Day 4: Scandi traditions

The 25m heads up breaststroke is the traditional ice swim, winter swimming staple and the biggest race of the entire event. Ana and I didn’t race, but took part in another winter swimming tradition: the sauna.

The quintessential winter swimming event, heads up breaststroke is the most popular race with almost 650 participants of the 1300 who took part in this year’s Winter Swimming World Championship.

Most of us Seals took part, with only four providing the excellent spectator support that we’d enjoyed so far. Ana, Sonja, Susie and I watched Seal after Seal parade out to the start line among the colourful hats of the heads up swimmers, and the serious faces of the racers, each putting in performances that fitted somewhere along that line.

The crowd, the colours, the vibrant atmosphere seemed to have notched up a gear, with more flag waving and cheering as loud as the hats and team wear. Smooth and well-organised, row upon row of swimmers emerged from the changing area and transition hub to ‘take off their clothes’, ‘get in the water’ and ploughed their way to the other end of the pool.

Ana and I had both entered the untimed swim. That meant we could rock up at our pick of allocated times and swim in a pool next to the event pool. With this not being a race day, we decided to have a dip after the last 25m breaststroke race. So, after Laura had finished, we went to the changing area.

With a bit of time before our pool time, and very few swimmers left in the post-race area, we began with a sauna. The art of sauna is something Britain hasn’t quite got, but the rest of Europe takes very seriously. At the championships there were four saunas: a big event tent with a central bench and eight heaters, a traditional cabin, a van and an old VW Passat.

The SaunAudi was our favourite, and this was where we started. This yellow hatchback had been cleverly converted, lined with wood and with a burner on the passenger side dash. Inside, we found a large, convivial Russian doctor in budgie smugglers who invited us into his ‘Russian submarine’ and gave us tea from his flask.

SaunAudi – tradition with a twist

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We then went back to the transition hub to be led to the pool, where we swam 100m at a leisurely pace, enjoying the view from the pool. Team mate Bettina had lent me her Gopro so we could film the experience from the swimmer’s point of view.

Back in the hot tub and sauna to warm up, we experienced the deep-rooted Finnish spa tradition of putting your body through heat extremes. This is said to reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, induce heat shock proteins and human growth hormone, and release several other hormones like norepinephrine. Also, it feels good, releases endorphins and reduces anxiety.

Ana and I certainly felt very relaxed afterwards as we wandered back to our apartment through the snowy, picturesque streets of Tallinn Old Town. This day felt like a traditional winter swimming, and it felt good to reflect on the Scandinavian roots of this wonderful event.

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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

 

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!

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 qualifier. 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

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

 

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!