Tag Archives: hypothermia

Ice Mile Dilemmas – IX – Safety Is Everything

The Average Person?

As a responsible extreme cold water swimming promoting organisation, it’s frustrating that the IISA doesn’t seem to appreciate its responsibility in promoting safety and reducing risk. The three-article critique on the IISA rules comprehensively illustrate many of the inherent problems, omissions and contradictions. The concerns of my correspondents and myself with Ice Mile swimming are not a reflection of the fact that many of the existing Ice Mile swimmers are extremely capable, experienced and cold-hardened individuals. Instead, we are concerned that the IISA is not doing enough to uphold its own existing rules, and even less to protect the safety of less experienced individuals who may try an Ice Mile in the future.

The IISA can’t wash its hands by saying that people who aren’t experienced enough shouldn’t attempt an Ice Mile. They must have explicit rules about this. The point about safety planning is not to just say “I’ve swum x Ice Miles, you can tooas members of the IISA board are wont to do, but to actually plan.

One should be taking all that cumulative knowledge and experience of such a dangerous pursuit and putting it at the service of the people they are trying to motivate. The IISA currently assumes that everyone who will attempt an Ice Mile will be an experienced cold water swimmer, but it does nothing to ensure this will be the case.


A couple of months ago, just mere days after I started writing the fourth part of this series, I received an email from a journalist with Outside Online, the online outlet of Outside magazine, one of the biggest of all adventure or outdoor sports magazines. He wanted to ask some questions for an article he was researching about Ice Mile swimming. I tried to give a pretty comprehensive response to the various questions as I had no idea which part, if any, of my response would be used in the final article, nor did I know with whom else they were talking. One question leaped out at me and I spent a few days deciding how to respond.

What are some insider tips for completing an Ice Mile that the average reader wouldn’t think of?1

That question startled me. It indicates to me that one Ice Mile friend (who I mentioned in the rules aspects of this discussion) who asserted that there’s no rush to swim an Ice Mile may not be correct. It also conveys to me that even a journal like Outside doesn’t comprehend the danger or risk of an Ice Mile. If the IISA doesn’t communicate this, then Outside or many others can’t be blamed. Once a pursuit is featured in Outside, one can guess that the numbers desiring to take on any particular challenge will increase. The Outside Online article is here. (The description of my Ice Mile that opens the article is derived by the article author from my blog article). In my interview I concentrated on the safety and danger aspects. It is now doubly ironic that the other person featured is one of the IISA founders, Ram Barkai.

This is exactly the scenario of which I and so many others are afraid and why the IISA must think ahead and more broadly. The Outside Online article and consequent exposure is likely to be a good thing for the IISA’s desire to increase the Ice Mile profile in their goal to have an Ice Mile included in future winter Olympics (which I think is ridiculous given their current inadequate state). Worryingly this question seems to imply that there might be some trick to completing an Ice Mile, in case “the average reader” might consider it. This question is the thin end of a wedge and has been on my mind almost the entire duration of these articles.

Promoting extreme events should require extreme attention to detail and safety. The CS&PF, SBCSA, CCSA, CSA, ILDSA, ACNEG and more all do so. Even local swim organisations such as Sandycove Island Swimming Club seem to have a greater appreciation for and attention to swimmer safety than the IISA.

The IISA does use a recurring excuse: That they are a very new organisation. But that’s only true to a little extent, and it’s disingenuous camouflage. No resources are required to initiate discussion, as I’ve done. They’ve existed for over five years, and count as members many very experienced cold water swimmers around the world whose cumulative knowledge and experience is quite considerable. It also uses International in its name and must live up to such an appellation, not forget those core objectives that it has espoused and then ignored, as demonstrated previously. The IISA has had more time and resources than I have, and yet with my contacts and a bit of time I can demonstrate the extensive omissions and contradictions in how the IISA operates and also what it endorses. If a section of the IISA membership can illustrate so many problems and if they spoke with me then two pertinent questions must be asked:

  1. What is wrong with the IISA and its communications with members that some members expressed these concerns to me and why is the IISA resistant to engage in discussion with its members?
  2. If some members can point out the problems, contradictions and omissions, why has the IISA failed to so do?

The IISA has it in its own hands to direct its future. It must think far more seriously than it apparently has previously about its stated objectives. Until it places swimmer safety and adherence to rules at its core, its ethos is debatable and its future is and should be at risk.

I honestly believe that the IISA still doesn’t understand this discussion. It’s not just about rules. Sure, where they are wrong or inadequate they must be improved. But the IISA must foster a public face in support of open and shared knowledge and experience that will improve safety for all, ESPECIALLY aspirants and those with less experience.

