage. So I took some screen captures.
First was an image before immersion. You can see the higher heat radiative surfaces, particularly the arms and shoulders. Most of the body is at or well above 25 °C.
Next we have the image immediately after swimming. Look how cold the body surface is. From watching the program this seemed like it was only a few minutes. Most of the body temperature is below 20 °C, much of it at 16 °C to 18 °C. (The image was tilted that way in the original programme with half the temperature scale missing). Notice particularly the legs and torso, hands, nose, all around 16 °C. You can see the indicator on the upper torso at 17.2 °C.
Finally, we have an image taken a minute or so after exiting.
You can see blood flow and heat returning quickly. There are hot spots in the forearm and biceps for example.
Just as a matter of interest, I used my infrared thermometer (€18 inc. shipping on eBay) on myself the other day. I’d swam for about 75 minutes in 10 °C water. I measured my lower torso at 18.1 °C.
It was one hour and ten minutes after I got out of the water that I started writing this, and I was still not fully warmed up.
The temperature had dropped to 9.3 °C from Wednesday’s 11.0 °C, due to the northerlies for the past 36 hours, I guess. The day before I swam about 4600 metres, with full claw of the left hand by the finish. Yesterday I decided I really needed to get that 5k non-wetsuit OW swim on Ned’s annual qualification list out of the way, since I hadn’t bothered to do it when the weather (and water) was a bit better a few weeks ago.
As is my way, and my way especially with the sea, I don’t really make firm decisions beforehand. I always like to take it as it comes. I met Billy (Club President) and Joe up the car park who said that the water was cold. Before I measured the temperature, I’d hoped to do the 5k but once I measured the 9.3 °C I didn’t mentally commit to it. However once I’m doing something, I’ll generally keep going. As it turned out.
When I reached the Metalman to begin the long straight 2.2k to the pier, I moved out About half way between the Metalman and the Guillamene I saw something in the water I didn’t recognise amongst all the jellies we’ve had for the last while. It was like a cuttlefish shape. I stopped and tried to dive down to see it, but it’s already cold enough at the surface to stop the desire to get much colder by going deep, and it was dark also since the day was overcast, so I dove down a little bit, but the shape seemed to drop away into the darkness.
I arrived at the pier five minutes ahead of the previous day, so when I came back to the Guillamene, I kept going past for the extra four hundred metres I estimated I needed for the five kilometer total.
Two half Claws, not too bad.
The belt? That because if you get the Claw and can’t close your trousers button (as happened me today), at least the pants will stay up. Unlike Rob after one swim last year, where his pants fell down when he stopped in Kinsale for a coffee.
Oh, it turns out 2 days ago was World Oceans Day. Luckily, I went for a swim, even though I didn’t know.
You know, in all the swimming I did last year, I never really wrote about ordinary swims that much. Every swim was part of a structure, a plan, the wet road toward Dover and the Strait. I tended to think more about big swims and tough swims, or swims which marked some milestone.
I often say, (maybe not here), that early May last year was the toughest test. Those early days in the cold, always by myself, every day swimming into deep cold, recover for the next day and doing it all again, regardless of weather.
Today’s swim was slightly reminiscent of that week but without the overarching story and of course it’s a month later and the water is warmer.
The day is poor. The air temperature is only 12 °C and the water temperature is 11.5 °C. There’s the prevailing south-westerly wind. The sky is overcast and there are irregular rain showers.
The height of Newtown protects the Guillamenes and the inside west side under the low cliffs of the bay from southwesterlies, so the water is not too choppy. There’s a small swell running though, driven by those onshores, which is making it into the bay which is larger further out. Inside it’s only half a metre or so. I know that it will be a bit bigger further in going over the Colomene reef, around the pier and under Doneraile Head.
There’s no-one around. After the sun of the weekend and the large number of teenagers, it’s back to an empty car-park and just me and my swim-box here again. Not even the doggits.
I felt like I needed my rubber mat to stand on. The air is chilly and the sky and sea are grey. At least there is a rising tide.
Given the conditions and tide, I decided to head inwards. I knew I would have the swell pushing me in and have to fight it on the way back. Also once I got past the Colomene reef, the cliffs pull back a bit, so the chop picks up between there and pier. Okay on the way down, less so returning.
I stood on the steps for a good 30 seconds. It was like winter. But I knew the water wouldn’t be as cold as it looked. This is the advantage of experience, to be able to just do it when you may not feel like it..
