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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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.

 

What’s in your kit bag?

Only a swimophile could have a fantasy kit bag. Most of my friends covet handbags, but I can’t get excited about Mulberry or Louis Vuitton or whatever. But talk to me about the contents of your kit bag, and you’ve got my interest.

My bag is a rather pleasing khaki-green canvas tote. It has carry handles and a long strap so you can sling it across your back. It’s a single-compartment slouchy affair, a gift from family in Perth, Australia. It was originally filled with beer, but I have commandeered it. It’s mine. It’s got a bit of mildew on the inside. And I get quite arsey if someone else tries to use it.

Inside, at this time of year, is my towel, costume, swimming cap, fins, goggles, wash bag and some loose change. Sometimes I also take my swim watch. In open water season, I add my wetsuit, baby nappy cream for wetsuit rash, tow float and polarised goggles.

Just as you can tell a lot about a person by the contents of their handbag, what can you work out from a swimmer’s kit bag? I think mine says quite clearly that I’m an entry level, moderately serious recreational swimmer.

My clear goggles are Aquasphere Vista, which I love for the way they stick to my face rather than trying to pop out my eyes, and give me a clear field of vision. My polarised pair are Slazenger Triathlon Mirror goggles, which reduce the glare on a bright day, fit in much the same way as my Aquaspheres, and, essentially, don’t fog up while I’m swimming.

My swimming costume is a Zoggs boyleg swimsuit. As a swimming teacher, I’ve been through hundreds of swimming costumes. Zoggs has absolutely been the best in terms of longevity and fit. Their chlorine resistant material is wonderful; it lasts use after use. And I love the boyleg fit simply because it means you don’t have to be attentive to your lady garden. Priorities.

My hat is a Diana 3D competition swim cap. It’s actually a race cap, which I didn’t realise, but because it’s moulded, I find it easier to get on my large head. I also have my Macmillan and Great North Swim latex caps, but I feel it’s a bit like putting a condom on my head, and it gradually pops off while I’m swimming.

I actually love my wetsuit. At £280, this was my biggest, most important purchase. I got it from the Triathlon Shop in Bristol, where I asked for a suit that would fit someone with a man’s height and woman’s curves. They got it spot-on first go, and I got to try it in their brilliant infinity pool (I want one). It’s a Zoot Z-Force 3.0. I find it really easy to swim in, with good movement on the arms. excellent warmth and buoyancy. I’ve done 3.6km freestyle wearing this little beauty.

My towel is the only bit of kit over which I haven’t agonised. I would like a dryrobe and a sherpa hoodie. For open water swimming, my fleecy jogging bottoms, alpaca beanie and Uggs are essentials too.

I could spend a fortune on Wiggle, Pro-swimwear and Selkie Swim Co. I probably need a tow float at some point. And if I take on winter swimming, a neoprene hat, boots and gloves might be on my shopping list.

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All togged up and ready to go!

While swim kit fantasies have infinite possibilities, you actually don’t need to spend a lot to enjoy swimming. Unlike cycling where you need a decent bike, or running where you need good trainers, all you really need to swim is a towel, goggles and something to wear in the pool.

Many open water swimmers prefer to swim without a wetsuit. I love wearing a wetsuit, and love my middle-of-the-range number. But you can hire or buy second-hand, and many places offer the chance to hire for the summer and then buy at the end if you like it.