The IISA says: “The fact that IISA hasn’t got a detailed guideline for every eventuality and possible risk, doesn’t take the responsibility away from the swimmer. It is the individual responsibility to study and understand the risks before one embarks on an attempt in water of 5C to swim a mile. We will help and publish knowledge and experience but we will never be able to avoid stupidity or recklessness through pi[l]e of manuals”.

This is both entirely true and yet diversionary. Swimmers should and must be responsible for themselves, as I have always promoted by trying to share whatever I’ve learned. We learn this responsibility through experience and the teaching of others. But since the IISA places itself as the ratifying organisation it must establish consistent guidelines, to assist in this process of teaching and learning. Once again I repeat, the IISA cannot both promote and ratify Ice Miles, yet ignore the associated responsibility.

I am clear that my concern is less for the tiny few who have already repeated an Ice Mile, but more for those with less experience, and I believe the IISA has been negligent in encouraging Ice Mile swimming without adequate safety or medical guidelines or even a clarification of the actual dangers.

The IISA has relied to date on the aspirants being experienced cold water swimmers, but without taking any steps to ensure such. I am asking; what if the aspirants aren’t experienced?


If we look back over this series one can see that there are a range of possible recommendations, some of which are urgent.

  • Ice Mile swimming should immediately be suspended until the IISA updates its safety rules to place swimmer safety at the centre of its ethos.
  • Swimmer safety to be the core IISA value.
  • People with a history of cardiac problems should be immediately precluded from attempting an Ice Mile.
  • The IISA must publicly update any changes it makes in the future. (Bizarrely, it has told me it doesn’t plan to so do!)
  • Raise the minimum age limit to 18 immediately, pending published expert medical guidelines.
  • All Ice Mile aspirants should be required to first join the IISA. This will ensure better safety, organised swims and better data from attempts, incidents, and data retention for all Ice Mile swims in line with the IISA’s own objectives.
  • All Ice Mile attempts should be pre-approved by the IISA.
  • Aspirants should be required to provide proven experience and references.
  • Publish medical guidelines for aspirants and organisers from hypothermia experts and academics outside the IISA.
  • Aspirants must be required to provide a medical certificate as part of their ratification application.
  • All Ice Mile swim organisers should have relevant cold water experience.
  • Create an IISA committee of experienced Ice Mile swim organisers to codify their Best Practices into an Ice Mile event guideline.
  • Separate the new safety rules in the constitution from the mostly irrelevant articles of incorporation and other matters not related to actual swims.
  • Make the safety rules easily downloadable, with revision dates and change log.
  • Allow any person to submit a swim appeal over a fraudulent swim.
  • Guarantee the confidentiality of any person submitting such an appeal.
  • Initiate and maintaining ongoing discussion by canvassing existing IISA members to discuss and improve rules and guidelines.

Everything Is Okay, Until It Isn’t

I’ve written these articles to:

  • Attempt a serious dissection of the current state of the IISA and Ice Mileing
  • Educate about the difficulty and dangers of Ice Mile swimming
  • Help extreme cold water swimmers
  • Improve the current utterly inadequate IISA rules and communications
  • And as a consequence of all this to improve the IISA
  • And more importantly to try to improve safety for any future Ice Mile Aspirants.

As I have said directly to the IISA:

I think that the lack of appropriate comprehensive guidelines and missing and contradictory rules by the IISA organisation is irresponsible, given it has had five years to learn, analyse and implement improvements”.

To not implement known best practices when lives are at risk and when medical professionals agree is, to use the words of one IISA founding member denying such, “deliberately reckless and careless.

I’d contrast this with Senior CS&PF Pilot Mike Oram, who repeatedly stresses that Channel swimming is an extreme and known lethal sport.

I believe everyone is entitled to make their own choice about their sporting pursuits regardless of danger. But I also believe that they should also have as much information as possible about the dangers and the necessary safety guidelines. A couple of correspondents have raised the comparison of Ice Mile with Himalayan mountain-climbing or Polar expeditions and correctly said that all extreme sports include extreme or even the ultimate risk. While this is true, neither Polar nor Himalayan expeditions came about because of a few people who call themselves the founding, organising and ratifying organisation. When you take on the responsibility to motivate, you should also take on the responsibility to educate and to protect and to do otherwise is wrong.

Since I started this series, members of the IISA have been unhappy with the articles. However , quite tellingly, neither they nor anyone else has said anything to refute the main (or any) points of these articles.

Nothing that I nor any of my correspondents have said here will increase the danger to Ice Mile aspirants, but failing to adapt the current IISA rules to reality will certainly so do.

