Best practices for getting into cold water

I talked at length about my first meaningful experience with peripheral vaso-constriction here, the phenomena where circulation redirects some blood flow away from the extremities towards the torso to help protect vital organs, which in my case produced a sensation of heat across my chest. During one of my first colder swims, I dove into cold water far too quickly and immediately swam off away from shore, unknowingly breaking pretty much every rule about safe entry. I simply didn’t realize what was happening, I hadn’t put in the research necessary to fully understand what cold water could do to my body.

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Luckily, the friend swimming with me that day had a lifeguarding background, and with a furrowed brow and concerned look, I was given a quick lesson in best practices for safe entry. Thank goodness she did; it brought things into perspective for me, cold swimming was great fun but could also be dangerous if not done properly. I walked away from that day determined to figure it out.

 

Here are the rules I followed as a newbie:

  • I would NEVER run or dive suddenly into cold water. I don’t care how cool pics of Lewis Pugh diving off ice into Arctic waters look, he’s got years of experience in extreme conditions under his belt.

  • I would NEVER submerge my torso suddenly into cold water. With the exception of racing, where one enters the water quickly by climbing down a short ladder, training swims permit one the time to work on improving habituation.

  • I would NEVER dunk my face suddenly into cold water, out of the blue. The vagus nerve is your friend, don’t scare the shit out of it. It may not react kindly.

  • I would NEVER swim out into open water without first letting the heavier effects of cold shock pass. I’m not keen on sucking water into my lungs while 200m from shore.

 

I have to admit, as I’ve become more experienced in cold swimming, it’s become easier to enter quickly and swim through cold shock, much as one would do in a racing event. Now I can saunter out without pause and just start swimming. But getting there took time and work, and generally, the above principles were aways followed during my training swims.

 

Here's a little routine I would follow every time I entered cold water:

  • I would step into the water, ankle-deep, and wait for a few seconds. I let my skin get used to the cool air. Sometimes I even sip from a cup of hot coffee, and just stand there taking it all in, hoping the sun will come out. This will be fun, right?

  • Next, I would march out until the water reaches my hips, and stop again, this time to let my lower torso adapt to the cold. Or freeze over, whatever. Feet, legs, bum, bits. Yeesh, the air’s starting to feel colder than the water!

  • I would lean over and splash water over my my face, neck, arms. Well, I’m practically in now, might as well finish it off.

  • I would submerge my torso slowly, keeping my head above water, and let cold shock come on. Stay calm, breathe in and out, nice and controlled.

  • If I wasn't ready to swim yet, I would move around a bit, maybe breaststroke, maybe just walk out and play in the bigger waves. Bet I look a lot like those aquafit ladies at the pool, bouncing about.

 

Habituation, the act of becoming more accustomed to the entering cold water, makes all this easier with practice. On nice days, I would take a few minutes get in, why not enjoy the experience? On cold days, this takes me about 20-40 seconds, not wanting to waste precious body heat by dallying around.

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So what’s the big deal with all that? Well, going in carefully lessens the impact of the mammalian diving reflex (heart rate slows as face/skin make contact with cold water) as well as ensuing cold shock of submersion (heart rate and blood pressure spike, followed by hyperventilation). In fact, the more often I swim, the less these play a role, they are either lessened or sometimes not there at all. I’ve become more habituated, my body has learned to adapt. And splashing my face and neck signal the vagus nerve that cold is coming, so the message has a chance to get from my brain down to my major organs. We’re gonna need those if we want to have a nice swim.

 

Does it hurt every time? No. It depends. Sort of, I guess. Swimming at the same temp over and over gets easier, the cold seems to matter less, I’ve built a stronger resolve to put fear and physical discomfort aside, something I’m otherwise not very good at doing. When the water starts to get even colder, it becomes more of a challenge, but by then I’ve been practising entry, I’m ready, my body is more habituated, even my hands and feet are less impacted by cold.

I also get to practice colourful language, without judgment (I hope), sometimes verbalizing just helps with the process. Holy fudge, flippin shit, and oh-son-of-a… are amongst my favourites. I usually try to mutter them under my breath. Doesn’t always work.

I generally don’t have a hard time putting my face in cold water, I don’t get ice cream headaches or any sort of pain, but I’ve known other swimmers who will swim heads-up breaststroke for a bit before doing so. The more comfortable with cold shock I’ve become, the more I’ve learned to control my breathing, and I can confidently swim knowing I won’t be sucking water into my lungs.

 

I know. It doesn’t sound like much fun.

 

But it is truly a blast.

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