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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