I dove in, and settled immediately. Now, things were better. I was in the water. Off to the pier with me.
Past the Colomene I started to see hundreds of common jellies again.
It took about 18 minutes, an average time, or even slow considering the swell. As I approached I decided to keep going across under Lady Doneraile Head toward the beach, since you can only do this above half-tide, and I remembered I hadn’t done a swim to the beach yet this year.
I reached the beach in 30 minutes. By then I’d had some sun breaking through clouds. After I turned I headed back toward the pier. I had learned some years back that heading directly toward the Guillamene across the bay from here was a bad idea as I would run into the end of the Scarf.
As I passed the pier end there were two children and a man just watching me. You always wonder, what are they thinking? There was no obvious entry point for me. And the only visible exit point was at the pier itself, and I was swimming past.
The journey back was a slog. It usually is. There’s a stand of trees on the skyline about 200 metres returning past the pier, which indicate one of the spots which had a current which slows you for a few minutes. 50 metres to the trees. 50 metres to the trees. Still 50 metres to the trees.
The wide section before the Colomene was choppy and swelly. No swimmer feels the glide in these conditions. You get pushed skyward on the swell, and crash back down. Your hand hits wavelets, and your arm hits swell or trough. Your stroke is short and choppy like the water itself. But it’s not too bad, because at least I didn’t get a pain in my head from banging off bigger chop.
And then, quite quickly I passed the last house and was swimming in toward the Guillamene. Just over an hour and ten minutes, slower than the same swim would be in better conditions. One-fingered claw on my left hand. Rain as I was emerging.
I changed in the alcove. Looking at the water I could see the wind had picked up to Force Three with whitecaps everywhere. The black clouds were moving off again while sunshine was arriving once more.
All in all, nothing unusual. Cold, hungry. Happy. Home.
Yes, even with all that I wrote I still missed a major component.
When you enter cold water you feel a few different sensations. I talked about habituation and gasp reflex, peripheral vaso-constriction and mammalian dive reflex before, and I’m sure I will again. But I neglected to talk about one of the most obvious effects, the feeling across your skin.Depending on your experience the feeling may be severe enough that you can’t tell exactly to which sensation it is analogous. It might feel like fire or ice or boiling water or acid or lime, or as you’d imagine them.
Those are thermoreceptors, only one of the four main types of touch receptors (extraceptors) in the skin. There are also pain receptors (nocireceptors). Ah, yes, there’s a difference.
There are about 50 touch receptors per square centimetre of skin. One square centimetre is equal to 2.4710538147 x 10-8 acres in American money! :-) (Engineer humour again).
Anyway, the main sensory input from cold water comes from the thermoreceptors. Thermoreceptors are of two types, sensing both heat and cold. And … there are about four times as many cold receptors as heat receptors. And, the maximum density of cold receptors is where?
Oh yeah, you swimmers know – there are more in the face and ears! Yes, the bits that hurt the most, and go cold the quickest.
In The Nervous System in Action, author Michael Mann says “in estimating skin temperature, people are quite accurate in the region of normal body temperature, 37 ºC to 38 ºC, but they consistently overestimate higher and underestimate lower temperatures.” Interesting. I think after a certain time cold water swimmers develop a really good internal estimation system for cold. If Lisa or Rob tell me the water is 8 ºC, I believe them. Partly because of their experience, partly because of mine.
Mann further says “starting at 28 ºC, the temperature has to be raised by about 1 ºC [ ... ] to elicit a sensation of warmth or lowered by 0.15 ºC to elicit a sensation of cold.”
That’s probably a surprise for many of us. I certainly thought I could detect a heat change (to warmer water) of maybe half a degree once I was swimming and cooled down. Of course unlike measuring temperatures before and after swimming, I’ve never had a way of checking this.
He makes a significant point that these changes are contingent based on whatever the acclimation temperature is “When the temperature of the skin is changed rapidly, the sensation evoked depends not only on the amount and direction of change, but also upon the temperature from which it is changed, the acclimation temperature.”
And Mann has a nice experiment: “To convince yourself that these observations are accurate, try the following experiment: Fill three bowls with water: one lukewarm, one cold and one warm. Put the left hand in cold water, the right in warm water for a while and then place both in the lukewarm water. A clear sensation of warmth will occur in the left hand and a sensation of cold in the right. An important conclusion from Figure 5-8 is that the same temperature can feel either warm or cold depending upon stimulus conditions, i.e., the acclimation temperature”.
