All about perception

You should’ve heard the snorts of derision from winter swimmers at the recent release of the research behind new wetsuit rules. But it did float one interesting issue to the surface – that of perception.

You could say human experience is all about perception. Reel off the quotes and idioms: beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it’s a head game; mind over matter. Oscar Wilde said: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Edgar Allen Poe said: “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Cold water swimming is absolutely about mind over matter. People ask me how I do it. As I stand at the top of the steps about willingly walk into a freezing lake, I think “here I go. Exhale.” As I swim, I notice the prickle on my skin, the dead ache of my fingers and toes, the way it smarts my face, and I choose to enjoy it. Mind over matter, see?

The Fédération internationale de natation (International Swimming Federation, or FINA) has just released its research into the effect of cold water on athletes. This led to a change in wetsuit rules for competitions and events, chewed over by the Outdoor Swimmer here.

Yawn, I know. But bear with me; don’t fall asleep just yet.

A series of tests on marathon swimmers explored the physiological effect of cold water. I love the cold water response; it’s fascinating. And if you’re a cold water swimmer, it would be pretty remiss of you to not know about it. As you enter the water, there’s the cold shock response: gasping as your  sympathetic nervous system is activated, hyperventilation, increased heart rate, and blood pressure as the vessels in your extremities constrict (vasoconstriction).

Next to that cold shock response is heat loss, as the cold water conducts heat away from your body. To begin with, your working muscles share the flow of warm, oxygenated blood with your core, but after a while they start to cool, and that’s when cramp, heavy limbs and sometimes confusion can kick in. As your core temperature cools, and continues to cool after you leave the water, too long a swim can lead to hypothermia.

The researchers found that of 226 swimmers, 14 swimmers had a hypothermic core body temperature (below than 35°C) during or after their swims in water of 14-20 degrees. So how do winter swimmers survive at 3 degrees?

“I’m going to say goodbye to you now, Mummy,” said my rather scathing 10-year-old daughter before I swam in a recent ice gala, “because you’re going to die.” To be fair, if death really was on the cards, I probably wouldn’t do it. But there are three factors that preclude my imminent demise: 1. Acclimatisation, 2. Subcutaneous fat and 3. Brevity of swim.

I swim throughout the year, once or twice a week. The water temperature gradually drops through the autumn, and by swimming frequently, my body adjusts. I get a mini version of the cold shock response when I get in, but I control that gasp with a long exhalation, and I don’t hyperventilate now. Once in, I consciously slow my stroke, and tell my body to relax.

My body is naturally athletic, but it’s cocooned in nature’s equivalent of a duck down duvet: a superior layer of subcutaneous fat, both the ordinary white kind and heat-generating brown fat. The FINA study showed more extreme cooling in the leanest athletes (not surprisingly); for cold water swimming, you really do need some insulation.

And my winter swims max out at ten minutes. The swimmers in the study completed 2 hour-long marathon swims, and hypothermia really only kicks after about half an hour. Plus, an experienced, acclimatised cold-water swimmer can listen to their body and know when to get out… or can they?

So here’s the rub. The FINA research also found that “swimmers have an unreliable perception of cold stress”. While this research was on leaner than average marathon swimmers, it’s this little nugget of perceived wisdom that us chunky dunkers and winter dippers have in common with our endurance swimmer and triathlon friends: it’s all about the head game, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re feeling fine.

While the mental health benefits of cold water swimming are well documented, the physiological benefits are a bit more woolly. There’s not much beyond anecdotal theories around boosting the immune system, activating metabolism-increasing brown fat, burning calories and improving circulation; not nearly as well researched as the physiological dangers, in fact.

And yet, people have been extolling the virtues of winter dipping for centuries. I’m fairly new to it, but I love the natural high, the smarting skin, the way it makes me feel alive, elated, keener, sharper, happier. I’ve not been ill once this year, could that be down to the cold water?

What’s more, my tolerance has improved significantly. My hands don’t really hurt like they did when I first started winter swimming, I can swim further, faster, more efficiently. I haven’t experienced an after-drop, and I don’t even shiver. My body doesn’t experience cold stress. Or does it? Is all of this purely conjecture?

Whether its real or perceived, the mettle that it takes to walk down those steps into the lake does have the potential to be dangerous. However you feel, keeping your head and never swimming alone or for too long is sensible. There are times your kit (watch, thermometer) and swim buddies or support crew will be way more reliable than your own mind.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that the perceived benefits of winter swimming are real. Dipping in cold water is wonderful, and its benefits are more real to me than anything else. For me, nothing is more liberating, exhilarating and joyful. And no amount of research can measure that.

