Tag Archives: Cold

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.

The Worst Three Minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

HOW TO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – Mild Hypothermia

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 is no 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.

Breathing rate increases for the first 20 seconds in cold water

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).

In the next article we look at Moderate Hypothermia.

How we FEEL cold water (loneswimmer.com)

Peripheral Vaso-constriction in pictures (loneswimmer.com)

Where did my CLAW go? (loneswimmer.com)

Extreme Cold Adaptation in Humans Part 1 (loneswimmer.com)

Click to embiggen

Swimming with The Second Law of Thermodynamics

This is a one subject site, open water swimming.

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.

This is my home. Guillamene Cove, on Saturday, from side to side, Click to mucho embiggen

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.

The coast road from the Guilllamene facing Tramore, running above the normal swim route

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.

Lewis Pugh

Introducing a precise open water swimming temperature scale

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!

Steve Munatones on Daily News of Open Water Swimming had a post recently on the temperatures at which people consider water cold.

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?

Jack Bright might have some input into this also. :-)

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°C to 18°C (61 to 64°F): This is paradise. 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°C to 16°C (57° to 61°F): Aaahhh, summerAll 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): GrandYou 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 is 7.9°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.

Ned Denison during the winter

2.5°C  to 5°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 Coxian temperatures. You are officially a loon.

0°C to 1.5°C: Aka “Lewis Pughiantemperatures. 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.

Related articles

Is the water too cold to swim?

This article is, once again, a variation of the most popular question here: “What temperature of water is too cold to swim in”?, which I’ve written about before.

Image by Ben+Sam via Flickr

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!

Annual mean sea surface temperature from the W...
Image via Wikipedia

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.

Total Immersion in marathon swimming

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.

Guillamene steps from the rocks below

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.


How we FEEL cold water

You could think of this post as something missing from the five-part series Extreme Cold Adaptation in Humans that I wrote.

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.

Pain signals vs Temperature

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.

Split lips

A brief chat with Jowita today reminded me of another issue regular cold water may suffer, the problem of lips splitting at the join/crease side of the mouth.

If you have this problem, there’s a slight chance it could be improved by increasing Vitamins A, B1 & B6 & C. But only slight I think because the cause here is environmental.

My simple solutions are topical application of Sudocreme or Germolene overnight, one or two nights application usually clears it up for a while…then but we do keep getting back into cold water…so some petroleum jelly or whatever before swimming, if you can remember it, (I rarely do) isn’t a bad idea.

Six hour swim in sub-eleven degree Celsius water – my longest cold swim

Edit: The original title of this post may have been the worst title I ever wrote. And that’s saying something. I’m really bad at titles.

Dante wrote that the Ninth Circle of the Inferno was ice. He didn’t seem to consider freezing water, so I guess it might have been the lobby entrance to the Ninth level? Where we spent six hours on a Saturday on 2010. Reserved for the wilfully stupid, and marathon swimmers. Who may just be one and the same.

It was supposed to be the final eight hour swim for Jen & I yesterday with Ciarán and Rob also in the water.

Ciarán had arranged Kieran O’Connor to provide rib support for a Speckled Door and back swim before finishing with more laps of Sandycove. (Thanks again Kieran).

We started just after nine am. Cold at the slipway, as bloody usual but then…it didn’t get much better. Wind was South West, about Force Three starting hitting Force Four occasionally later on. So headwind and chop down to the Spec. First feed was just after Hake Head, the main landmark for swimmers on the way down at about fifty minutes. Rob and I reached the Spec at about two hours, a couple of minutes ahead.

We had expected it to take somewhere between one hour thirty to one hour forty five. At least fifteen minutes behind. And cold.
Kieran told us it was fifteen Celsius the whole way, but the wind was making us cold. We knew he was lying. At this stage I’d lost my left hand. And my thighs were starting to seize. I started kicking them against my hands underwater to improve circulation.

He sent Rob & I into the harbour to circle before the feed. When we got back he’d already fed Jen and Ciarán, and sent us to chase them the whole way back.
“Pursuit”, cackled Rob, and off we went.

We stroked side by side until the next feed ( apart from ten minute divergence as we each felt we knew the best line back, both of us confident in our navigation skills). We split and came back together after Hake Head side by side again. At that feed looking back we saw we’d passed Hake Head (it’s not easily visible from the west side) and were obviously flying with the wind and swell behind us. We’d had ten minutes of sun and slightly warmed up. We never saw Jen and Ciarán the whole way back

We hit Finbarr’s Beach just catching the other pair, with them about five seconds ahead at almost exactly four hours. Half an hour behind our estimated time, but twenty minutes faster on the return journey.

As we transferred our feed bottles to the beach, Ciarán told us the real temperature.