(You could do that with just three glasses of water and hold them instead).
Heat receptors start to perceive heat above 30 ºC. and continue to perceive heat until the maximum receptor stimulation which occurs at 45 ºC. Over 45 ºC, pain receptors take over to avoid (Stop! Heat! Burn!) damaging the skin and body.
Cold receptors only start to perceive cold below 35 °C. Normal core body temperature is 37 °C. So you start to feel cold pretty quickly. And there is obviously a five degree cross-over where both hot and cold receptors are operating. I guess it is partly the balance of these two that help indicate level of comfort.
Drum roll. At five degrees C. cold receptors no longer operate. Unlike with heat, the pain receptors don’t come into operation. So … you start to go numb, end of pain.
So I’ve contradicted (I prefer clarified) my title. It’s not pain we feel, it really is cold. The intensity we feel comes as a consequence of the rapid and large change of temperature and that the body treats cold and heat as two different effects.
The numbness is why so many of us end up with lacerated feet and legs (and in my case, fingertips, due to my tendency to go shallow on the third corner of Sandycove).
Of course, if you now stay in the cold, you are on the way to hypothermia as you no longer have external receptors giving you feedback and you are relying on internal resources (intraceptors) and experience.
This is a slightly updated version (main changes in italics), specifically the list of factors affecting ability.
This post was courtesy of searches on the site as a few variations of this question had cropped up.
I guess I could divide my thoughts on lowest possible water temperature in which to swim into three camps.
1 degree WARMER than it is now
What it is now
1 degree COLDER than it is now
Substitute any temperature reading into the above sentences…because cold is fairly subjective, (up to a certain point). I used to be in the first category, moved to the second, and am now definitely in the third. (All this means is I’ve (now) swam in 4 C. which makes me know it’s possible for me to swim in 2 C. It’s a moving target, last time those figures were higher).
I’ve pointed out before some of the things that affect your ability to deal with cold. Here’s the updated comprehensive list.
What weight are you?
What shape are you?
What shape are you in? (Fitness)
How did you sleep last night?
Are you tired just before you swim?
Have you drank alcohol in the last 24 hours?
Have you eaten (properly) today?
Are you well or ill?
Or have you been ill recently?
Have you swam in similar temperatures before?
If so, for how long?
If so, how often?
If so, how many times?
If so, how long ago?
Does Open Water scare you (just be honest with yourself)?
How well do you know the location?
Are you cold before you swim?
Is it sunny or cloudy or raining?
What’s the air temperature?
What’s the wind direction?
What’s the wind speed?
Is it choppy or calm?
What have the conditions been like for the last few days and weeks? And what are the prevailing conditions for your location?
How motivated are you?
So, as you can see, there are lots of variations just with these parameters. Some, like illness, are less likely but you really need to be aware of your own experience and take it incrementally.
One can’t reasonably expect to go from pool swimming to doing an hour in 7C / 45 F without a wetsuit, based on desire to swim alone. Granted, this isn’t likely to occur, but I’m trying to illustrate a point.
Ability to handle COLD is again a matter of a few factors being more important than others (all other things like alcohol, food, illness, sleep being equal): namely, experience and weight.
People with plenty of experience of cold can swim in very cold water. I can swim for 20 minutes in 5 C / 40 F water, because I’ve gotten used to it. But I certainly don’t recommend it and I won’t claim it’s fun. I’ve kind of changed my opinion on the fun aspect. And the bigger and heavier you are the more you can handle with less training. Fat is an insulator. Just having plenty of fat alone makes cold easier to deal with. But fat does not lessen the pain of the initial shock for example.
The effect of wind is very significant. Any Northerly wind in Ireland is inevitably cold as may easterlies. Heat will be stripped from your body faster while swimming and while trying to get dressed. Any wind will generally cool you faster. And there is no thinking your way out of it out of wind. A similar effect is whether there is sunshine or not. Swimming the Guillamenes on a flat day which is calm, with no wind, warm air and sunny can lead to big difference than a choppy windy overcast day. even though the water may be no warmer, you can feel much more comfortable, due to the lack of wind combined with direct sunshine and calm water. I’ve said previously, wind is the swimmer’s enemy.
