Thursday, October 12, 2017

Cold Water Shock -How it impacts you as a swimmer in competition. It's not about Survival it's about Racing.

When we get into freezing to Cold water whether to voluntary or involuntary immersion/swimming. Whether an event or accidental, the body changes physically. 
Our blood, our cardiac responses to function and movement, our veins and our hypothermic responses regardless of why we are in the water- Our body changes once we get into that cold water. Understanding how it applies to us as water users is vital for survival. 

There is a large amount of information regarding the management of Cold Shock-the recommendations are to relax and breathe.
Take a moment to Float first and Swim second. 

But this management is in a 'self rescue' situation or if it happens where you need to steady yourself in the water-which is perfect except we need to sprint.
For a Swimmer-The moment we get into the freezing to cold water, we experience Cold Shock. Our Problem is we require our bodies to swim, to kick our legs, to breathe fast and sometimes to sprint-all contrary to what we are recommended.

Float First Swim Second won't work for you.

The only option you have, is to try and best understand your own personal responses, to best know your own heart-because at most competitions you will only get about 10-20 secs to steady yourself and to breathe and you need to be able to use this 20 seconds very wisely and mostly you need to know what is happening.

Cold Shock is an inevitable consequence of cold water swimming. The initial walk into the water, that immediate gasp we experience with our breathing even before the water rises above our waist. Normally walking in we can manage this slowly and we do but to a swimmer in competition or training to race, there is a dark variable that can completely complicate your personal response to cold shock.
This variable to a swimmer is the need to sprint and the stress of racing in cold water can be life threatening if you are either an individual with existing

  • Underlying cardiac condition, or 
  • Undiscovered cardiac issues and/or
  • Not acclimated  
  • Operating beyond your respiratory limits. 

Respecting your personal limits is vital 

Cold Shock is a powerful cardiovascular response 
When our skin is cooled at this speed (and remember most of the studies are completed at 10 deg but experience shows us the rest (a lot of swimmers are now swimming and racing sub 5 deg down to 0 deg) your immediate response can be to gasp, panic, short sharp breathes, making breath holding difficult and an increase in blood pressure-it can also the triggering of an arrhythmia and a cardiac incident. Thats reality.
This takes some where between 30 secs to 3 mins to relax and to stop fighting the responses and you can influence your responses. 

My First Experience: 
My first time getting into 0 Degree in 2012
Standing Ice poolside in Siberia in 2012, air temperature -30 deg and the water temperature 0 deg was genuinely terrifying. My breathing was racing, I went into a spiral of panic and started to become quite sharp even before I touched the water, my mind was in a spiral-I could not visualise what I was about to experience. I could not breathe out of the water because it was -33 deg. 
I had to focus hard on breathing out-I tried to empty my lungs, on exhaling-something that I learned in Scuba Diving, breathe out longer than in.  
I could not get a deep breathe, I felt the air got stuck in my throat.
 “If you can’t breathe, you can’t swim, breathe, breathe” I kept repeating. 

The first few steps into the ice. I tried to stay calm as the intense pain crept up my legs. I could not visualise anything, every image in my head went black and the water was black. My mind was frozen and my breathing just got faster as I stood with my back to the wall of Ice, I could not believe I was waiting for the whistle, my heart was screaming "What the hell are you doing?"  

In actual events/races in the ice there is about 20 seconds to get control to the breathing and I definitely wasted about 10 of those seconds climbing down the ladder in baby steps, oohing and aaahing.  
I put my face into the water to start the crawl-the tightness of my chest was immediate. The sharp shortness of gasping, the feeling of a lump in my throat. There was a sense of panic creeping into my thoughts, in all of my adventure sports, this was complete terror of what's happening. I tried everything to breathe out and in when my face was in the water and couldn’t get a rhythm.

It was so strange I closed my eyes to try and count, I couldn't get past 6 or 7, what I was experiencing was this severe Cold Shock, this was new and I had not read about it. Coupled with anxiety but then having to swim, having to rotate my arms, kick my legs and breathe. What a mess I was. 
Air Temps 0 Deg and Air - 33 Degree. 
The pain in my hands, my face was intense and the sense of darkness in my mind was something that I will never forget, all because I could not breathe.  150m was the total I swam-so short-I was so upset with myself yet it was a complete marathon of understanding.
The fear I had was that I had NO IDEA if this pain would stop-The only thing I kept repeating, I am still alive and after 6 lengths I was in the water for under 3 minutes, it felt like a lifetime. 3 minutes is nothing. 
The ice had covered my goggles and my face was frozen and once I got out I was so calm and exhilarated. 
What fascinated me was the moment I exited the water, I was as high as a kite. No breathing challenges, in fact I felt that there was freedom. 