Ten point seven to eleven point one. Degrees. Celsius.

Sweet merciful Cthulhu. No wonder we were all suffering and in pain. Actual pain by the way. My neck had seized up, I had pains up my forearms, biceps and shoulders. My lower back hurt. My thighs were the worst, with hideous pain in them. I tried punching them as hard as I could to restore some circulation. Lying to us was exactly the right thing for Kieran to do. If we had known we might decided on a short swim early on.

Only during the week I had been thinking how I could never have done the six hour qualification in thirteen degrees that Ciarán and Rob had done.

We agreed on two laps (one hour) then we would call it.

The first lap was bad.

The second lap was a nightmare, the second toughest Sandycove lap I’ve ever done, (the worst was on  the eight lap (mile) on the first Champion Of Champions swim in 2008, the race where only twelve out of over fifty finished and it took twenty minutes to swim the normal ten minute outside stretch).

We made it back. Fed. Time (and everything else) was getting a bit blurry but I was not getting out short of six hours. We were around five hours at that stage. I was going to go again when the boys suggested an inside lap.

There was no merciful warm patch after the third corner, nor outside the island, as there had been for a few weeks now.

Now the boys are tough as nails. On the eight hour swim, when it was too rough outside the island at the end for me, Rob kept going out. If they were suggesting moving inside that’ll tell you something. Rob is not known as The Bull for nothing.

We did an inside triangle. A warm patch as the fourth corner felt like paradise. It was…only 11.4 C!

Yes, only half a degree higher. We swam up the Pil estuary where it was a bit better, but still with cold patches. Back for the last feed.

Thirty minutes. We needed thirty minutes.

We went for another inside triangle. We stood for a few seconds in the sticky mud up the estuary where Rob asked if standing there for two hours would count. We made it back to Finbarr’s, attempting the final sprint. Which didn’t look or feel like one, but no point hanging onto any energy at that stage. We came in together again.

As we stumbled onto the low tide sandbank, I looked at the guys. They looked like I felt.

Our legs were unable to bend or properly support us. Arms bent and back hunched like chimpanzees. Necks not working. Moving very similar to movie zombies.

Get the boxes. Into the cold one final time and swim back across the channel, pushing the swim boxes or towing them behind us. Warm shower from water bottles warming in the too-late sun.

Where were you Sun, when we needed you you six hours ago“? Bit bloody late . “You see Sun, it’s that fickleness that means Ireland never developed a proper Sun Worship religion. Just think, you could have had a shot. You have been a contender. A few month’s sunshine and we could have had our own Ra or Akhenaton. Instead we got those bloody priests. And we all know how that ended.

Dressed. Almost immediate recovery, something Jen had pointed out to me a few weeks back. Food and chat for a few hours. More talk about details for our Channel swims. Questions, some of which will soon be directed toward those of you successful Channel swimmers reading this.

Lessons learnt:

  • I would have sworn it was impossible (for me). (A day later I still think it’s impossible)
  • If I had known the real temperature at the start I would never have done it
  • If I had been by myself I would never had done it
  • Sometimes will-power will take you places you never thought possible. I hope I never forget how I felt starting that final hour with all higher powers of cognition and articulation fled:

Fuck you sea. Fuck you waves and wind. Fuck you cold. I’m coming. I’m fucking coming. Third Corner? I fucking OWN the Third Corner.”

(It lasted until said Third Corner by the way, by which time I was back to whimpering.)

Update: Months later, thinking this was a great achievement and also reflecting that we were all borderline hypothermic (and we all know hypo), I discovered that Lisa had done nine hours in similar temperatures during her EC Double training!

But a year and half later memories of this swim are still with us all, and it often discussed. Ihope to never have to do anything like this again.

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.


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.

Brown fat vs. white fat

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on some new research papers on body fat (adipose tissue).

Most (almost all) of the fat in our bodies is white fat. Fat stores energy and acts as an insulator. White fat specifically, which could be up to 25% of body weight, does not generate heat.

Until last year, brown fat was only thought to occur in infants because they can’t shiver and that it disappears in adults because we can shiver and don’t need it.

However new research papers in 2009 showed some very good news for OW swimmers.

Most of the initial interest in this seems to be around using brown fat to act as a calorie burner to reduce adult obesity. Pity they didn’t test some OW swimmers who’d be willing to act as serious cold guinea pigs.

Apparently 20 to 80% of adults have some brown fat tissue (and women more than men). This is good news because brown fat, unlike white fat, also acts an energy generating source. It has mitochondria and can generate ATP (adenosine triphosphate*), which is the main source for metabolism, as well as acting as an insulator. (BTW, brown fat cells are only about 50% the size of white fat cells which is more good news).