That brings me neatly back to my first idea: that human experience is all about perception. W. B. Yeats said “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” I feel that this describes open water swimming than more accurately than any amount of research; it sharpens the senses; it is magical.

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Swimming hungover isn’t the best idea physiologically speaking, but it feels wonderful!

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My Eddie the Eagle moment

Estonia 2018. Flights booked, events entered, stomach flipping somersaults anytime anyone says “Tallinn”, but I’m actually doing it: World Winter Swimming championships, here I come.

It was actually not hard to enter; in fact, I’ve had a much easier time than Eddie the Eagle Edwards, who at least had to record a qualifier. It was just a case of registering for a couple of events, and then finding a flight.

It’s the training and doing that’s the harder bit. Swimming at least twice a week in biting water that electrifies your skin and turns it an alarming shade of pink is challenging enough, but racing in even colder water on the world stage for winter swimming will be quite something else. The water is expected to be under a degree. That’s colder than a G&T with ice.

And I’d be nothing without my team, the South West Seals. We’re motley crew of winter swimmers and chunky dunkers who gather on the side of Clevedon marine lake throughout the winter, faff immensely before tripping off to the water, swimming for a short while, and then faffing some more over warm drinks. Half of us are just in it for the cake.

We’re a growing team. This year, around 75 Seals have signed up to the Facebook group, and a dozen of us are going to Estonia. As winter swimming catches on, with its benefits for health and well-being, the number of feet-stamping, hot-water bottle hugging swimmers at the side of the lake increases too. Sometimes it feels busier than it did in the summer.

And we’re none of us athletes. Most of us are better covered than your average Olympian; I swear more ballast makes us better insulated and more buoyant. Our ages range from mid-twenties to late-fifties; our neoprene wearing from full wetsuit, booties, gloves and bonnet to bikini-only; our technique from quick dunk full of swears, to freestyle loops around the lake.

Estonia requires no neoprene. Other than that, it’s open to anyone with the desire and cold water experience. For the less confident in our group there are untimed events, while our youngest member has entered about six competitive events, and being an athletic, experienced swimmer in an age-category that’ll have the fewest entrants, has a good chance of winning some bling.

And imagine that! While there will be some hardcore northern European competitors for whom winter swimming has been a way of life since childhood, there is a small chance that a couple of us will win a bronze, silver or even gold in our events. Proper world champions!

However we do, the experience will be immense. The absolute joy of winter swimming is that it’s pretty much the only sport where it’s enough to simply be sporting. Other world championship-level sports require an Eddie the Eagle standard of dedication and practise; winter swimming just requires a masters-level of faffing and a penchant for cake.

To follow the South West Seals’ adventures in Tallinn, watch this space…

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Swimming at Clevedon at around 3 degrees centigrade

Baby swimming myths sunk

Google ‘can my baby swim underwater’ and you’ll find all sorts of conflicting articles. All sorts of terms get thrown around: mammalian dive reflex, bradycardic response… I’ve found the top baby-swimming myths in Googleland and sunk them right here.

Myth #1: Your baby uses the mammalian dive reflex

An actual qualified swim instructor is quoted on a parenting site as saying: “Until about 6 months the mammalian dive reflex will stop water from getting into a baby’s lungs.” This gem is probably baby swimming’s most ubiquitous piece of misinformation.

The mammalian dive reflex has nothing to do with baby swimming, unless you’re a seal or you’re cutting a hole in the ice to make a pool. This amazing, incredibly important reflex kicks in when anyone is plunged into cold water. The heart slows (bradycardic reponse), capillaries in your extremities close (vasoconstriction) and your blood flow shifts to prioritise circulating oxygenated blood to your vital organs and counter a drop in blood pressure from a slowed heart rate.

It’s fascinating, really, and incredibly clever. It’s probably left over from a time in human evolution when we lived in the water; aquatic mammals have it (hence the name). That it’s much stronger in babies is true; drowned children have in fact been ‘brought back to life’ because of it, and medics simulate the reflex by artificially cooling the blood to help treat coma patients.

None of this sounds very relevant to a half-hour swimming lesson in a hydro-pool, though. It’s true that parts of the dive reflex come into play when a baby is gently swum underwater, such a slight slowing of their heart rate, but this reflex is an extreme response to an extreme situation.

Read about the mechanisms of swimming underwater here.

