Tag Archives: Cold water

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 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.

Cold spots

I measured the Guillamenes at 12.5C yesterday, a full 3.5C warmer than a week previously, sun in the sky, and no wind.
However swimming outward past Newtown Cove the temp dropped, and halfway to the Metalman I’d say it was only about 9.5C.

There was no particular sensation of gradually warmer water as I swam from outside the Metalman, just outside the bay, back inward until after a few hundred meters after I passed the Comolene. There were distinct warm patches from there to the pier.
Overall, maybe because of tiredness, I got cold quickly yesterday and had enough at just under 90 minutes.

It’s almost impossible to gauge what the difference between water temperatures once one is in it. Going on experience I usually guess about a 2 degree differential. Yesterday was a bit more I think.

After I returned to the car park I was surprised that I could see multiple cold streams. Out past Newtown cove I could 4 different stream, and in past the Guillamenes, I could see three. Two are easily visible in the picture, with the third slightly visible over and to the right of the other two. I haven’t seen this before.

I’d guess I can remember the main cold and warm spots in most places I’ve swam.

Some other examples:
Clonea is cold once you swim east past the black rocks below the big house even on warm days.
Baile na Gaul has a cold patch at the point before Helvick.
The temperature drops as you swim over the Gainers, the reefs 2/3 of the way across Dungarvan Bay.
Sandycove is cold as you pass the second corner and mostly warm around the third corner.
Clew Bay is intermittently warm as you swim into the Newtown estuary.
Inishcarragh can have cold spots at the far side of the lake.

I remember them because they hurt.

lanolin and other types of grease and lubrication

Salt-water chafing

When we were in Dover two years ago for our two-way relay swim, one day we were getting ready to go swimming in the harbour. Three guys came over to us and we got talking, as is common in Dover. They had come from New York for a one-way relay.

They wanted to know why we were all rubbing “stuff” on our armpits. We were fairly surprised they didn’t know. Turned out they had never swam in salt water, only fresh or brackish, and were completely unaware of the issue of chafing that all affects all sea-swimmers.

The salt crystals will start to build up immediately between surfaces that are in contact, and after a short period will start to abrade the skin. If you don’t protect against it, it can break the skin, be really painful and take quite a while to heal.

For me I’m ok for about 15 minutes but any longer than that will require skin protection.

There’s a range of solutions.

Body-Glide is a rub-on stick designed with triathletes in mind. Easy to apply and I believe is good for up to an hour.

Petroleum Jelly is very common, easy enough to apply. Messy obviously. Lasts a few hours.

Lanolin is probably favourite for longer distance swimmers. It’s cheap but awfully messy to apply. (I carry toilet wipes to wipe off my fingers after, some apply it using plastic bags). It lasts a long time.

Channel grease is a mix of lanolin & petroleum jelly. Can be bought in Varne Ridge in Dover, apparently Boots Dover no longer supply it.

Be careful. You don’t want to get any of these on your goggles…

Runners World people visiting:  I found the comment below in your discussion hilarious. I’ve never known a Channel swimmer say this. (And I know quite a few Channel & marathon swimmers). It’s even better when you notice the misspelling.

I know all the old channel swimmers used it. But…I spoke to a fellow long distance open water swimmer once who said lanolin is probably not the best substance to use for chaffing (not in salt water anyway). Not because it doesn’t work, but because it is a fatty oil derived from wool-bearing animals (i.e. it’s a protein). It’s been known to attack sharks. 

The cumulative effects of cold water?

I’m right in the middle of a painful learning experience, and that is the cumulative effects of daily swimming “into” cold or very cold.

I’m tired this week as a consequence partly of last Friday’s nine and a half hour swim. But last Sunday I also started to sea swim daily.

I’ve swum through the past two winters, without a wetsuit, usually once a week, occasionally missing a week. I’ve gotten better at cold and all the related swimming aspects. I’ve been mildly hyptothermic. But back when I was training for the Double English Channel relay, daily sea-swimming didn’t occur until the end of May.

