Wetsuit or no wetsuit?

Wetsuit? Pah! Should be called a sweatsuit! Putting one on should be an event in itself! Swear I burn more calories getting into my wetsuit than swimming 10km! How do you stop yours rubbing? I can’t move my arms! I’m stuck!

In a clammy changing tent just before the Great North Swim, there were about fifty women of every imaginable shape, size and shade squeezing sticky skin into tight, rubber suits. You hear the same conversations, and see the same wild moves: arms raised, legs lunging and squatting, pulling, bending, thrusting like some bizarre swim event dance ritual.

It looks hilarious, but nobody’s really laughing. Pre-event nerves, plus everyone knows how important it is to get your wetsuit on just-so otherwise the neck will rub so that you’ll finish the race looking like you’ve had a love bite from a conger eel.

Of course, you get those who have applied for special permission not to wear a wetsuit. With a look of smug amusement, these swimmers aren’t actually laughing at you (don’t hate them), they’re just thankful that they don’t have to imitate John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks in order to put on a rubber skin, and they’re in skins because they’re insanely experienced and confident.

So are wetsuits really necessary, or are they just another way of coining it from an activity that’s on the rise in popularity? Do you need a ‘swimming’ wetsuit, or can you make do with a cheaper surfer’s model? Do you need to spend big bucks, or will a cheaper one do?

The best way to answer this is to think about what a wetsuit has to offer. It’s primarily for warmth, delaying hypothermia thus increasing the time you might be able to spend in water safely. Secondly, it gives you extra buoyancy, allowing you to swim more efficiently. Thirdly, it makes you more streamlined, and it also protects your skin.

It may not feel it when you put your back out getting the thing on, but wetsuits are ultimately a safety consideration, which is why most events insist on them. It follows, then, that if you’re not experienced at swimming the distance your planning on swimming, or you’re unsure, you should invest in a wetsuit. Some events allow you to ask for special permission to go without, but you have to prove your experience. Even then, they can decide that the temperature’s too low. For example, an experienced winter-swimmer friend of mine has been told that she can only do the Arctic Circle swim without a wetsuit if the temperate is above 16 degrees C.

It also follows that when buying your wetsuit, insulation, buoyancy and streamlinedness (which I’m fairly certain isn’t a technical term, or even a term at all) are on your criteria list. Swimming wetsuits are pretty much geared up to tick all the boxes. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but well-known brands are the most reliable: Zoot (which I have), Orca, TYF, HUUB, Zone3, Blueseventy and Speedo are all go to swimming brands.

A poor fitting wetsuit will pretty much negate every plus point you have, and you may as well swim in chain mail. Wetsuits work by trapping a thin layer of water against the skin which warms to body temperature. The thicker the neoprene, the better insulated you’ll be, but if your suit’s too loose, the water will slosh around inside and stay cold, thus making you cold. Too tight, and you won’t be able to move.

As a general rule, for this country where the summer water is between 11 and 21 degrees C, you’ll need 3-5mm thickness. Swimming wetsuits are made with variable thicknesses to help insulate your torso, free up your shoulders, and lift your legs to give you a good, flat, streamlined body position in the water. This is especially helpful if, like many triathletes, you have muscular legs or ankle stiffness. I’m one of life’s great floaters, and in my wetsuit I feel like a boat. You’d just need to attach an outboard motor and I reckon I could take passengers!

Streamlining is a good advantage too. Muscular, angular bodies get smoothed out, while stuffing a curvy bottom and boobs into a wetsuit reminds me of trying to get your sleeping bag back into its stuff sack; you’re good and smooth, but you know the second you unzip that zipper, it’ll all come tumbling back out. That rubber skin also protects you from snags or scrapes.

Surf wetsuits tend not to have any of that balancing, varied thickness, nor the contouring that gives you more speed. They’re more clunky and less smooth, but also more robust. I went coasteering recently, which was brilliant fun, but it would have wrecked my fragile swimming wetsuit – I was very grateful for the thicker neoprene.

Having established that you need a wetsuit, getting one fitted it the next step. It sounds obvious, but you need to make sure you can swim in it. I have seen so many confident swimmers put on a wetsuit for the first time and have a total panic attack. Even a well fitted swimming wetsuit will try to simultaneously strangle you and compress your chest. Wiggle has a great buying guide, online assistance, good range of suits and a good returns policy. Even better, find a shop with an infinity pool like Bristol Triathlon Shop where you can actually try swimming in it. I got mine there, and while it wasn’t cheap, I’ve swam a comfortable 10km in it, which was worth every penny. Plus the infinity pool is fun!