Thought there are still subjects I couldn’t encompass, (such as the risks involved in training for an Ice Mile), let me finish (finally) with that powerful quotation from a respected Channel and Ice Mile swimmer that I used to open Part 5: “Something terrible is going to happen”.

Is, not might. Time is short, IISA. Act now.


Related articles

The list of cold water swimming articles I’ve written over the years.

Ice Mile Dilemmas I – The Trap

Ice Mile Dilemmas II – Surprisingly Cold

Ice Mile Dilemmas III – Black Rain

Ice Mile Dilemmas IV – Local Context

Ice Mile Dilemmas V – Rule 1 – Something Terrible Is Going To Happen

Ice Mile Dilemmas VI – Rules 2 – Safety and Experience

Ice Mile Dilemmas VII – Rules 3 – Failure To Apply Best Practice

Ice Mile Dilemmas VIII – The Dangers

1My full answer to the question was:

There are none. There are no tricks, no shortcuts, no way that doesn’t involve pain. It takes training, understanding and preparation and a rigorous adherence to safety and even then is still difficult and painful and dangerous.

In fact this question shows one of the biggest problems: This is a highly dangerous pursuit and most of the approximately 100 current Ice Milers in the entire world are very experienced. I thought long and hard about answering this. I was faced with a dilemma: answer and possibly encourage what is very dangerous pursuit which may kill you despite preparation or experience, or ignore it and be afraid the macho ideal would win out.

In the near future, less experienced people will try this without the requisite training, experience or confidence in themselves to abandon a swim if necessary. I believe, along with the majority of Ice Milers to whom I’ve spoken, which is about 20% of all Ice Milers, that a tragedy is increasingly a worrying probability. I believe the IISA needs to improve its criteria, safety recommendations and procedures. Attempts need to be more severely curtailed and only done by people who have prior permission from the IISA based on producing a verified training log, recognised experience, who are known to the organisers and have significant medical safety cover”.

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.

The Reverie of Cold

Look away, look away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe I’ll stop. Maybe I won’t. 

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

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

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


* Words by Chowning & Randle

Understanding The Claw as a hypothermia indicator

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

Donal’s Claw, seen underwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did my Claw go? (loneswimmer.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All these changes can lead to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise in the cold (sportscientists.com)

Comments on Diana Nyad’s Heat Drip device

I’m writing this because Diana Nyad asked me on Twitter to comment on her blog, after I’d previously commented on Twitter regarding the unveiling of the Heat Drip device being considered for her Cuba to Florida swim. (To be clear, other than that, I have had no contact with Diana Nyad and don’t know her).

So you  need to watch this video first to understand the context.

When Diana called for respectful comments on her blog, in fact significant vitriol was aimed at the actual distance swimmers commenting about this device, by people who could not in one single case state that they were themselves distance swimmers. And it was based on that lopsided bias of blindly following someone rather than having an open debate by actual swimmers, that I decided to keep my response here, not wishing to add further to the circus over there.

If you want a one-line synopsis, I think it’s nonsense.

I also think the only people qualified to understand the context of the debate are other marathon swimmers and those involved in our sport. This probably applies to all sport of course. If you wish to see this as elitist, so be it, however, let me say there is nothing standing in your way of becoming qualified yourself, as all it requires is time and commitment.

I am an average Channel swimmer, nowhere near Diana’s capabilities with no desire to swim for 40+ hours. But I swim in and write mostly about cold water and Channel swimming, as you are all aware. But I have put in the time and the commitment which I believe gives me the ability and the right to comment. I sometimes feel like I’ve paid  my dues to get to stand on the stage wings and see the greats from the perspective of an insider rather than just the audience. I can hold up my head in their presence but I never delude myself I am one of them.

I believe strongly in the 137 year old principles of Channel swimming but I accept and also welcome the place of some improvements to opens up swimming to others and I have written previously in support of wetsuits to allow people to pursue dreams (though in retrospect I realise I was arguing a point that Scott Zornig hadn’t been making).

What I dislike (and the point that Scott Zornig and others have made, and that I agree with) is the blurring of boundaries by the media and some other folk to equate assisted swimming with “traditional” marathon or Channel swimming. I dislike the traditional term as it carries other disputed connotations such as conservative, bureaucratic or exclusive. As swimmers we have a responsibility to be clear & honest in what we do, as non-Channel and marathon swimmers strive to understand our world.

Announcing to the world that you are doing a stage swim rather than a Channel swim, only after you have gotten on the boat, is an example of this. I wrote last year that I lost interest in Diana Nyad’s swims as I believed this had happened. I may have been wrong, it may have been clear to others that Diana’s last swim was a stage swim, with which I have no problem, but if I was confused about what she was attempting, then likely so were others. This blog also is not intended to be purist but to reflect my interests and I am be interested in some stage swims such as Dan Martin’s (still hoping it’ll happen next year) Atlantic swim, because Dan is transparent about what he is planning. It is the confusion I dislike and mistrust, especially when people are disingenuous about their methods and goals.