For six days I’ve been in the sea for anywhere from 45 minutes (today, short, cold wind, rough water & I’m very tired) to one hour and twenty minutes two day ago, averaging about an hour.

And I’ve noticed that the effects of spending two to three hours rewarming every day are far more significant than I was expecting. I am very tired, physically and mentally and don’t think I can ascribe it all to the nine hour swim, even though my mileage has dropped right off this week. I am also extraordinarily hungry for the past few days, in the evening after the recovering from the swim. On Wednesday I finished my dinner, put down the plate and went immediately to make sandwiches as the dinner hadn’t touched the hunger. I continued eating like that for the night.

Right now, I need more data. Some of the other Magnificent Seven that I’ve talked to are reporting the same symptoms but we are all a week after a long swim.

“What temperature of water is too cold to swim in?”

Sea surface tempreatures during the 2005 Atlan...
Image via Wikipedia

Edit: this post, the site’s most popular, has an updated version.

This post is courtesy of searches on the site as a few variations of this question have cropped up.

I guess one could divide 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 probably now is the third. (All this means is I’ve swam in 5 C. which makes me think it’s possible for me to swim in 4 C. It’s a moving target).

I’ve pointed out before some of the things that affect your ability to deal with cold. Let’s try and make a more comprehensive list.

  • Will you be wearing a wetsuit?
  • Are you wearing a swim-cap?
  • What height are you?
  • What weight are you?
  • What shape are you?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • What’s the air temperature?
  • What’s the wind direction?
  • What’s the wind speed?
  • Is it choppy or calm?

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 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. 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.
Finbarr makes a comment that is highly relevant also, that I should have included and that is the effect of wind. Any Northerly wind in Ireland is inevitably cold. Heat will be stripped from your body faster while swimming and while trying to get dressed. (Easterly winds may also be cold). Any wind will generally cool you faster. And there is no thinking your way out of it. A similar effect is whether there is sunshine or not. The day of the Guillamenes video below was flat calm, no wind, warm air and sunny. I think I swam about 50 minutes that day, and even thought the water was no warmer than now, I felt much more comfortable, due to the lack of wind combined with direct sunshine and calm water. I’ve said before, 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 my ability to handle cold has improved.

Being a man, I’m completely unqualified to comment on the effects of cold on pregnant women, sorry. Normal “seek appropriate medical advice” caveats and warnings apply.

I have done some reading on regular cold water immersion. It seems the 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.

Merino Wool

Winds shifted North again over the weekend and look likely to stay that way for a while. :-(

By today water temperature had dropped down to 7 Celsius (from 8.8 C.), i.e. mid-January and mid-March temperatures. 1 hour and 15 mins on Sunday dropped to 1 hour today. Hands “gone” by 45 minutes and the full claw had developed by the time I got out.

The only positive about today I can see is: On Sunday I was in such shock and panic after seeing our remaining training schedule that I completely forgot my normal preparation and recovery, so after the swim I didn’t put on all the gear I normally wear, because I forgot to bring it with. Consequently recovery was more difficult. But today I was at least back to normal post-swim routine.

After today’s swim I put on my normal “really cold” post-swim clothing:

  • Wool hat
  • Merino ski socks
  • 1 Merino base layer
  • 2 Merino mid-layers
  • 1 Merino outer-layer
  • 1 artificial thermal outer-layer
  • 1 heavy jumper
  • Merino long-johns
  • Pants
  • Leather gloves
  • Heavy coat

I then went for a 15 minute “walk”, which was actually a mix of stumble and “jogging” attempts.

Back again to the same old subject of Cold

Cold Water:

I often put on my togs before leaving the house. (Saves me a minute or two of cooling down before getting in the water). Most important on windy days. I stay warm as long as possible. Uncomfortably warm is good!

