A swim outdoors in the winter is a mysterious beast. It fills you equally with muscle seizing dread and spine tingling excitement. This stays with you no matter if it’s your first winter swim or your thousandth.
Today I’m going to break down the anatomy of a winter swim into it’s parts. These vary from person to person but this is my experience. This is a pretty normal winter swim at Tansor at temperatures below 4C.
Two Hours Before The Swim:
The dread appears. I know I’m going to enjoy it when I’m in and love it afterwards but this is all irrelevant now. The thought of getting in rears it’s ugly head and I try and think of as many different excuses not to get in. Maybe the car wont start? Maybe I’m ill? Maybe the others can’t make it? Maybe there are sharks/snakes/piranhas in the river?
One Hour Before The Swim:
I get my gear ready and pack it into a bag. I try and chill myself down as much as possible so the difference between my skin and the water is as little as possible. This may be psychological but it seems to help when I get in. I check what the weather’s like outside and try and get my head round the fact that there are no (decent) excuses and I that I want to do this.
Half An Hour Before The Swim:
I put my flip flops on, load all my kit in to the car and drive to the swim spot with the heating off and usually the windows down. Loud music helps me distract myself from what’s ahead.
Fifteen Minutes Before The Swim:
I park up and walk down to the river and nervously chat to the others and wait for stragglers.
Five Minutes Before The Swim:
I check the river depth, the current speed and find out the temperature. I try to think of more things to faff about doing but the time for faffage is over. I normally say something like “Well, this river’s not going to swim itself”; and then get changed.
One Minute Before The Swim:
I store my flip flops in their usual position ready for when I get out and walk to edge of the jetty. I look upstream and down stream and swing my arms around my body more to psyche myself up than as any kind of a warm up. I have a mantra that I say in my head before I get in at any swim so I put off saying that for as long as possible as I know I have to go in straight afterwards. I wrap my toes over the edge of the jetty a look upstream and downstream again.
Now is the time.
In my head I say: “Warm like a whale, smooth like a seal, brave like a lion”; and with that I lean forward bend my legs and dive out into the water. (N.B. This is not advised. You should slowly ease yourself into the water allowing your body time to adjust to the temperature).
The first few seconds:
At first there’s nothing. You can’t hear anything underwater and your body hasn’t detected the temperature drop yet. Just as I’m about to surface by skin roars and my body reacts to the icy water. On my first few swims I would panic and my chest would tighten and my breathing would shorten but now I’m used to this and I breathe normally almost enjoying this achingly beautiful pain that is surging through out my body.
The first minute:
I do a few strokes of breastroke arms with butterfly legs just to ease myself in. I don’t do breastroke kick as it hurts my knees and I like to keep my femoral arteries between my legs as warm as possible. They are pretty close to the surface so having my legs together for the whole swim keeps them warm.
I put my head underwater and get into my stroke. It’s important to focus on correct form as the temptation is to splash about to generate as much heat as possible. I try and glide through the water and concentrate on really long strokes.
My body is getting used to the temperature now and has chunted the blood away from the skins surface. My hands ache but nothing too bad.
The First Five Minutes:
I try and sight every few strokes as I swim upstream to the turn around point this is to make sure that I’m in the bit of the river with the least flow but also to avoid scraping myself on the banks as this is agony at these low temperatures. There aren’t too many fishermen around at this time of year so they’re not a big worry.
I can feel the cool water affecting me but can also sense that I’m fighting it and draw upon knowledge that I’ve swum further and at lower temperatures than this to help me through. I pump my hands on the recovery section of every stroke and this helps keep the blood getting to them and keeping them warm.
I get up to the turn around point and cross over to the faster flowing side of the river for the ride home. I usually have a look around at this point to see where everyone else is and check that everyone is okay. You get these stunning frogs eye views of winter from the river that you just don’t get anywhere else.
I usually do some butterfly to get the blood flowing and so that I can see where I’m going as I head back down to the jetty and think about doing another lap. Each lap is just over 400m so I usually do a three or four. Sometimes, depending on who I’m with and the current I’ll head up further. I like to do about a mile each swim and usually try and swim twice a day during winter depending on conditions.
The last five minutes:
My hands start to sting and I feel the chill creeping into my feet. My core is usually still warm but I check my condition by touching my thumb to my little finger and by trying to say “Peter Piper”. If I fail on either of these then I know it’s probably time to start thinking about getting out.
Getting out and the first 90seconds:
I have got this part down to art form. You have about 90seconds to get dressed before your body releases the cool blood from you extremities and it comes flowing back to your core. This is when the big shivering can happen so it’s key to be changed and ready by then.
I jump out at the jetty and walk quickly up to my kit. I’ve stacked the kit in the order I’ll need it to speed up the process. I take my goggles off, keeping my hat on, and towel dry my top half. I’ve got two t-shirts and a jumper all in one and put them on together. I then put on my hoodie and a waterproof jacket and put a wooly hat over my swimming cap. I then wrap the towel round my waist, take my trunks off, wring them over the side and put them with my goggles. I put on my boxers and then walk down to the waters edge to wash any mud or leaves off my feet before I put my jeans on. I then put my flip flops on and I’m all done. Usually inside a minute.
Keeping your swimming hat on is absolutely key. It’s keeping your head warmer than you think and getting your brain frozen is the worst thing you can do in this situation. Flip flops are great in this situation as you can get them on quickly and it gives you a cushion between the icy ground that’s sucking the heat out of you. Putting on socks and shoes is fiddly and takes up time. I also think that initially they keep your feet cool by trapping the cool in there and not letting them heat up. It works for me but that doesn’t mean that it’ll work for you.
Ten minutes after the swim:
I’m usually pretty well recovered by now depending on how hard I pushed it in the water. I tend not to run about too much as I think this just pumps the cool blood around. I prefer to let my body warm up slowly. I blessed with bioprene so don’t suffer as much as some. Once you’re recovered your body really does buzz and gives you an incredible high.
The guys I swim with and I have invented what we like to call the “Calorie Window”. This has no real scientific backing whatsoever but we say that anything you eat of drink within half an hour of a winter swim doesn’t count towards your daily quota. This has been great as it means we eat heaps of cake and mountains of biscuits and drown down lakes of hot chocolate!
Half an hour after the swim:
The Calorie Window closes and we call go home. I try not to put the heater on and keep the windows open if I can. My thinking behind this is to keep my body conditioned to producing heat. That said I sometimes put a little heat on my feet!
When back at home you get to enjoy one of the great perks of winter swimming. The nap. I usually try and sleep for about half an hour and you wake up feeling incredibly warm and relaxed…and starving! Now’s the time for more bioprene building food so you can have it digested before you start this process all over again in the afternoon!
The key to a successful open water swim is that when you get out, you want to get in and do it again.
Other posts you may like:
Ice Swimming: How and why?