So that’s good news.
Even better: Guess how you activate the growth of brown fat in the adult human body?

Exposure to cold…

PET scans showed brown fat increases around primarily the neck and upper thorax after exposure to cold for a few hours.

So when one thinks about the old stories of getting acclimated to cold by repeated exposure, it appears this process may have been activated.

(This also finally explains for me how to reconcile the whole 2nd Law of Thermodynamics with energy loss in the human body changing with acclimation, which I always thought bogus. I guess I can pull my open question from Wolfram-Alpha.)

It also explains (along of course with a rare nice sunny warm day) why I could do a fairly comfortable 40 minutes today in 8.3 degree Celsius water when 2 years I was only starting swimming without a suit around this time of year.

All this is my psychopathology. Telling me something will get you no-where, I need to understand. I’m not good at “just accept it”.

*(Ernest Maglicho has a great chapter on the energy system in “Swimming Fastest”).

Story on brown fat

6 Research papers

Women, Men and Cold…

So most of us have noticed a difference between how men and women react to cold, and even that we feel cold at different temperatures, and most noticeably that women will generally feel cold before men.

(I’m guessing most men think a duvet with different togs per side is a good idea.)

Well, there are good reasons for it:

Research had shown a core temperature difference between men on women, with women having a core temperature about 0.4 ° C higher. (It’s likely that is a mechanism to protect the fetus during pregnancy

Along with that women a better and more contiguous layer of fat over the entire body.

The results are that women feet and hands are better insulated from the body temperature, therefore colder and furthermore that blood flow to the extremities is lower than men.

The further effect therefore is that ironically women feel cold quicker or at higher temperatures but in reality can actually deal with cold better.

So a woman taking up Open Water swimming, or just going for a quick dip, will have a bigger mental hurdle to overcome, but once habituated to the initial shock, will be able endure cold longer and better.

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.

HOW TO: Preparing for Cold Water

I’ve touched on part of this before, but thought I’d expand it.

Check the Weather forecast. No point getting there and finding out conditions are too bad. Obvious? Yes. Learn from the forecast though to extrapolate to your local spot conditions if you are not close enough to see it.
If you are still learning Open Water and especially Cold Water, avoid choppy conditions. Watch the wind, it’s your enemy and will steal body heat.

Keep your goggles for open water separate from your pool gear. Make sure you have ear-plugs. You should not be swimming Open Water without plugs, even in summer. Plus will reduce the possibility of ear-infections but more importantly reduce the chance of exostosis developing. I use cheap silicon plugs.

Stay warm. I’ve mentioned this before, but stay dressed until you are ready to swim. Do the yaking before you get changed. Once changed head for the water and don’t stand around. Wear sandals or flip-flops. The ground is colder than the sea in winter. Cold feet before you get in will shorten your ability to stay in. Cold feet also get cut easily. Make sure you keep your hands warm also before you change, for the same reason. There’s a lot of (incorrect) talk about heat loss from the head, but the hands actually do lose a disproportionate amount of heat.

Watch what you eat that morning. Many things you normally eat don’t go well when swimming in cold sea water.

Monitor yourself. Notice how you are feeling. If your heart rate up? Are you nervous about the cold? Are you tired? Do you sleep poorly the previous night or did you have any alcohol?
I think this is the most important thing. I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “anything you measure, improves”. This will be true for your ability. If you notice that this week you did 5 minutes in 10 degree Celsius water, next week you may do 11 minutes. Or is you notice that you started shivering badly 5 minutes after getting out? The next week you may be quicker getting dressed, etc. The more you are aware of what’s happening, the better you can control the situation.

Understand that you can be as good at dealing with cold as anyone else. No-one is a hero. Don’t care about the cold. Of course you do…but tell yourself you don’t. eventually you will (almost) mean it.

Last but not least. You can wear a wetsuit! I know better open water swimmers than me who just stay away from the water for the worst of the cold. But I also know others who wear a swimming wetsuit. Just get out there and enjoy it.

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.

La Jolla Bay and a hypothermia tale

I’ve surfed in San Diego and swam in La Jolla Bay, in San Diego, a couple of times, last time in middle 2008.

La Jolla particularly was a great swimming experience for a cold water swimmer like.
On friday nights all the local triathletes, including some the of the world’s top professionals, swim from La Jolla cove out to a series of buoys for different lengths.

Stepping of the tiny beach at la Jolla Cove on the souuth point of the Bay, is like stepping into a tropical fish tank. The sea floor drops away and you are in warm water over reefs with various brightly covered fish. Glorious.

Lots of local long distance swimmers, water temperatures posted on the Cove lifeguard hut, friendly talkative people, especially when they hear an Irish accent.

Follow this link for a terrifying story of hypothermia in what is warm water to us…

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!