How do you feel in the water?
How are your fingers/feet?
What are today’s conditions?
Are you having fun? (After all, isn’t that why you’re doing it?)

Get dressed as quickly as possible. Try to be dressed within 5 minutes.
(Have something stand on while getting dressed. I use a €2 rubber car mat.) Choice of clothes is important. (Anyone used to outdoor pursuits knows denim isn’t good. It does not retain warmth and is particularly bad when damp.) Hat. Gloves, etc.

Warm/hot drinks are psycholoigically comforting, but pretty useless for rewarming. The discrepency in temperature between body & drink is far outweighted by the fact that the body weighs a couple of hundred times what the drink does. For drink to be effective in raising core temperature, one would have to drink a couple of gallons.

Wearing clothes that trap & retain the maximum radiated body heat is more effective. As is exercise, which will raise your temperature internally (exothermically). After a cold swim you will only need moderate exercise for the effect so a walk is good.

Why not? You measure it, it will get better.

The Big Drop

Well, we’re into the “lowest water temperature of the year” period. Yesterday I measured 5 Deg. Celsius exactly, 0.1 C lower than the coldest day I swam last year, and 2 degree drop in 2 weeks, 1 week ahead of last years drop. Maybe a month or 6 weeks of this to endure.
Air temp 3.5C with a Force 2 biting NW breeze.
On the good side, I swam 15 minutes, could have easily done more but didn’t feel like spending a long time rewarming. As it was, rewarming took over an hour. But comparing my sensations to a year ago, I’m definitely handling it better. Cold shock is reduced, and overall comfort is achieved much quicker. At 5 C. though, the hands and feet stay painful. I wore fins yesterday, just to reduce the sore soles aspect and for a bit more comfort in the cold.

Long Duration Exposure Effects of Cold Water

This is quite simple but if you really understand it, it explains a lot of other things.
We’ve briefly covered the various stages of hypothermia. For regular cold water swimming, the important thing here is that as temperature decreases blood-flow changes. Blood circulation from the extremities to the core decreases, in order to protect the vital organs. The means the blood in the extremities, arms & legs will get colder than the blood in the core. It’s important therefore to remember that you don’t want this cold blood suddenly flowing into your core, as that is the real source of danger.

My hypothermia experience…

In 2008 I did the first* Blackrock to Cobh 8 mile (tide-assisted) in October without a wetsuit that took me 3 hours in 12 to 12.5 Deg Celsius. I had already done a couple of similar or longer distance swims but not at this temperature continuously. (I had done Clew Bay at 12 miles and at a similar temperature for the first hour and a half, but swimming into a river estuary which gradually raised the temperature.)

I was expecting about a degree warmer. There were 14 swimmers some with wetsuits, some without. I was the thinnest without a wetsuit and the last exiting the water.
It was quite cold at start, for maybe 1 minute, I felt OK after a few minutes. I swam fine for the first 50 minutes, when I had my first food break (a warm drink). My hands never regained full flexibility after that and they gradually lost efficiency.

My fingers were spreading at 1 hour. I had warm drinks about every 45 minutes after first break. After coming out of the Passage Channel and around Haulbowline, the last mile was horrible with wind against tide, lots of chop, very shallow in places, and I was really struggling. Support kayaks were checking me for the last hour, to see if I could the remember day of week etc, simple cognition and speaking tests. My hands were completely frozen and clawed, and my arms numb to my elbows.
I was “Mildly Hypothermic” for 15 minutes after the finish. With my fiancée’s assistance, I was able to get dressed but I don’t remember anything for those 15 minutes though I <was> functional. My girlfriend says I was coherent but speaking extremely slowly, taking seconds per word. Lots of layers and warm drink to warm up. I don’t however recall any serious shivering but I’m not saying there wasn’t, only my memory isn’t reliable so I think there must have been. I guess it took me a hour to get comfortable, and maybe another hour to feel ok. I’m sure you noticed the word Mild there. There are various states of hypothermia, mild to severe. Mild is body temperature of 32 to 35 C. (36.5 to 37.5 C is normal). At Moderate you are turning blue etc. Mild Hypothermia is a lot more than just being bloody cold!