Myth #2 If you put a baby underwater, they can inhale it

Clearly, if a baby (or anyone, for that matter) is under water for too long, their oxygen-deprived body will make a last-ditched attempt at gasping for air, and will inhale water. It’s called drowning, and you can read about it here.

When you’re in an ordinary pool situation, your baby may well cough and splutter, and will certainly hold their breath responsively, but they won’t inhale it. It’s not remotely like how Australian baby swimming company Aquatots describes: “Without waiting until your baby is conditioned to submerge by placing them underwater their air way will be open and the water that enters the mouth will go straight into the stomach and lungs.”

This is completely incorrect. Your baby, conditioned or not, will reflexively close their airway under water. As soon as water hits the back of the mouth and the taste-buds on their voice box, which is higher up than an adult’s, detect it, the flappy bit (epiglottis) over the windpipe seals shut. If it didn’t, they’d be at risk of drowning while feeding if you think about it, and that’s ultimately what this survival reflex is for.

They also have two more nifty little reflexes, the swallow and gag reflexes. They send that mouthful of water one of two ways, down to baby’s stomach or back out of their mouth. A mouthful of swallowed water is harmless, and so long as you don’t submerge your baby too many times and the water’s not salty, all it means is wetter nappies than usual later on.

Myth #3 Babies will let you know when they’re cold

I’ve seen babies ‘shivering’ in the warmest pools. But this shivering actually doesn’t have anything to do with temperature, it’s cause by tensing muscles with excitement and anticipation, and it can also be caused by apprehension (think knocking knees).

Babies aren’t able to regulate their temperature. They have something called brown fat around their necks, shoulders, backs and bottoms that insulates them and actually generates heat – read more here. But while they don’t feel the cold like adults do, spending half-an-hour in cold water can cause their body temperature to drop.

When a baby’s cold, they probably won’t cry. Quite the opposite, they can go very quiet or just whimper a bit. The real tell-tale signs are blueness in their hands, feet and lips. As a general rule, if the pool’s cooler than 32 degrees centigrade and your baby weighs less than 12lbs, you should probably not swim. If your baby’s bigger, then watch them, try not to stay in for longer than half an hour, and wrap them up warmly afterwards.

Myth #4 You need to wait until your baby’s been immunised

Remember getting your polio drops on a sugar cube as a child? Back in the day, polio was a ‘live’ immunisation meaning that in order to develop immunity, you’re given some of the pathogens that cause the disease.

That’s not the case any more. And with chlorine knocking out 99.9% of nasties, a well-maintained pool is probably less germ-ridden than, say, soft play. Watch out for tummy bugs, though. If you or your baby has had sickness or diarrhoea, give it 48 hours after the last episode before swimming.

Myth #5 My baby could dry-drown a week after swimming

This is one of the media’s worst cases of misrepresenting medical fact. If you, your child or anyone else nearly drowned then they may have inhaled water. In this case, you will have to stay vigilant for the next 72 hours, and the hospital will likely keep them in for observation.

If your baby has done a handful of gentle, controlled submersions in their lesson, they are at no risk. Quite the opposite; by teaching them to stay comfortable and relaxed under water and introducing water safety from a young age, you are significantly reducing the chance of drowning. Read more about it here.

Myth #5 Submerging my baby is mean

My goodness, it feels counter-intuitive to dunk your baby! It goes against every parental instinct to willingly plunge your helpless newborn under the water, no matter how briefly.

Of course it would be terribly presumptive to say they all love it, but it’s certainly not mean. Babies’ affinity with water is strong. They grew in it in the womb, and there’s a strong evolutionary hangover that draws humankind to the water. As such, it’s imperative to teach your baby water safety. To make sure that when they reach the developmental stage where fears creep in, water isn’t one of them.

There are gentle ways that are backed by extensive research, development and training in aquatics and child development, none more so than Water Babies. There are more haphazard methods that piggyback off the likes of Water Babies, and there are downright harsh and cruel ways like those used in America that I explain here.

But so long as you’re relaxed and happy, your baby picks up that vibe and will be so too. If they do cry it could mean they’re not feeling up for it today. Developmental leaps, teething, tiredness and illness can all put your baby off-kilter, but that’s more about whatever’s going on than not liking swimming.

For sensible information about:

  • taking your baby swimming yourself, read babycentre.co.uk‘s article (babycenter.com is bunkum) or Olympian Rebecca Adlington’s post on Mother & Baby
  • baby swimming in general and finding an excellent class in a warm, private pool near you, check out Water Babies