I can also tell you, without any embellishment, that my reactions to various temperatures are entirely different now than they were two years ago. I wrote a chart for myself of my reactions and estimated comfortable swim times at decreasing temperatures below 12 Celsius. That chart is now entirely useless as a current indicator, but is interesting to me as an measurement of how far my ability to handle cold has changed.
Some evidence says regular immersion in water temperatures of less than 10 Celsius is very beneficial for health, in a few different areas; improved respiration and circulation, lessened chances of infection and heart attack. However once the time goes over 10 minutes some of those benefits tend to reverse, especially hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia.
Update: Here’s my own scale of water temperatures and the possibilities.
If you are arriving here from USMS, board.ie or any of various pointers here, please note the Cold section on the top menu and you’ll find other more extensive writing on the subject.
The ice broke on the lake at Alan’s home outside Montreal this week. So he waited not at all, for immersion.
Here he is doing his Lewis Pugh impression.
Swimming right by the ice.
And then, unveiling the temperature. Yes folks, that looks like 2 to 2.5 deg Celsius to me. ( 35 F in old money). And please remember, that’s fresh water, which feels colder than the same temperature in sea water.
All right , let’s finally wind this down with an obligatory reminder from Tiina Makinen; “several individual factors effect the rates at which people respond to the same stimuli . The time course of adaptation is dependent on the threshold of the stimulus, a latency period, the physiologically and possible genetically determined maximum of an effector organ, the speed of tissue/organ/systemic adaptation”., which of course means everyone is different.
There’s a nice chart of all of this, (because I think you know by now that I like charts). Though without a time scale axis the chart implies that pre-adaptation and adaptation decay take the same time.
There’s some brief mention of health effects of cold adaptation, but that’s a different subject than what we’re pursuing here, too many non-similar studies without controls and for another time anyway.
Also, and you can judge for yourselves on this, the studies seem to imply a two stage-process, pre-adaptation and adaptation. Which is fine for a study, but we know it’s not like that, as the chart shows.
So the hypothesis is: Cold swimming ability is an iterative incremental positive feedback process (limited).(In a negative feedback process, a change one way directs a change in the opposite direction, (like a thermostat). It’s a regulatory process that stabilises. In positive feedback a change generates further change in the same direction, usually leading to destabilisation or enforcement).
Simply, you improve habituation so you improve acclimatisation, which prompts you to return and your habituation improves further, making it easier again to become immersed, and so on. Or maybe one could just simply say, small improvements happen fairly quickly, these accumulate and allow you to improve more, so long as you keep exposing yourself to cold.
Disclaimer. I never thought this would be so long! But it didn’t know it would be so much fun to write either.
So we’ve covered a lot of the features of cold adaptation.
One major factor of habituation is left, and it’s key. Let me quote directly from Makinen. All subsequent italicized sections are direct quotations: “Young  postulates that the type of cold adaptation response is dependent on the amount of cooling of the body ”.
Though further,…“habituation is the most common form of cold adaptation and develops in response to repeated cold exposures where whole-body cooling is not substantial. When being habituated to cold, thermal cold sensations are less intense and shivering and the vasoconstrictor response is blunted. ”
This is what we realise though. Habituation is about the initial immersion process for us. This is saying that the overall perceived pain of the immersion process lessens.
Now we come to what I think is far more relevant for us swimmers than the weight it is given in the paper: “At the same time stress responses are reduced, meaning a lesser rise in blood pressure (BP) and reduced release of stress hormones in the circulation.”
This was, for me, the missing piece of information. It explains for example why this winter I could get into 5 C water with little discomfort. I now have, to use the terminology, blunted response to cold. My gasp reflex is almost gone, my heart rate stays pretty normal prior to getting in, and even as I get in. I’ve mentioned in other posts this winter that this year I am better than I was last year, and last year I was better than the year before.
And the paper agrees: “The initial response to immersion to cold water involves a “cold chock” (sic) response associated with hyperventilation, tachycardia and a reduced breath holding time”.
Now the paper does say that this doesn’t seem important to extended exposure. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the more comfortable you are initially, that would translate into a certain extension of duration ability.
A very important point that tangentially validates some of what we say, (and I think I said in previous posts): “Furthermore, habituation to cold (five immersions for 2.5 min in 12°C water) increases breath holding time, and was not augmented by psychological training”.
So it’s purely physiological.Psyching-up routines are unnecessary (though personally I do like to take a few seconds of seeking calm before entry), but the important part there is the five immersions.