  • What can influence your individual response to Cold Shock. 
  • Physical health 
  • Temperature of the water 10° versus  0 Degrees 
  • Air Temperature 
  • Wind Chill 
  • Level of Performance Competition versus training 
  • Open Water V. Pool Swim 
  • How remote your swim is versus the safety of a back yard. 
  • Your personal experience at these temperatures
  • Emotional anxiety
  • Time spent preparing prior to entry-last minute frustration with goggles, hats etc can agitate the heart. 
  • Social Media Pressures are huge factors on your respiratory and your heart.
I am not aware of studies in Ice water at 0 deg in clinical research of Cold Shock combining Physiology of Exercise and the Physiology of Stress of competition. I can say with certainty that the moment the swimmer puts their face into ice water that initial gasp is dark in it's feeling. You do feel the threat to your thinking and that is the moment when you need to take control and breathe out.
That is the moment where every 'tantrum' you ever had comes back to you, this is the moment where you take power over the emotion and then it passes.
In my experience that is the challenge for the future and one you should take very seriously before you take on the cold water swimming.
Racing is all about understanding -for me pools are a nightmare as I don't turn well

As a swimmer what do you want from your body? 

You want to race, even at your pace
You need to get into Ice and sprint
You need to be able to rotate your arms, kick your legs and breathe all while in the first 2/3 minutes managing the absolute responses of your body to Cold Shock-when your body is literally fighting you. 
That is why education, training and understanding are the basis to safe swimming in cold water.

Swimming distance in water colder than 10 deg is exhilarating and for us in UK and Ireland it is nearly 60% of our year so it's something we do all the time. Racing is different and swimming in Ice is more complicated. I will say that the last 6 years in Ice water has been some of the best experience of my swimming career. I have competed and completed super distance at 0 deg. I am not a racer, I don't know how to respond to competition. That's me. I was born to be lowered off a boat not down a ladder. My favourite times in the ice was watching the fastest swimmers in the Ice-compete and push limits. Being there has been magic and what I write is from my own development. 

The 2 main areas that effect your performance as a swimmer competing in water under 10 degrees and down to 0 degrees. 
1. Your Respiratory responses-good friend Dr Patrick Buck said while we were discussing this the other day "If only we could keep our mouth's shut!" But unfortunately we respond to  threatening behaviour by opening our mouths and with a sharp intake of breathe and unfortunately in water this can result in drowning. He has a point!!!
What can we manage? 
  • Inspiratory gasp-you can manage this by keep keeping your mouth shut and breathe out slowly
  • Erratic breathing rate-focus on calm breathing and each of us can influence the speed of our breathing. 
  • Breath holding capacity lessens so breathe out so you get a clear breathe in. 
  • The moment you get in, put your face in the water for a few seconds and breathe out to feel the sensation. It tends to calm. 
  • Make sure that you wet the back of your head and neck -allowing your blood to cool a little. 
  • KNOW it will pass so weather the process and slowly speed up. 
2. Your Cardiovascular Response is not as easy to control-these are physiological responses.
If you have an underlying Heart condition, or are a cardiac patient-understand that the responses and challenges of Cold Shock still remain the one mechanism of the body which is designed to kill you.
Every other response is designed to protect the body for survival-Cold Shock and exposure to cold water can where underlying issues exist trigger an arrhythmia resulting in life threatening responses.

You can take control of your Blood Pressure by knowing yourself and know that many of the events world wide will not allow you to swim if you have an elevated BP. Know what impacts it and know how to regulate it-before you are refused poolside.

Nothing like a chainsaw to up your BP
The GOOD NEWS is that with training and Education, experience -research has shown and also my personal experiences have shown that you can learn to control the Cold Shock and learn to work with it.

The Bad News is no matter how phenomenal you are-you still have to manage and understand your own physical responsibilities each time and that is why the Blood Pressure and Arrhythmia checks are important prior to the events. That is why we have Pre Swim Medicals. It doesn't matter if you are an Olympic Champion or a Nuala Moore-Cold Shock treats us all the same. 

I learned to love Racing at 0 Degree. 
Research shows that if you take your time and go into the water in staged manner 30 seconds movement that your breathing rate and your ventilation rate can reduce by 35%. Taking your time can help greatly. 

Some Ice Swimmers run into Ice water and again use the logic, elevating your effort level, heart rate and then hitting the cold water with Cold Shock in a dive is a cocktail for disaster.
Everything is an individual choice-I would not recommend running in to Ice water-but then again we all know the friend who can drink a bottle of Whiskey, 3 Jagermeisters and a Cocktail and still see you in breakfast-others of us would end up in casualty. Don't follow anyone down a rabbit hole.. your body is your responsibility. No medal is ever worth a risk.

