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 qualifying time. 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

Swimming through anxiety

For as long as their have been humans, there has been swimming. If you engage with aquatic evolutionary theory, you could say that we were swimming even before we were human. And it’s true that we were all kind of swimming before we were born. But why is swimming in water, particularly cool, open water, so good for us?

I’ve just come back from a holiday. Holidays are a total luxury; but, as they are afforded by the kind of life choices that send you slowly mental, they are a total necessity. Anxiety was scrunching me up, making me jumpy and edgy, causing me to withdraw, ironically, from the very things that sort me out: swimming, exercising, socialising, relaxing. Instead, I was hunching, pulling inwards, flicking obsessively from app to app on my phone, searching for something but never knowing what. Working hard, and trying to work harder. Spending too much time staring at screens, obsessing with doing more, being better. But anxious energy gets jobs done, and in this state of flux, I remortgaged, sold my car and researched and bought a new one, organised builders’ quotes and PTA events on top of working and sorting out my family’s needs. I also organised a holiday.

Swimming has always been the centre point of my holidays. The criteria for my parents’ holiday plans was to find a beach or lake or river and then choose the campsite or rental nearby. So ingrained is this particular method of searching for holiday accommodation that I barely noticed how my planning focused on proximity to the nearest body of water.

Our first swim was on the journey itself. The Plymouth to Santander ferry takes 20 hours, and among the entertainment on board is a small pool cut deep into the deck so the water doesn’t slosh out. Lately, stress and anxiety has taken its greatest physical toll on my jaw. Somewhere across the Bay of Biscay that night brought a terrible wave of temporomandibular joint pain that jolted me awake and kept me there, even after scrabbling around our sleepy cabin in search of drugs. So the next morning I thought a swim might wake me up.

For an open water swimmer, a swimming pool is poor cousin to the vast, ever-changing waters of the ocean, lake, river, tarn, loch or stream. This one was small and over-chlorinated, but it was water and it was deliciously cold. It woke me up all right. But more than that; I was amazed by the sense of calm that washed over me with that cold water the moment I submerged. I smiled, I felt the knots in my muscles loosen a little, the stuffy headache recede, the tetchiness fade.

What an idiot to have forgotten. The stream next to where we pitched our tent in the breathtakingly beautiful Spanish-Basque mountains, the crashing Atlantic waves on the west coast of France, the turquoise-clear lake near our campsite in France, even the open-air pool on the campsite, undid the painful knots of anxiety in my body and  washed them away. Star floating and watching wisps of cloud cross the blue sky as the waves lifted and dropped me, jumping off a rock into a deep pool in the mountain stream, diving through the surf, I was struck by how the water always changed, not just in colour and temperature, but in viscosity, opacity and taste. Being in it, on it, under it is an experience for all the senses, and somehow, unlike any other activity, it always cures.

Another of my holiday pleasures is reading. I took with me two books. Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley, which I had started at home, and The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. Both these women swim the year round, both have had huge emotional health issues with which to deal, both very different from one another, and different again to me, but to whom I could relate in many ways, mainly in their love of being in cold water and the salvation it gives them.

All this; these women’s accounts, my own anxiety being undone by water, made me wonder why swimming outdoors is so powerful a healer. I’ve known for a long time the benefits of swimming, releasing endorphins, well-being from exercise, better sleep patterns, better health and fitness, relaxing through breathing steadily. But can you not get all that from running, cycling and yoga?

There are plenty of theories about cold water swimming, as explained in this article. Connection with nature, release of adrenaline, training your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response so you cope better with stress, anti-inflammatory properties of cold water, and improved immunity. But science is still at a bit of a loss as to exactly why and how plunging into cold water seems to sooth anxiety, cure depression, wash away grief, loss, bereavement, emotional pain.

There’s no shortage of accounts showing that open water swimming does change lives. For Amy Liptrot, it helped her deal with enforced sobriety; for Alexandra Heminsley, cope with infertility. For me, a lot of my anxiety has been tied up with poor body image, but open water swimming seems to have transformed me into someone who’s if not achingly body positive, at least at peace with how I look. Like Heminsley, it’s helped me take pride in a body that I’d always felt wasn’t good quite enough, to find strength and power where I’ve previously seen cellulite and flab. My sister, a photographer, and a person who knows me better than most, photographed me as part of a project in the pool (main photo and below), and she was amazed by the change in my demeanour, my confidence and self-assurance as I entered the water.

It also helps me switch off my whirring mind. When I’m in the water, I don’t think about much more than the sensations, the colour of water, its opacity, whether its sharp and biting, or smooth and velvety. Whether it has a saltiness that buoys me up and stings every nick and scratch on my body, or a freshwater, mineral taste that envelopes me. As I swim, I think about the pull, catch, kick, breathe. I watch the Hockney-like patterns on the sea bed, the pebbles and reeds, or simply my hands pushing away in turn with a steady rhythm. I stop, I look towards the horizon, the sky. Birds and fish come close by. I feel strong, happy, peaceful, and that feeling will often stay with me for more than a day.