Continuing: “It has also been demonstrated that repeated immersions in cold water result in a long-lasting (7-14 months) reduction in the magnitude of the cold shock response. The precise pathways and mechanisms behind habituation are not well understood, but could occur at the spinal cord or the higher centres of [the Central Nervous System]”.
This is completely at odds with what I said earlier, and what we swimmers believe to be true, that losing the hardening process happens four to five times quicker than actual hardening. It could be that many us of don’t want to experiment in this area by losing all the hard work.
Insulative and metabolic-insulative physiological adaptations occur “when repeated exposures to cold cause significant heat loss. Insulative adaptation to cold is believed to develop when [metabolic heat production] is insufficient to prevent cooling of the core”.
“Very brief repeated whole body immersions (20 s) to cold water (0-2°C) causes habituation of thermal sensation and comfort already after the first exposure “. So habituation improves immediately. I had put this down partly (and obviously incorrectly) to a partly psychological knowledge that well, it didn’t kill me the first time.
“Winter swimming results in a suppressed [metabolic heat production] and heart rate in response to cold . […] Regular winter swimming also attenuates the catecholamine response to cold water [...] A follow-up study of winter swimmers over the swimming season observed a decreased BP and catecholamine responses in the end of the winter.
But with this important caveat: “However, the response was similar in controls, suggesting either habituation to the research situation itself or seasonal adaptation. ”
In the area of acclimatisation: “Longer periods of winter swimming (1 h at 13°C water) elicit a hypothermic response (lowered threshold) and delayed onset of shivering .”
“Whole-body immersion of longer durations (90 min to 3 h) into cold water (10-18°C) causes insulative or metabolic insulative acclimation ”.
It goes on “Bittel  detected similar thermal responses, but also an enhanced [metabolic heat production] after the acclimation, suggesting metabolic acclimation”.
Tiina Makinen‘s “Different types of cold adaptation in humans” works as a meta-analysis of various scientific studies of cold adaptation and is a fantastic read and is available at the Finnish Arctic Institute of Health.
It ranges over types of cold adaptation, (physiological, genetic, behavioural), acclimation and acclimatization in specific groups (occupational, indigenous, high latitudes) and certain affecting factors. Some areas such as genetic adaptability in indigenous people aren’t relevant for swimming.
The paper does a great job of rounding up the various effects of cold responses, I’ll only summarize the relevant swimming ones.
She lists three main types of cold adaptation, metabolic, insulative, hypothermic, with three physiological responses to each one.
Figure one displays generally how these arise.
For most of us, we fall into the body heat loss category due to swimming time. (However for short term experienced winter swimmers, I believe we can enter into the cold habituation category of blunted shivering, due to my experiences this winter, where I had little shivering or shaking).
So this brings us the point that Finbarr made in the comments to the first post of this category, where he said we generate more heat, which is known as thermogenesis.
Anyone who has read Lynne Cox’s Swimming To Antarctica may remember that on testing in controlled conditions (acclimation) she actually increased metabolic heat production. I seem to recall some other people testing at this also, but can’t find studies right now.
The body is evolved to protect against a certain amount of cold by increasing heat. But thermogenesis is normally achieved by shivering, and to do this in air, not water. For swimmers therefore shivering is not good. But it’s still possible to increase heat (non-shivering thermogenesis, NST) through other methods.
As adapted swimmers we do this in two main ways:
1: Peripheral vasoconstriction, which we are all familiar with. The blood flow to the skin is reduced, retaining more heat by not dissipating heat from a higher blood flow through the skin & limbs. Again, from personal experience, Dee has noticed how much and how quickly my skin cools on even short swims, when I feel completely comfortable. Many of you will recognise this as a clammyness to the skin, but since your hands are also cold, you can’t really feel it. This is what Makinen calls an insulative response.
2: The second response, and we don’t think of it as response, since it’s the start of the process that leads to hypothermia, is Insulative-Hypothemic. In this our skin temperature reduces…as does the core temperature. Obviously unchecked, staying in cold water long enough, leads to a strictly hypothermic response (you get hypothermia).
So as an experienced cold water swimmer, you are autonomically working on both these factors (amongst others more consciously).
Table one gives the expanded responses available.
