I have learnt many things over my first few months of winter swimming and I am so glad that I decided to set myself the challenge of swimming skins through winter. I’ve learnt so much about how my body reacts to different temperatures and situations both physically and mentally. Ive also learnt just how far I can push my body and, of course how far is too far.
From all my open water swimming experience I knew the most important things to do with cold water swimming, I had the knowledge and knowhow but even so before deciding to set myself the challenge of swimming skins through winter I did a lot of research into it. This year I have been a pretty good way health wise so I finally decided to take the plunge and see what happened in the hope that next year I can coach individuals and run introduction to cold water swimming sessions. I also wanted to see how my body would cope when swimming under Channel Swim Rules and Regulations.
Step one – When I decided to get rid of my wetsuit and swim through winter the first thing I did was get a swim logbook. This was so that I could log all my swims in detail, both air and water temperature, weather conditions. Also, how my body reacted, how I felt before, during and after, my pain levels, any spasms or other CRPS of Fibromyalgia symptoms. I also wrote how I got into the water and if I got in quickly or slowly so that I could figure out the best way for me to get in. I could also record what distance I swam, what conditions were and perhaps most importantly, how I felt after my swim and how long it took to warm up after. Basically, I got the book so I could write absolutely everything down!
Step two was finding a fellow nutcase to attempt to swim through winter with me.
I was looking for a very particular sort of nutcase, not just a general one and it took a while for me to find that perfect nutter. I can be a bit choosy in who I go swimming with because you never know when something may happen, and you will need their help. For me, it is especially important because of my disabilities and health conditions. It being my first winter swimming I had no clue how my pain levels and legs would react to the cold; they could cease to function or go into spasm or be excruciatingly painful. As a result, I needed someone that I could trust but that was easy going and non-judgemental. I also wanted someone that didn’t mind my quirky, pretty awful sarcasm/humour, because let’s face it, when its bloody freezing my sarcasm and bad humour would hit a new level.
I swam with a few different people and a few groups of swimmers at the start of the winter season but didn’t really feel 100% confident with them. They were all different abilities, and they were very much social and swoosh (swimming from one point to another downstream) swimmers. They mainly swum head up breaststroke so our goals and reasons for swimming were very different because I was aiming to see how far and how long I could swim for at colder temperatures.
However, a few weeks later I finally found someone willing to swim with me from the slipway in Huntingdon, which is the easiest entry point for me. Her name was Clare, we got on well and I enjoyed our first swim together, plus, she even let me leave my wheelchair and TriRide in her car.
It is amazing how quickly you can get to know someone when doing something like cold water swimming because you rely on each other to stay safe. As a result, I quickly realised Clare is a lot like me, at least I think she is. Ever since we met for that first swim we have swum once a week in the river every week and intend on doing so throughout winter. When we first swam together it was lovely and just felt right, she could ‘read’ the river and respected it, like me. She was confident and I felt she knew what she was doing and talking about. We had a laugh and a joke, and I came out of the water in more pain but with a huge smile on my face, so I asked if she wanted to swim the following week, and the week after that and the one after that…. you get the idea. She said that she would love to and would love to try swimming in the river all through the winter. Since that first swim, we have swum every week, we have had some amazing swims, some awful swims, some beautiful swims and I have enjoyed every single swim we have done.
When we started swimming together and I first swam without a wetsuit it was a bit of a shock to the system. I would usually get in very slowly and was someone that would dip one should under the water and then the other before actually taking the step/leap into the water! There were screams, a lot of swearing and a lot of “what the hell are we doing”. Getting in this way worked for a while, however, as the water got colder this way of entering became more difficult and painful and on one occasion it almost had me in tears. After looking around and asking some other disabled swimmers and ice swimmers advice it was suggested that I get in as quickly as possible because rather than the pain in my legs and feet, my mind would be focused on overcoming the cold shock response making me think about my breathing rather than the pain – it worked. Since then I try to get in much quicker and start swimming straight away. It doesn’t take away the pain from my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome but it distracts me from it enough that I can get in and swim.
I spent the first month or so learning how my body reacted to the cold water, how long my body could tolerate different temperatures. I focused on how I felt, if certain areas of my body were colder than others and I also took note of how I was getting in and out and my warming up process this is where my swim logbook was so helpful.
I made notes of what was working well and what wasn’t and after looking back through my log book and reading more advice I came up with 3 tests that I could do to see if I needed to get out the water:
- The finger touch: This is the one I use the most and find the most accurate, I simply touch my thumb to each finger on both hands (demonstrated in the video). Normally, this is easy and I can do it in both directions on both hands but when I get cold it becomes more difficult. If I can do it both ways on both hands I am fine to stay in longer, if I can do it on both hands but only one way then I need to start thinking about getting out. Finally, if I can’t do it at all, I have stayed in too long (this has only happened once).
- Stomach Temperature: This may sound like an odd one but for me I know I need to start thinking about getting out when my belly starts to feel cold.
- Feeling Good: Obviously you want to enjoy the swim and feel good after a swim too, but I think in cold water swimming there is a fine line and for me, when it is roughly sub 8 degrees, I have discovered that if I have relaxed totally into my swim and it is feeling amazing then I need to start making my way out of the water. By doing this I know I will be ok when I get out.
So how have the first 10 weeks of cold-water swimming gone?
Well, there is one word for it: Amazing!
I have absolutely fallen in love with it, I feel like a complete nutter and am not 100% sure what it is that makes me love it so much, but I always get out the water with a smile on my face. It doesn’t reduce my pain like it does for some people, in-fact, for me it can increase slightly so I always make sure I have taken extra pain medication before going in the river/lido. Since winter swimming I have also begun having a new issue related to my Complex Regional Pain Syndrome where I am currently unable to picture my legs from just below the knee downwards. This has made things more difficult in terms of walking and getting in and out, particularly when cold because I can’t always trust that my legs are under me and are going to do what they are meant to. However, the mental benefits I get from the swims are huge and so important for me.
Due to it being my first winter swimming I have reduced my general swim training hours so I can focus on it and rather than training for something specific I have focused solely on the enjoyment of being in the water and being totally at peace.
I have learnt a lot about what my body can tolerate, how much winter swimming is a mind game and I have been lucky enough to find another swim buddy that is up for some challenging events next year and who wants to swim with me going forwards.
If you are interested in getting into cold water swimming there are a lot of articles and blogs out there for you to read but one of the best I have found was posted recently by Straight Line Swimming. You can check it out by clicking on the picture below.