Getting it on need not be an actual battle. Put your feet in and pull the legs up to well above your ankle. If you have long nails, wear gloves as you pull it up over your knees and thighs and then bottom and hips. Don’t go any further until the crotch is well and truly in your groin rather than hanging down P-Diddy style. Do the same with one arm, and then the other, so the armpit is in your armpit. Whirl your arms, do some thrusts, make sure you can move freely before zipping yourself in. I totally advocate lube for getting your wetsuit on and stopping chaffing. It doesn’t exactly ‘glide’ FYI Bodyglide, but it does help. My favourites are pictured below.

Once you’re in the water, hold open the neck and welcome the cold water in. It warms quickly, and that’s what you want. If you prefer a nice warm pee, go for it, it’s your wetsuit! It’s a good idea to have a hitch, a wiggle, a tug on the arms and legs before you set off just to make sure you’re totally comfy.

So why would you swim without? Ironically, I take mine off for winter swimming, but then I’m in calm water for short bursts with friends. Swimming ‘skins’, as it’s known, is hardcore, but also liberating, and it’s easy to see why you’d not want to go back to contorting yourself to get into a wetsuit. That said, I love mine. For comfort, safety and warmth, it’s worth the struggle to get in on, and I will continue to wear it for long swims and events.

 

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Why under water?

The iconic Nirvana Nevermind album cover is probably the best known picture of a baby under water. For fans, it evoked the alternative, anti-corporate cool that was embodied by Nirvana, but for band leader Kurt Cobain, it was about the simple beauty of babies being in water.

Nevermind was released in 1991 at a time when water births were starting to grow more popular. Water births and baby swimming go hand-in-hand, both extolling the theory that babies’ natural affinity and reflexes in water can benefit them in a number of quite extraordinary ways.

 

Originally, Kurt Cobain said that he wanted a photo of a water birth for his album cover because it looked cool. Under water photos of babies do look amazing, but baby swimming isn’t about following a trend or taking cool photos (although my house is full of underwater snaps of my children!). There are many well researched and documented reasons why people have been swimming babies under water for centuries.

 

 

 

Human babies’ affinity with water is as old as humans themselves. Some evolutionists theorise that being in water played a huge part in the way we’ve evolved (read more – it’s fascinating!). Françoise Freedman, founded the Birthlight movement based on the gentle parenting style of Peruvian Amazonian tribes who lived by, around and in water from birth. Today, Freedman’s philosophy that “a life long love of water and enjoyment of swimming are best generated by a confident and loving handling of babies in water, by swimming with babies and by imparting gentle progressive methods towards unaided swimming.” is the foundation of baby swim school Water Babies.

 

 

 

You see, when babies are born they have no natural fear of water. In fact, the opposite is true. That they have a strong affinity with water is obvious when you think about it: they have lived and grown in fluid inside the womb for nine months. Born with a set of reflexes that have the job of getting them through birth and surviving immediately afterwards, they hold their breath when fluid hits the back of their throats to safely feed. They also have a swim reflex, where they move their legs and arms in a swimming motion.

By taking your baby to a warm pool as soon as possible after birth, you can help them grow and develop. Because the water supports them entirely, and gives them a kind of weightlessness, they can move in a way that not only strengthens their muscles, improves co-ordination, but also helps their developing brain make important connections through that movement as explained in this blog. On the flip-side, lack of movement, or restricted movement contributes to developmental delays, so you can completely see why movement is so important.

When I see a new baby class in their first lesson, I notice that many babies have stiffness or restricted movements. Some babies object to being held in certain positions, perhaps because they have discomfort from either the way they were squished inutero, or by the birth itself. A group of fellow teachers had a very interesting talk from an osteopath who told us that when suspended in water, with a full range of movement, you can see stiffness that he believes explains problems like colic. It’s very gratifying to watch a baby grow, develop and move to become stronger as they move freely in the water.

Other than free, unfettered movement, swimming under water is important for water confidence and safety. Drowning is too often a result of panic, when a victim reacts to being unexpectedly plunged under water. Most drowning accidents happen when people fall into water, as opposed to when they’re swimming. By gently and regularly swimming your baby under water, you’re taking that natural affinity and lack of fear and teaching them how to control their breath so they’ll always stay calm when submerged.

Even when babies go through phases of what we call the wobbles, which often occur around that time fear of water could kick in if they hadn’t swum regularly, it doesn’t impact on that positivity that has surrounded them in the pool all their lives. I taught one fifteen month old who fell into a pool on holiday and calmly turned around and grabbed the side, even though he was going through a bit of a clingy phase in lessons.