Makinen also talks about purely Insulative adaptation. From our point of view however, I like to think of this one as a more conscious response. Sometimes, we put on more body weight deliberately. It’s a toll available to all swimmers. More weigh, as I’ve said previously, equals more surface area equals slower heat loss.
Makinen makes brief reference to brown adipose tissue, brown fat, which I’ve mentioned previously. Here I’m going to personal observation. I noticed over the course of last year, that Rob, Gábor, Ciarán, and myself put on more weight particularly across our upper backs once we were in regular sea training. Jen, being female had a more whole body subcutaneous effect, but also had the morphologically changed upper back, while Liam had less time to adapt to cold than the rest of us because of his earlier swim date, and I couldn’t see up that high anyway. Other anecdotes within the Irish Open Water group indicate that this happens with regular exposure. Studies in the New England Journal of Medicine showed brown fat developed quickly after repeated cold exposure. Makinen notes that it is more likely in women than men, but those studies were in temperature reduced air, rather than water.
The sites of brown fat growth are significantly in the upper back! Also , brown fat is metabolically active, unlike white fat, so it will generate heat.
And despite a reasonable training amount since, at least for Gábor and I, we’ve lost that enhanced upper back/shoulders, which I think is because, though we swim weekly, we are not in often enough to necessitate brown fat, which would return once more regular cold water training would recommence.
So we a source of metabolic thermogenesis to which Makinen doesn’t much refer, as part of my hypothesis. #
Did I mention my hypothesis? So yes, I have one. It’s nothing extraordinary but I’ll come to it.
By the way, if I was writing those posts now, since my experience had changed again, I would have different figures. It’s good that I can still see progression from there, because for those of you whoare maybe further behind on the curve, or further ahead, we can all be assured that we are on the same relative learning curve.
For a quick recap, habituation is the learned process (for our purposes) of getting used to getting into cold water.
Habituation doesn’t necessarily mean you get better at it (though it is fairly inevitable). It just means you get more used to doing it (not quite semantic difference). So you know that it’s not really going to kill you, and the pain is transient, therefore you don’t have to fight yourself quite as much to go or to get in the water.
Acclimatisation is the process of becoming used to and better at, staying in cold water. Therefore they are two quite separate processes. (It’s not acclimation by the way, since it happens in the natural environment.)
One can also see back those posts I was asking “how can Thought affect your cooling rate?”, which is your ability in cold water. I obviously used a capitalised word to indicate directed mentation toward the specific end of extending time spent swimming.
Over the past year and half I’ve indicated all (I think) of the pertinent environmental and physiological contributors.
So let’s set most of those aside (weather, health, diet).
Swimmers call the process of getting better at cold water hardening. Here’s some experiental data from swimmers about the hardening process: You can lose it four to five times quicker than you gain it. Sorry to start at the end but it’s because we can at least quantify it a bit better.
Going back to the start though, and what I tell people who ask me, is that you see a definite improvement in your short-term in-water experience within about five swims, in any particular lower temperature range. So if you start at 12 C, you will see the improvement there, whereas someone who starts at 10C should see a similar improvement.
Some people I’ve talked to starting off, separate from the not-insignificant initial problem of just immersing the face, found it difficult to impossible to hold their face in the water for more than four or five minutes, in what I would consider warmish water (12C). Others found pain in the hands and/or feet to be the issues, some find the desperate gasping for air to be the worst aspect. Some have many or all of these symptoms to varying degrees.
In fact, writing it all down like that makes you wonder why on earth we would ever voluntarily subject ourselves to it?
Also, a reminder, don’t look at someone heavier and assume it’s easier for them, a common mistake. A heavier person has greater volume so retains heat longer, but the initial pain will be just as intense.
So, we levelled the field and we’re back to the initial question: take me and someone else approximately similar measurements, standing on the Guillamenes platform in mid February about to get into the water. And assuming I have more experience I will be out later. Why?
I had not planned to leave you hanging here, it just turns out that as I write this, in this format, it is taking more than I initially realised, that I can pull in others factors to do a more comprehensive essay on the subject.
It’s spring. We’re in the sea more or want to be, stretching out swimming times or wanting to. It’s probably more appropriate to talk about cold now than during the winter, because we are coming into the most difficult time of year for distance swimmers.
In the winter many stop sea swimming or switch to wetsuits. Those of us who keep swimming skin through the winter do it for the challenge, and only think about relatively short exposure times.
