Day 1: Off to a flying start

On the first race day, our team was represented by our youngest member, Laura, who put in a sterling performance in the 100m freestyle.

Actually, Laura’s wasn’t the first performance of the day. Those of us still on British soil woke up to a BBC Bristol interview with Jim, our senior team member. It’s well worth listening (about 1 hour 24 minutes in) about how Jim’s granddaughter made him give up his pipe and learn to swim, although he doesn’t exactly explain the leap from learning to swim to entering the World Winter Swimming Championships!

Back in Tallinn, Laura arrived in our pretty, bohemian apartment yesterday. Her first impression of the Estonian capital was that it’s very cold indeed. While we were treated to Siberian winds last week in the UK, the last couple of days have been distinctly spring-like and mild; not so in Estonia.

She was the only Seal to catch the opening ceremony, a parade of flags, music and dancing. Then, on to her first race (of six). Laura came third in her heat and eighth over all with an amazing time of 1:13.63. That’s quick.

Just to put it in context: the water temperature is below freezing, and swimming 100 metres at this temperature is incredibly hard. I swam the same distance at 5 degrees and was amazed by how much the cold water takes out of you. Laura fuelled her body with oxygen every two strokes, which is a good race tactic, but also completely necessary as it’s breathlessness that’s hardest over this kind of distance.

More Seals will be competing tomorrow: Susie, Sonja, Pete and Laura in the 50m freestyle, and Sonja will be facing the extremely demanding 200m freestyle, the second longest race in the whole championships.

Even more exciting for me, tomorrow I will be blogging from Tallinn.

A huge well done to Laura for today’s efforts, and here’s to equally heroic performances tomorrow!

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Our icy pool in Tallinn, Estonia

 

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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

 

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.

 

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!