Exit, rewarming & recovery
Once the tent is up, a floor mat goes down (or kickboard, yoga mat, anything to protect our feet from further contact with cold ground) and each swimmer claims a corner to lay out their gear and post-swim clothing. Sometimes we bring our own individual tents, and sometimes we share. With the onset of cover, it's been the former, bring your own way to change after the swim.
Exiting the water
In moderately cool/cold water, I tend to take more time getting to shelter (I’m chatty with anyone who happens to be on the beach), but in very cold water it’s the main priority. If the water doesn’t chill you to the bone, wet skin and windy air will do it. I usually swim up to shore on my stomach, staying in the water and out of the wind as long as possible, and then up and out I go. I cover my hands with a towel immediately upon exit, so they are protected from wind. All of this depends on just how cold it is, and - very important - how windy. On a cold sunny day, I take my time and enjoy the moment. On a cold blustery day, I'm outta there and changed pronto!
Once in the tent, there’s a very set order for getting dressed. We’ve practiced this, it’s down pat by now, it takes about 2 minutes with a supporter’s help from the time I get out of the water to the time I’m fully dressed. On my own, well, longer and much clumsier:
wet bathing suit comes off first
towel dry gently (never rub cold skin, it hurts like heck)
upper torso gets dressed first, so thermal top goes on
lower torso next, thermal long-johns or jogging pants
socks and boots
swim cap comes off, wooly hat goes on
mitts and scarf
swim parka or long winter jacket
heat packs get stuffed between layers and slid into mitts (if using them, these days we don't really bother)
During very cold swims my hands are usually too cold upon exit to do much, so if I'm on my own, I put mitts on first for a bit to warm them, then get dressed. Even just a few minutes helps. But if I have a supporter, they help me as needed. It’s hard getting used to someone yanking down your bathing suit or helping you put your pants on, but if you don't get dressed fast, the risk of getting colder is significantly increased.
Why don’t I cover my head first? A silicone cap keeps in a lot of damp heat, more than my wooly hat, I’m willing to bet. I simply leave it on until my torso and feet are warmly dressed, then swap the cap for a hat.
A note on neoprene: if wearing gloves or booties, as Diane sometimes does, these typically must come off first, as the wet material gets very cold in the air/wind. Diane will usually drop down to the mat laid out on the tent floor, and work off the gloves and then the booties.
One of my new favourite things is a onesie, perfect for cold water swimming. I decided it looked really cozy, so hubby bought me one for my birthday. I’m in the process of a few modifications to suit cold water swims: drawstring added to hood, and thermal socks sewn into the feet so the whole thing goes on quickly and I’m fully clothed in one fell swoop. Sometimes I skip the thermal layer and just pull this baby on, it retains heat really well. I’m a genius. When it comes to onesies.
I’m not an expert on hypothermia, after-drop or frostbite. But there are a few golden rules that any cold swimmer follows:
Get dressed quickly and warmly
Don’t take a hot shower or apply hot heat directly to extremities
Avoid vigorous movement
Let’s break it down a little…
Getting dressed quickly and warmly:
Exposure to cold doesn’t end when you leave the water, in fact, air and wind conditions can lead to a further significant drop in heat from the core if steps aren’t taken immediately, making after-drop even worse. I always leave a bit of buffer when deciding how long to swim so that I don’t get into trouble afterwards, mild hypothermia is common to most cold water swimmers, but anything more is simply not worth the risk. I get out quickly and dress warmly, always before after-drop and shivers come on. Good reads on mild hypothermia, moderate and severe hypothermia and diagnosing and addressing moderate hypothermia.
Avoiding hot showers or hot heat directly applied to extremities:
Hot heat applied quickly to the body may accelerate the rate at which cooler blood begins recirculating through the core, making the “drop” of after-drop much lower and even dangerous depending on how cold your core or the blood in your extremeties is to start with. No hot showers. Applying hot heat directly to extremities is just as bad (example, placing hands and feet in a bath of hot water to warm them up), as it may trick the body into thinking the cool blood from those areas is ready to start moving around when in fact a more gradual approach is needed. This could also make after-drop more sudden, more severe. Think lukewarm, think gradual.
And, if skin’s really cold, it can be hard to tell just how hot that water is, leaving a swimmer open to risk of skin damage. In a recent swim in Hong Kong, I foolishly did just that. I fiddled with the shower but only got scalding water, so I didn’t stand directly under it (smart) but did let it run over my very cold feet (not smart) as I let my core rewarm gradually in the steam. So, soooo bad. Both big toenails had damage, the skin underneath thawed before circulation had returned, causing cells to burst. It was just bruising, confirmed by a doctor, but it was still scary. And gross.
Conversely, if your hands and feet are really frozen, you may find placing them in a bucket of room temp water is helpful. sometimes warm air on thawing skin really hurts, and the water helps them return to normal on their own. Sounds weird, but it works.
Avoiding vigorous movement:
Same issues as above, you want cooler blood to start moving through your body gradually. Definitely start moving around, but walking is best, not running. I’m not even sure I could work up a good run after a cold swim anyhow, mostly I just want to crawl under a warm blanket. I say this, but I have friends who prefer to run up and down the beach immediately after a cold swim as a way to warm up, many people do it. To each their own, it’s just good to consider the possible impact on after-drop to doing so.
I usually grab a cup of coffee or pea soup, and go for a stroll along the beach. We also like cake, a lot, as apparently cake calories don’t count for anything if you consume them within 45 minutes of exiting cold water. According to science, so I’m told.
Much of our success with exiting the water and rewarming safely comes from steps we take before even getting undressed to head in. This is especially true, the colder the water gets. A list of what goes in my kit can be found here.
Typically, our car is parked a ways from the beach, so a tent for shelter goes up on shore close to the water. Unfortunately, usually the tent can’t be staked into the shore's hard-packed sand and rocks, but we make do most times and pulling on the fly helps stabilize the rods a bit in windy conditions, and then putting our kit bags into each corner fo the tent to weigh it down a bit. Here you can see just how close we put the tent to the water line:
A few final words…
We keep an eye out for fellow swimmers, someone who looks fine in the water may have trouble afterwards once after-drop hits, especially if it was a longer training swim. We keep talking to one another, it helps identify if someone’s struggling.
We’re always sure to bring food and hot beverages, or head to a coffee shop afterwards. Cold water swimming consumes a lot of energy, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse afterwards.
We never get behind the wheel of a car or ride a bike until the driver’s core temp has sufficiently recovered. Working through after-drop can disrupt your concentration, as can shivers, not to mention impact cognitive abilities. We wait, get warm, then go. Or not. I’d sooner call someone to come help instead if I wasn’t 100% sure I’d safe to be on the road. I once had a friend, a newbie to cold water swimming, whose first swim was 35min at 9C(48.2F), and she had to pull over on the highway because after-drop hit while she was driving home and her shaking was uncontrollable. She stopped, waited, then headed back out onto the road. Serious stuff.