This is following a discussion on USMS time back. American swimmer Mike N_ (Hi Mike!), who engaged in a fantastic Open Water swimming holiday around Britain and Ireland…in January (crazy man)… directed me to a great paper on extreme cold adaptation in humans.
At various monthly meetings with Eilís for both of my Channel visits, and much to the annoyance of others swimmers wondering when I’d ever shut up (remember the recent introversion points), and going back further to my early days open water swimming, I kept coming up against one question no-one could really answer for me.
All things being equal, especially body size and insulation, why can one person stay longer in cold water than another?
Everyone prevaricates and says “experience”. I say why? They say “mentality”. Why? “Personal strategy”. Explains nothing really.
(Personal strategy is what I could call something like “I tell myself it’s warm“).
These were insufficient answers for me. Yep, geek. I wanted to know. Had the answer been something reasonable I would have forgotten about it. And remember, long swims in cold water, with that personality I mentioned the other day? Well, it’s hard to think about girls in bikinis on your tenth cold lap of Sandycove.
Here was my thinking: Think of a human as a “blackbody”. A blackbody is a physical method of simplifying calculation problems. Instead of dealing with a complex shape like the human body, think of it as a sphere. (It’s where physicist jokes about spheroid chickens in a vacuum* come from. Those are funny jokes by the way, just in case you are wondering).
So treat two people who are roughly the same size and weight as a sphere. Their surface area is the same so surface area to volume ratio is the same.
Let’s say they have around the same fat percentage. And that the water temperature is the same.
So we have similar figures which should all give a measurement of heat loss: The amount of heat loss of a sphere is directly proportional to surface to volume ratio (large bodies lose heat more slowly than small bodies. It’s why polar bears and some sea swimmers are big).
The rate will also be directly proportional to the temperature difference between the medium and the body. Heat loss will be mediated by insulation properties (fat).
Now setting aside the fact that there is little research that I could find in this area (but not none) predicting heat loss in humans (I even logged a question into the Wolfram Alpha forums), we have a hypothesis: heat loss in water is directly related to a short list of physical factors.
Here’s another way of looking at the same problem with which you’ll be more familiar. New or For Sale houses now in Ireland require a new Energy Rating. That figure gives how well the house performs from a heat loss point of view. If you combine this figure with the number of Degree Days (number of days in Ireland which the temperature is below 15.5C when you want the internal heat to be 18C) you can come up with an equivalent estimate for heating costs over a year, regardless of house shape.
But we can see that the issue of duration in cold water is not answered by treating people as a black-body radiation problem.
(If it was possible, I probably would have an answer to my Wolfram Alpha question, and we would have simple swimmer charts which say if you weigh W, have X body fat percentage, then your exposure duration in X degrees of water would be Y time.)
Something therefore must have been missing from my visualisation. Computer or calculation models are derived by coming up a certain set of basic principles, inputting some real world measurements, and seeing if the output mirrors the real world.
What did I not consider?
An answer is in the next post on this subject.
*A farmer noticed that his chickens were sick, and called in a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist to help diagnose the problem. The biologist observed the chickens, concluding, “I can tell you there’s something wrong with your chickens, but I don’t know what’s causing it.” The chemist took fluid samples from the chickens back to his lab, and returned saying, “I can tell you what’s infecting your chickens, but I don’t know how they got it.” Meanwhile, the physicist had been sitting on the floor, scribbling madly on several notebooks worth of paper. Suddenly, he jumped up, exclaiming, “I have the answer, but it only works for spherical chickens in a vacuum.“
I’ve noticed occasionally over the years that my house seems to exist within a thermocline, as it’s on the Suir river bank, and the town is flanked on the north and south by hills. Often driving up the southerly steep hill will be accompanied by a temperature rise.
Today since I was heading toward Tramore, I was driving down the valley however, but within 5 mile the temperature was up to -1°C.
The air was still at home but looking at the wind turbines outside Portlaw indicated a Northerly wind.
But, after arriving at the Guillamenes, while there were a few cars around, air temperature was a nice 2 to 3°C. There was a sizable short-range South Easterly swell, so very rough and choppy. Taking my own advice, I watched the water for about 5 minutes. It was half tide and sets were surging to about six to eight feet up the steps.
Even with the new wide steps and railings (the Council put three railing in by the way, after it was pointed out to them that the original design was insufficient), it was too dodgy for a safe exit.
