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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Tallinn here we come!

There aren’t many times in your life that you get the chance to enter a world championship. But here we are; a motley bunch with one thing in common – a love of winter swimming.

The World Winter Swimming Championships 2018 open tomorrow in Tallinn, Estonia. Arriving over the next couple of days, the Bristol-Clevedon area will be well represented by the South West Seals; there are 13 of us who swim regularly in Clevedon plus four or five more extra team members.

We’re staying in an Airbnb apartment. Our lovely host hasn’t filled us with confidence. His latest communications told us that ‘we have quite cold in Tallinn’ and to ‘take warm pyjamas just for heavens sake’.

Cue feelings of mild hysteria. We all know we can manage the water temperatures; we are all very well acclimatised having swum a weekly since the water started to cool in October, and we’ve all dipped in water around 0ºC. But it’s the grandness of the world stage, the tingle of excitement, the minus air temperatures, and what to wear to the gala dinner that flips our stomachs.

Over the next few days, we’ll post regular blogs for our friends, family and fellow cold water swimming aficionados to follow. This is where you’ll hear about our antics, adventures and, dare I say it, medals.

For some of us, this is our first competition. Ana and Jim have only learned to swim in the last year; Hillary, Anne and Tom only decided to enter at the last minute; Susie is our team captain, experienced championshipper, font of all knowledge and founder of the South West Seals. The rest of us have a mixture of experience from childhood club swimmers to recently trained swimmers who’ve taken part in a few galas, and a few of swam in the National Swimming Champs at Tooting Bec Lido last year.

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Last minute training today: L-R Anne, Sally, Hilary, Tom, Row, Ana, Susie, Sonja, Claudia

Most importantly, though, we have badges, team swimwear and gorgeous orange Clevedon Pier hats designed by our artist friend, Nancy Farmer.

Today some of us Seals practised our race starts and sprints. For most of us, this will be our last open water swim before we climb down the ladder to our starting positions for real. So watch this space, and let’s see how this motley bunch fares in the World Winter Swimming Championships 2018.

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Seals costume, Clevedon Pier hat and acclimatising in the snow!

 

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!

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!

Clifton Lido

It’s still too cold for proper open water swimming, but not to go outdoors. Clifton Lido is a bit of a gem: sympathetically restored, heated, but still cold enough to whip your breath away. And you can wear a bikini.

It’s January. Clear, crisp, sun shining brightly, but doing a bit of a feeble job of warming this part of the world. Still, I’m in my two-piece and enjoying a few breathless lengths under the actual sky without a lifeguard or ceiling in sight. What joy.

This is Clifton’s rather special Lido. It’s been in Bristol since 1849, but closed in 1990. After a local campaign which gave it grade II listed status, it was restored, and re-opened in December 2008. You can see photos of the restoration project all around the venue.

The pool is beautiful. A tank design, 24m long, it is kept at a temperature of around 24/25 degrees and at a low chlorine level. There’s also a sauna, steam room and hot tub. When you use the facilities in conjunction with one another, you swim with an odd, heavy feeling that has to be good for you!

We swim, then sauna, then swim, then hot tub, steam, swim, hot tub again. This level of relaxation is quite exhausting! And builds an appetite.

This brings me neatly to a quality that none of my other favourite swimming places possess: an excellent restaurant. Downstairs, a tapas bar; upstairs, an a la carte dining room where you can also choose from a set menu or tasting menu.

We go upstairs, and choose a meal from the set menu: starter to share, main (something fishy) and then pudding to share. By this point, we are almost too exhausted to speak, and certainly too spaced out to sample from the wine list, so we just sit mesmerised by the swimmers ploughing up and down in the pool below, enjoying our food.

The restaurant is in the old pool’s viewing gallery, which apart from the modern floor to ceiling windows that overlook the pool, has plenty of industrial Victorian charm.

In the pool, in my bikini, I felt the eyes from the restaurant. But now I’m here among a curious mix of business lunches, friends meeting and people in white robes, I understand that those eyes were pretty passive: it’s hard to intently observe anything when you’re in a stupor of intense relaxation and food appreciation.

This is a gold plated outdoor swim, infused with expensive essential oils. It’s cleaned up, without being sanitised, so you still get to experience the sky above your head, and fresh, clear water – with just enough chlorine to know you’re not going to get your fingers caught in pond weed or swallow a pond skater.

No, it’s not the genuine wild swimming article, but you get to sauna, steam, hot tub and a nice massage if you want. And did I mention an amazing meal afterwards? In my eyes, it’s a good trade-off.

One day I might just do winter open water swims, but until then, I’ll take the luxury option because it is really, really rather nice.