That was a very valuable experience and useful information about my own limits. Had I done the same swim last year, I think I’d have checked the water temperature first. If it was the same….I’d have worn a suit, I’d learned what I needed.

*(Renewed) As this was originally first swam by Coach Eilish when she was 14 years old!

“I just can’t handle the cold”, Part 3 – (The Fear)

The rest of that summer had me in the sea weekly and I even did my first few races (the Lee River Swim, and the Sandycove Island Challenge, both around 2K) but got little real information especially I knew few people. As I said I’m a late starter so I’ll never be the fastest swimmer, compared to people with 20 or 30 years training. ‘Cause, you know, this is a sport where the median age is, well, older.

And of course, a message I’ll repeat in various forms; Open Water is not about the speed. Some people do not understand this.

But I’m kind of obsessive* (it’s a joke among my friends/family) so I always want to know I’m doing <my> best and getting better.

After a couple of months I was getting used to getting in, and getting in quickly, no splashing around. Of course the water was very gradually getting warmer.

BTW, I do 95% of my swimming, pool & sea, by myself.

Where I sea swim locally there are lots of “polar bears”, i.e. the generally older people who get in for 5 to 10 minutes, twelve months of the year. But I am the only current long distance swimmer there, though there are a couple of tri-athletes.
My local pool is a 20m pool and there were no coaches nor any Master’s swimmers, just my friend Clare with whom to go for the occasional swim. I plugged on through the winter in the pool returning to the sea weekly last summer.

My first swim the year after was the end of April. I recall the fear. Actual fear manifesting itself physically in nerves, racing heart, twithchyness.

Six months in a pool and now I was getting in earlier. The sand was so cold walking the 10 metres from my sandals to the water my feet were getting sore. I didn’t take the temp but in retrospect I’m guessing 8 to 10 Celsius/46 to 50F. Yes, I now know that’s a very wide temperature window.

It was Ballydowane, a secluded small cove, somewhat sheltered by high cliffs. I planned a 10 minute swim if possible, with my girlfriend watching on the beach. There was swell that day with head high waves breaking on the beach. So I went from walking in wet to the knees, to covered instantly.

Nothing could describe it. There was little to equate it to cold. It could just as easily have been fire or acid. All I knew was instant all-over pain.
Pain in my sinuses. Fire all over my skin. My feet felt like the flesh had been flayed off the soles. Heart rate sky-high.
I swam for…twenty minutes. The first few minutes were awful. The next few were were still really bad. The 10 after that were fine. All the pain disappeared except the soles of my feet which lessened but stayed present.

(Of course, the waves meant I wasn’t visible from the beach. Unfortunately, my girlfriend actually thought I’d drowned. Not good for her.)

The winter after, I again got in early, March that time as I recall, in bad conditions, too rough for the Guillamenes or almost anywhere else. I got in at Tramore pier where the pier’s shelter allowed me to swim out into the bay. Again, very afraid, after a few months swimming only in wetsuit. It was early Sunday morning. Once out there the local Inshore Rescue rib came out! But they were just out Sunday Morning training. They looked at me like I was mad, but realised I was ok and kept going. Since then they’ve seen me a lot.

I’ve never felt that fear again. Because I did it and lived. Ha, and I almost enjoyed it! Looking back, and looking at how I am now, the cold does not affect me the same.

* A couple of years ago I did my first sailing course. I was talking to a friend shortly thereafter. His very first statement was; “I expect you’ll be planning a circumnavigation next year”.

“I just can’t handle the cold”, Part 2 – (The Vagus Nerve)

For the first couple of months I had constant nervousness before swimming, thinking about the cold. I usually found it hard to put my face in the water each time. I got in fairly slowly trying to get used to it, splashing water on my wrists and neck (heat regulation centres, and sides, to accommodate the increased breathing).