Anyone getting in and out there today would have been taking an unnecessary risk!I’ve written about this repeatedly, in fact only yesterday. At steps, ladders and rocks, the exit is the most dangerous point!
It’s a risk that I wouldn’t and didn’t take, & I have significantly more experience than all those who were there earlier, yet… in they went. And put that in the context of some of the things that I’ve done.
While there was conceivably time to get out between waves, there was no pattern, so you could be half way up when a set could catch you. And I was congizant of the fact that I would have cold or numb hands and feet.
Luck is the fool’s shield.
As I mentioned in my post the other day, OBSERVE. If there are other egotistical idiots, people who are doing something, you are not obliged to do the same.
I’ve had people try to lecture me, telling me what I do is wrong. But I haven’t spent all this time as the Lone Swimmer without learning, instead of following. And in fairness the one person who used to try the lecturing was the one who know the least but has the most (unjustified) arrogance.
And then I took the temperature. Wait for it…5.2°C. Holy freholie! In December! A 2°C drop in a week.
That’s in the range of coldest sea temperature I’ve experienced, but two a half months ahead of schedule. Last year’s coldest was 5°C.
Ok, over to Newtown Cove for a look. I knew Newtown would be sheltered for entry and exit but the tiny beach is stony. There’s a ladder and slipway down also from the concrete platform, but I don’t want to climbing down, and later trying to climb up, a metal ladder that’s going to be at that low temperature. The slipway at that side is algae-covered so that’s a no-no. And I didn’t fancy managing the stones after a swim.
So it’s off to my backup location, Tramore Pier, which I only swim from a few times a year but have swam to more times than I can remember.
And indeed,with a half tide, and being deeper inside T-bay, inside the pier was completely calm.
Walked over to the lower inside wall to take a measurement for curiosity’s sake, it was 5.1°C inside the wall, and 5.6°C one metre away on the outside of the wall. The ground was 0° to 2°C!
The pier is shallow so it’s a slow entry. I left my coat and sandals around the tide line and off I went. Maybe because of the slow entry it didn’t feel that bad. I swam outside the pier wall and out towards the Metalman and then I realised, someone could come along see the coat, and either panic or take the car keys. Normally I use a lockbox on the car but I thought with the 75 metre walk back today, I’d have lost some dexterity and might have a problem.
So I swam back did a loop inside the tiny harbour, swam back outside in a direct line from the beach this time and came back. I actually felt fine. However the pain that the 5C range causes in the hands and feet was there, and which at that temperature never departs. I had real pain in both as I exited, it was the main reason for getting out at 14 minutes.
Walking across the mixed sand and shingle was painful, my hands were really bloody painful and I was of course that lovely luminous lobster red.
“It’s all good”, as my daughter says.
Getting dressed I was under the cliff, well out of any wind, I felt okay, in fact I thought, “I feel unusually good for this temperature”. I got dressed without any difficulty before the after-drop hit, and while I had some shivering and jaw chattering, I was good to drive after a hot chocolate. I was really comfortable by about an hour.
And a bonus for one of the Doggits was that the Not-so-small Emergency Backup Dog found half of an half-frozen, half-rotten fish, so he was very happy with the trip. He stinks now though.
Next weekend it’ll be the Christmas Day swim. With a bit of luck, and co-operation from my wonderful fiancée, I might get to document it a bit.
It’s Sunday morning, and it’s dogdamned cold. Unusually the air is very dry so at least this time the bitter cold isn’t accompanied by any snow or ice…this time. I don’t know what the air temp is yet but it’s got to be -4C at least.
The sea is calling and I’d ignore the siren lure but there’s the bloody BCWSC at the end of January. The dogs know I’m supposed to be going, they’re going over the front door and back, looking at me.
Damn you Sylvain and Lisa. Damn you Rob, Mark, Liz, Craig & Gábor.
I’m going to have to go out that door soon and head down.
I’ve got a paper on “Different types of cold adaptation in humans” from the Finnish Arctic Institute of Health Sciences open in front of me that I was very kindly informed about from a US swimmer (Thanks Mike!) and reading about cold is far more interesting this morning than actually going out in it or skinswimming in it.
(Once I finish it I’ll link it here btw).
Meanwhile the Sandycove crew will be out celebrating Mike Harris’ birthday with a cold swim down there. I had planned to go down, but I think prudence is warranted given the weather and the long drive down and back). Hope you all enjoy it guys, Happy Birthday Mike!