His wobble was quite typical for his age: separation anxiety as he took a developmental leap in his sense of self; not an actual fear of water. But, this phase is when fears and worries start to creep in – you may notice night terrors, fear of strangers, or spiders, or toys with big eyes. If you don’t have a regular swimming habit where you’re used to bobbing under the water’s surface from time to time, fear of water can be one of them.

So gently swimming under water is an enjoyable, fun part of baby swimming lessons. We do it for safety, and to help little ones get the most from their time in the water. It’s never forced, it’s never prolonged or designed to stress or test the baby; in fact, in Water Babies classes, we use word association that essentially asks the baby’s permission to swim them under water – and many times have I seen them say no through a shout, grimace or shake of the head! On these occasions we leave it until another time.

betty

Betty, aged 3, just as happy under water as on the surface!

 

Myths about drowning

Summer weather, and everyone takes to the water to cool down. But beware! There’s a danger that you might not know about…

That danger is click-bait articles that give alarming misinformation about drowning and put people off teaching their children to swim. Opening with sentences like the one with which I began this post, they are designed to attract readers, often to the cost of quality and fact.

You may have read these articles. There’s one doing the rounds at the moment (from a notorious ‘fake news’ site) about a four-year-old who died “1 week after swimming”, and claims: “The boy’s lungs were filled with water and he had fallen victim to so-called dry drowning.” This is alarming: we take our children swimming, and most people don’t know the facts about drowning, dry, secondary or otherwise.

Drowning is a very real and very serious danger, that much is true. In the UK, around 60 children drown each summer, and it’s the second leading cause of death and injury in children, those aged one to four-years-old being the most vulnerable. The best defence against drowning is vigilance, but accidents can happen with even the most attentive parents. That is why knowledge and learning swimming and safety skills from as young as possible is so important.

The type of drowning of which most of us are aware is where, having been submerged for an extended period of time, the victim blacks out, reflexively tries to take a breath and inhales water. In some rare cases, the epiglottis which covers the wind pipe, doesn’t open, and the victim asphyxiates under water. This is sometimes called dry drowning (though not by medics) because the person has drowned under water without actually inhaling any.

If the victim was rescued during a drowning accident, they’d need to be monitored for 72 hours afterwards because there is a small chance they had inhaled water, and a small amount of fluid in the lungs can cause a pneumonia-like infection. But this only happens after a near-drowning accident, or where someone has panicked under the water. The key phrase here is ‘near-drowning accident’.

We all have a set of reflexes that protect our lungs. When water hits the back of our throats, the epiglottis closes, sealing shut the windpipe. Water in our throat, and the tube that connects the throat to the windpipe (the larynx), can trigger a cough reflex, where air is forced out of our lungs to clear away the water. That can also trigger the gag reflex and make us throw up, or, more often, the swallow reflex so we simply swallow the water into our stomachs.

In my eight years teaching swimming, I have seen so many children go under water and come up coughing and spluttering because these brilliant reflexes are doing their job. I try to stop myself using the phrase “the water went down the wrong way” because it’s not true; it can only go one of two ways – into their stomach or back out of the mouth or nose.

To enter the danger zone, they’d need to be under water for an extended period of time (how long depends on the individual and the situation). And they’d also need to either panic or pass out – in other words, the situation would have to be out of control. The wonderful thing about swimming lessons is that children learn water confidence, safety skills and swimming skills in a carefully controlled environment.

Babies have no sense of fear with water; having grown in it for nine months, they have an innate affinity with it. The reflexes I talked about earlier are even stronger in babies. By introducing young babies to water, including gentle, controlled submersions, those innate reflexes can become learned behaviour. From a water safety point of view, not just teaching safety skills like turning and holding on to the side, but guarding against panic by making sure they’re always confident and comfortable in water.

I taught a boy called Sam who fell into a pool on holiday when he was 15 months old. His mum was right next to him, but before she got to him, he had turned round and held on to the side. Another baby, George, slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, but he calmly righted himself and held on to the side, and he was only eight months old.

What worries me about the articles that spread worry among parents is that they might discourage people from teaching their children to swim. By the time they leave primary school, children should be able to swim 25 metres because if they can swim this distance, chances are they’re strong enough swimmers to get themselves out of trouble.

The Amateur Swimmers Association (ASA) says that one in three children will leave primary school unable to swim. That’s 200,000 children leaving UK schools this summer who would be in big trouble if they fell into deep water. That’s quite a scary statistic, and a much more realistic contribution towards drowning accidents than misinformed notions of secondary drowning.

So how can you protect your children? Be vigilant when it comes to children and water. Remember that it doesn’t take much time or much water for things to get serious. And teach your children to swim. Start in babyhood if you can, choose a swim school if you can, or just take them yourself and teach them confidence and water safety.

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