Nice and Icy

With just over a week to go until the National Cold Water Swimming Championships, there’s time for one more chilly swim. Thanks to the recent cold snap, conditions at Clevedon’s Marine Lake have been perfect for training, with the water dropping as low as 2.5 degrees centigrade.

So what happens to your body at this temperature? And how best prepare yourself for swim in icy waters?

Standing lake-side, contemplating your icy dip, you are aware of how your body might respond. The cold shock response is first and most dramatic: gasping, hyperventilating as your skin cools; at the same time, your heart-rate shoots up as your arteries narrow. Then comes the numbness. As your body reserves the warm blood for your vital organs, your extremities become increasingly numb, heavy and useless. After half an hour or so, hypothermia becomes a risk – and remains so even after you get out, as your core temperature continues to drop.

Standing lake-side, you should be scared! If you don’t at least have butterflies, if not a full fight-or-flight feeling where you have to beat all instincts to get yourself in the water, you don’t fully understand the risks. You also need to bear in mind that this is a time for dipping, not distance swimming.

No matter how often I take an icy dip, I have the same sense of foreboding as I drive to the lake, which peaks as the cold air hits my skin when I undress. Changing into my costume among seasoned winter swimmers, the chatter is all along the lines of: why are we doing this? we must be mad! I don’t really want to. Testament to this is the high level of faffing that postpones the inevitable plunge!

And then, one-by-one, we enter the water. The easiest way for me, is to walk quickly down the metal steps into the lake, taking small in-breaths, and then purposefully blowing out, long and steady. This reduces the gasping hypo ventilation, gives me something to focus on other than the pain of the ice-cold, and lets me steady my breath and stroke as I swim away.

Most impressive is Maggie, who having inhaled two cigarettes while changing, dives headlong in from the side. But then she, like so many of my fellow swimmers, is one of the South West Seals’ old pros. This approach is not recommended for the uninitiated!

For safety reasons, I rarely swim alone. If not with fellow swimmers, I get someone to stand on the side and hold my Dryrobe. Plus, I need help to pull down my swimming costume straps when I get out, as my numb hands are quite useless. It’s also good to have someone to egg you on, and share coffee and cake afterwards.

What struck me as odd as the water temperature dropped, was that I didn’t get the ice-cream headache at four degrees that troubled me at ten degrees. Instead, my fingers take the punishment. The pain that comes with vasoconstriction is palpable. My hands hurt. The first time this happened, they froze like useless claws in a position that’s not conducive to swimming. So I learned to set them in place as paddles before I became unable to move them.

At sub-five degrees, I swim between 100 and 200 metres; no more. That’s up to seven minutes in the water, including faffing a bit and stopping to appreciate where I am, and admire Clevedon’s rather lovely pier; and on a crisp, clear day, look across to Wales.

This weekend, as I entered I got an applause from some onlookers. I admit that I loved this, and it was the audience I needed to break into a fast front-crawl that I plan on swimming next weekend instead of my usual neck-breaking heads-up breaststroke.

My CWSC event is a 30 metre swim as part of a relay team: it’ll be over before I know it. I feel ready, though; nervous, but excited. Perhaps next time, I’ll do a bit more. But for now, I feel an extraordinary sense of accomplishment and pure buzz from swimming in icy water!

What’s in my kit bag?

My kit has evolved as the season’s gone on. Here are what I consider to be essentials for winter swimming:

  • Swimming hat – I use a normal silicone cap, but you can get neoprene for more heat-loss prevention
  • Mask goggles – I love the Aquasphere Vista mask that covers the bit between your eyebrows and seems to prevent ice-cream headache pain
  • A Dryrobe – this was a Christmas present, and my favourite bit of kit. It’s so warm, plus keeps you covered as you try to get dressed with numb hands
  • A piece of foam rubber, matting, old towel on which to stand while you’re changing
  • Warm layers – I don’t bother with undies, but wear merino wool leggings under fleece-lined jogging bottoms, a thermal vest, long-sleeved top and my wonderful Dart 10k sherpa fleeced-lined hoodie
  • Hat and gloves
  • Flask of coffee
  • Hot water bottle
  • Some cake or chocolate – getting that digestive system going warms you up from the inside!
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