Before we go on, let me explain something though: I was wrong abut splashing my neck, wrist and sides. It won’t harm you but you’re better off just splashing the water on your face. The reason is something called the Vagus Nerve, which scuba divers all know about. It’s a cerebral nerve centre, that transmits the state of various sensory organs around the body, including the heart, to the brain. And sudden shocks to it are often the cause of people drowning in five inches of water because of cardiac arrhythmia or triggering the mammalian gag reflex to aspirate water. Splash water on your face, until you get used to getting in, and you are signalling to the brain, closest to the densest point of the nerve, about the coming change in temperature, while still standing safely. I still do this in winter, when temperatures are below about 9 Celsius.

“I just can’t handle the cold”. Part 1

The most common problem I see with cold water is the fear of cold or the lack of belief of being able to deal with it.

“I just can’t handle the cold”, as so many people say to me.

It is more a belief or perception though, often extrapolated from other factors, (like how much a cold shower hurts), than a fear grounded in knowledge.

Here’s a point though: None (almost) of us like cold. (I have met one swimmer who says he prefers it, but just one). It’s just that cold is something to deal with. For marathon swimming it often becomes THE thing. And an aspect of open water swimming that’s often missed is the challenge, not the race. In fact I personally think the mental challenge, of everything, not just cold, is THE challenge of Open Water, as it is with every sport.

I’m almost never going to be the fastest (unless I choose the event carefully). But I want to be the best I can be. For an ok swimmer like me, it can be something that levels the playing field. I’m swimming against myself instead.

I went for my first non-wetsuit swim in May 2006. I’d been in the pool about 6 weeks at that stage.
Remember, I’d been a surfer for about 7 years at that stage, and since it’s Ireland, most of my surfing was in the winter. Wearing a wetsuit. But I thought I knew about cold.

I remember the extreme nervousness I had before getting in that first swim without the wetsuit. I was almost hyperventilating prior to entry. My chest was heaving. However I know myself well enough that I generally handle physical fear by throwing myself into whatever causes it. “Don’t be a sissy”, I told myself.

I guessed it was around a mile or so around the Island. I had no idea if I could make it out to the first corner of the island, about 300 yards away. I was wearing a sleeveless 1mm neoprene which I thought was a good intermediate step. I didn’t know if I would drown or die of hypothermia.

But it was warm sunny day, with no wind, and it wasn’t too bad. Quick submersion and a sudden rise in adrenalin and I shot off for the first 50 yards but then I settled and it was OK. I made it to the first corner and decided to go another bit. I actually went around the island and was delighted. I think it took around 35 minutes. It’s actually 1900 metres give or take depending on tide, I got dressed and don’t remember recall suffering any cold after-effects. I wasn’t sure how much the neoprene vest contributed to feeling OK.

So it wasn’t that big a deal in the end. That said at that time I was about a stone lighter than now and much less fit. But getting in the same time that day was another chap maybe a few years younger than me, with a body like a whippet. No body fat, ultra-fit. Maybe a serious tri-athlete? I took no notice but my girlfriend told me he made it about 50 yards before turning and getting out. I guess the shock was part of the problem. He didn’t give it those few vital extra seconds to let the heart rate slow, but I guess he was also much more vulnerable to the shock.

Looking back, it’s hard to guess the temperature that day, but I’d guess 13 to 14 Celsius, as the weather had been good a few days. Which is of course, by Irish standards, actually pretty decent!

A few weeks later the local pool manager, who became a good friend, and is responsible now for all this swimming lark, invited me out for a 1 mile sea swim, (Baile na Gall, Dungarvan). It was cold. Very Cold. No neoprene vest this time. Slow entry because it was low tide on a flat beach with stones underfoot. But it was OK a couple of minutes after I got going again. This time I noticed how hard it was to get my face in the water. I did the full swim and I think it took about 45 minutes. That was it for me. I found my new thing.