Vigilance is the price of safety at events. 

In 2016 I travelled to Krasnoyarsk, Eastern Russia to compete in the Russian International Ice Swimming Championships in the River Yenesie.
I had completed multiple 1000m@0-1 deg the distance and the temperatures were not new to me.
The biggest NEW variables impacting my emotions and responses to the cold shock were-these things play into your responses

  • I was 8000km from home and at the invitation of the conference organisers. Being responsible was vital to them and myself-the last thing I wanted was to be a casualty and a burden on my friends. 
  • I don't speak Russian-in the event of an incident. 
  • It was an open water event so it would not a safe environment like a swimming pool (Open water is my preference) but adds risk. 
  • It required navigation around buoys-forcing me to lift my head and think, adds pressure. 
  • The time that the swim would take would be longer than a pool based on greater distance swimming. 
  • The extra time in the water at 0-1deg may be more difficult for me-I had not done 25 mins @ 0 degree. 
  • The River water is colder by nature than the lakes as the under water flow is freezing (we experienced this in Finland and also in Tyumen that the river routes were so much more stringent in their freezing)
  • I was completely aware, that in the unlikely event of an incident being admitted to a Russian Hospital would be financially and difficult for me.-I felt vulnerable. 
  • I needed to be leaving on the flight 16 hrs after the race -I needed to be safe.
Staying calm despite the wind chill. 
I woke up the morning of the race and I immediately felt vulnerable. I closed my eyes to breathe. To experience this moment was why I came to Krasnoyarsk. I wanted to see the variables. I lay in bed and said to myself,  "My only priority to be on that flight from Krasnoyarsk to Moscow tomorrow morning, make it happen"  

No heroes. I knew that i could spend longer at 0 deg so for me it was about staying strong and taking the pain in a way which would allow me to exit without a major recovery. I know I could and that involved being in control the entire race. 
I went straight to the rescue teams on the River-I introduced myself, I found 1 man who was River Rescue who spoke english and I asked him to be MY cover and stay with me. 
I then went through my hand signals and asked how they would be taking me from the water if I needed. 

I spoke to the organisers and I requested that all starts would be about 60 seconds to acclimatise in the water and they agreed.
The one River Rescue Service who spoke English-
My new best friend. 
I stayed calm, the medical team and the team from the event are friends. My job was to be safe. Once in the water, It was so biting on my hands in the first few minutes and the back of my head was very cold. I fought harder that I have ever ever fought before in an Ice swim. All because I needed to be on that flight tomorrow. It was powerful to see my body respond strong. The wind was strong and the water was tight and I breast stroked every now and then to refocus my head and vision for navigation. The breathing was hard but all was possible. My cardiac and BP post event were normal . 
I went home at 6pm despite there being a dinner, got food, and went straight to bed. Slept for some hours and got a wake up call from my sister to ensure my flights. 
I won the Russian Championships. -for me I won the battle, I was so strong. I was safe. 

Cold Shock can be managed. Breathing can be managed. Blood Pressure can be managed and being responsible for your heart and health is necessary. 
The Ice is soo fabulous. The exhilaration as you discover your strength is amazing. There is a dark side. Like all beauty there is a darkness. Learn to love it and learn to manage and the sun rises will be beautiful. You gotta train for how you mean to fight.
I exited 25mins @0-1 deg completely in control and
required limited recovery.
I needed to left alone as I was still fighting myself at this point. 

When I was attending the Ocean Extreme Medicine Course in Plymouth during May this year, I showed some footage and some medicals to a Cardiac Surgeon who specialises in Sports but also in SADS-she was Russian. I asked her opinion and her reply was solid and simple. 
"You're a consenting adult, you can do what you want"
her words chilled me-excuse the pun and we are so obliged to take responsibility.
We are consenting adults.

When we discuss Cold Shock and its Float First and Swim Second.. remember and know if you are swimming and you are racing.. it doesn't apply to you..
Know your body and know that acclimation and training can reduce the
Cold Water Gasp
The Breathe Rate -you can weather this storm.
The Blood Pressure
Your cardiac responses are open to be managed-the Ice is there to enjoy how you play is up to you. 

I have written a Manual on Ice Swimming including details on Cold Shock. For details email me

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Cold Water Shock -How it impacts you as a swimmer in competition. It's not about Survival it's about Racing.

When we get into freezing to Cold water whether to voluntary or involuntary immersion/swimming. Whether an event or accidental, the body c...