I’m a science person, rather than one of faith or religion. But from time to time, even those of us who put faith in science needs to accept that some phenomena is beyond rational explanation. There is perhaps something in the fact that we are ourselves made of water, that we grew in it, that we evolved in it. Just as we are likely affected by the lunar cycles, maybe we are somehow connected to this life-giving element. Perhaps, sinking into a warm bath stirs some kind of pre-birth memory of comfort and safety. Perhaps wading into cold water awakens a genetic memory from our ancestors, living on the shoreline and wading into the cold seas and rivers to find small crustaceans and shellfish for dinner – read The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan for more on this fascinating evolutionary theory.

Proof that swimming in cold, natural water heals all manner of emotional and mental health issues is anecdotal, and overwhelming. The manner in which it heals varies from person to person, but the resulting rosy glow and sense of peace and well-being seems to be universal. For me, it’s at once meditative and soothing, and a perfect, attainable high, giving me a pure buzz with a healthy afterglow. Maybe there are no fathomable reasons why, and it doesn’t even matter.

Good reads

Leap In Alexandra Heminsley
The Outrun Amy Liptrot
The Descent of Woman Elaine Morgan

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Swimming in Clevedon’s Marine lake: Photo credit Fur and Gold Photography

 

Drown-proofing babies

It’s an unfortunate phrase, drown-proofing. Proofing is something you do to objects, not humans, and even then it’s not infallible, as proved by the wet patches my waterproof coat leaves on my shoulders. But it’s a phrase associated with a controversial method of teaching babies to self-save.

To be fair to the Infant Swimming Resources (ISR), I’m not sure drown-proofing is a phrase they use themselves. I hope that they’d agree that you can’t, by any method, make a human-being incapable of drowning. But it’s a phrase that the media has grasped to mixed reception as it seeps into the UK from America where it started.

I’m going to say one more positive thing to be fair to ISR. It is born from a very understandable desire; to reduce the number of children, especially infants, who die from drowning each year in the US, and subsequently, the UK. And, if you only focus on results and only watch the positive videos, you might believe it works.

But ISR techniques are as extreme as they are lacking. While they work to an extent, they concentrate on such a narrow tranche of infant swimming, water confidence and safety, that their effectiveness is equally narrow. The techniques used to reach the point where a baby can flip on to their back and ‘float’ are more like drills, and research can only speculate on how stressful this is for babies.

This is why a group of baby swimming experts, including all major baby swim schools and the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) have come together to produce a statement against these extreme methods of teaching life-saving. Describing it as ‘unethical’, the report includes research from anthropology, aquatic, child development and baby swimming experts, and is very compelling, worthwhile reading.

I find the videos distressing. In this one, for example, the baby shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for something in the water, rather taught to stay away from it. Once she is on her back, she’s not relaxed and floating, she’s clearly unhappy. This one is actually heart-breaking. As a baby swimming teacher for eight years, I would never, ever, ever, submerge a distressed child, let alone repeatedly.

These methods are unethical, and more importantly, unnecessary. One of my colleagues taught an 8-month-old called George in gentle, fun Water Babies classes, who slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, and before his dad could grab him, had righted himself and held on to the side of the bath. I taught a 15-month-old called Sam who fell in a pool on holiday, and turned and grabbed the side immediately. There are many more like their stories here.

As an absolute contrast, the Birthlight movement, and the swim schools which have been inspired by it, is about using gentle methods to engage with a baby’s natural reflexes and affinity with water. It’s a holistic technique, looking at health, well-being, development, strengthening, co-ordination, cognitive development, confidence, early swimming skills and safety.

“Conditioning (forcing) a baby or toddler to float relies on extreme traumatic methods and sadly no amount of praise will compensate for the memory of inflicted pain – it just gets pushed into the recesses of our brain, where it is recorded,” says Birthlight founder and medical anthropologist Dr Francoise Freedman. “While some children will escape unscathed, for others, the trauma may resurface in later years and cause a fear of the water. And because we do not know who is at risk, we have to question if it is worth doing; and the simple answer is no, based on scientific evidence and statistics.”

What effect could the stress of these extreme drown-proofing techniques have on babies? While occasional surges of the stress hormone, cortisol, is thought to be beneficial, frequently elevated levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent negative effects on brain development. By contrast, gentle supported movement, skin-on-skin contact between baby and parent, and plenty of loving praise has a hugely positive impact on both brain development and stress responses.

That is certainly reflected by what I see in my classes. As I explained in this blog about why we swim babies under water, by respecting a baby’s choice about whether or not they go under, we develop a confidence that, along with parental vigilance, is the best way to protect our children from drowning.

“We are fully aware of the distress to children the self-rescue technique can cause and regard it as an aggressive, unproven method to make babies ‘drown-proof’. Parents who choose this method are well-intentioned, but have unfortunately been misguided,” says Water Babies co-founder, Paul Thompson. “We practise a much gentler, nurturing and holistic approach that enables little ones to develop physically, emotionally and cognitively at an appropriate rate. We have had clients come to Water Babies having used the self-rescue technique and in many cases the children are petrified of water. Instead, we teach safety, but also encourage children to enjoy the sheer fun of swimming with their family for the long-term.”

I’ve been teaching baby swimming for almost eight years, and been a part of classes with my own three children. My children, and those I’ve taught, have spent most of their lessons smiling and laughing, bonding with their parents, and, if I’m doing my job right, learning without really knowing it. What I want is confident, water-lovers, not drown-proofed children.

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My three children aged 2, 6 and 8 years old, happy and confident in water.

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.

 

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!