Having set out my stall, I’ll address some of the points raised by Diana Nyad and her crew, but my primary contention is; hypothermia will NOT always occur when swimming in temps lower than body temps, contrary to statements by Diana supporters.

Hypothermia is offset by

  1. Swimming, which generates heat (thermogenesis)
  2. Fuel intake (food)

Hypothermia is delayed in cold water by acclimatisation training. Cold can be relative and acclimatisation training is the process of increasing cold exposure ability and duration by increasing brown fat in the body, lowering of stress hormones and heart rate and learning to stay efficient at lower temperatures. The acclimatisation training process is the swimming Lisa Cummins and Kevin Murphy and myself and all Sandycove and Channel swimmers put in in the depths of winter, by swimming in water temperatures of five to six degrees Celsius (38 to 40F) or whatever cold water temperatures are available. It is painful and dreary and numbing and yet utterly necessary.

We train so we can swim in cold water. Water that’s at most 18C in the English Channel (that’s unusually warm for the Channel). Water temperatures in the mid or high 20s C (80sF) are not “cold”. If they were then indoor pools would be dangerous and it beggars my believe that this assertion can be made. Open water swimmers often have problems with dehydration in water temperatures in the mid 20s as Ciarán and I did in Manhattan.

“But Diana will be swimming longer from Cuba to Florida” it’s say. Well King of the Channel Kevin Murphy spent 54 hours in the English Channel at an average of 16C. Lisa Cummins spent 35 hours in water under 17C. Lisa trains up to 12 hour sessions here in Ireland in temps of 11 to 15C.

It’s the training, it’s all in the training. Preparation, preparation, preparation.

If you are going to be cold at whatever your relative temperature is, then you train to offset hypothermia at that temperature. Of course there’s no denying ten degrees Celsius is cold and hypothermia will always result given enough time. At twenty degrees Celsius though Cold is certainly more of a relative  connotation since to many of us it is very warm.

Traditional rules specify a textile costume, hat and goggles. Nothing that aids heat retention.

On the practical side of this device, the idea of applying heat externally is, as others have pointed out and I have written about previously, actually dangerous to cold individuals, due to peripheral vaso-dilation, which will actually make someone colder as heat applied externally (except in a precise and controlled manner), will cause colder blood to flow to the core. This kind of puts the question to Diana’s assertion that her crew are “very smart”. They may well be but they obviously know little about cold if they think this is smart.

But that is a diversion. I assert that the expected temperature is not cold. To say temperatures over 20 degrees Celsius for a marathon swimmer is relatively cold is contrary to the experiences of the global community of marathon swimmers. Thermogenesis from swimming with constant energy supplied from food and liquid, (hot if necessary) is sufficient for swimmers of similar duration in far far colder water for over a hundred years. Also, contrary to what’s stated on the blog, there is no such thing as momentary hypothermia. Therefore I question Diana’s  “very smart” people assertion.

Apart from the issue of the practicality of the device is the more fundamental problem of actually using it. This device, contrary to Diana’s anecdote says about Channel swimmers in the 70s having buckets of cold water dumped over their head, is outside accepted practices in marathon swimming. No discussion should be required from experienced marathon swimmers to understand this. This should be understood as a core  aspect of what we do. Let me ask this question; if Diana was even considering the use of this device, anathema to Channel swimmers the world over, what other changes to normal practice could be compromised during her swim?

Not one Channel or marathon swimming association in the world would recognise Diana’s device as acceptable in a Channel swim under English Channel rules (or any variations thereof such as Manhattan, Cook etc) and senior and highly respected swimmers from these organisations have already spoken on this issue.

I wish Diana Nyad the best,  I think pursuing a dream in swimming regardless of what it is is laudable and I’d encourage everyone to so do.

But let me just say: Stephen Redmond.

It’s okay to make up one’s own rules for new swims, just so long the public isn’t misled into thinking that those rules equate to the generally accepted rules by Channel and marathon swimmers worldwide.

HOW TO: Diagnosing and addressing Moderate Hypothermia in swimmers

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

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

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

Diagnosing hypothermia in swimmers

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

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

Remedial actions for Moderate Hypothermia:

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

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

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

Add fuel through food.

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

Initiate activity.

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

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

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

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

Hypothermia treatment

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

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

HOW TO: Understanding hypothermia in swimmers – 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)

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

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.

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!

“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.