Winter is all over us, and with it has come my favourite part of open water swimming – cold acclimation training.
Yep, you heard it right – my favourite part! No, I’m not a masochist and I certainly don’t have super powers. And yes, I’m perfectly sane, thank you. I’ve just grown fond of it. The physical adaptations, the mental challenge and the empowerment that goes with it. It’s fascinating. Of course, deep inside, I’m still scared sh*tless. Taken to the extreme, hypothermia can be fatal, but with a little practice and the right mindset, you too can learn how to cope with the cold.
I once read our fear of the cold is culturally-induced in the Western world. “Watch out, it’s cold outside!”, “Beware of the draught”, “Put your sweater on or you’ll get sick!” – how many times haven’t our parents made us pile on layer after layer of clothing, making it sound like we’d get struck to death the minute we walk out the door? This apprehension is believed to be so deeply rooted in us that we are conditioned to fear the slightest drop of temperature. But as often is the case, fear is mostly irrational and it can be dealt with.
First step – get your facts right! There’s plenty of literature out there. Do some research and make sure you are critical – it takes more than a few diffuse comments in a Facebook forum to understand the basics of hypothermia. At worst, theory could mean the difference between life and death for you.
Second step – embrace the cold and adapt to it! As far as I’m concerned, cold acclimation training boils down to three things – cold showers, my Swim’n’Freeze routine and mental conditioning.
By cold showers, I don’t mean the bucket of icy water you usually find in a public pool. This bucket is pure torture. Nothing but an abrupt shock that will send you screaming like a stuck pig. There isn’t much long-time acclimating about that. Instead, I take cold showers at home, where I gradually lower the heat. In the beginning, for every degree you turn down the thermostat, you can almost hear the screeching violins from Alfred Hitchcock’s bloody Psycho shower scene. The colder it gets, the louder the screeching. Every drop of cold water feels like the knife coming at you through the curtain. Panic creeps up on you. You feel like screaming and running away, but you know you won’t get far, all entangled in the blood-soaked shower curtain. You’re agonizing and you ask yourself – what’s the point of all this pain? Some will say it helps you develop brown fat and a more effective insulation against the cold. Others will tell you brown fat is bullshit. Personally, I don’t care whether it’s scientifically proven or not. After a couple of weeks, I found out I could start showering with cold(er) water right away. Taking cold showers is a process, and it’s helped me a lot – if not physically, then mentally. I don’t apprehend immersing myself into cold water anymore. The screeching violins have all gone silent. I have taken control of my fear.
Then comes my Swim’n’Freeze routine. This is the part where I consistently train in cold water, and that’s probably the part most people dread. You wouldn’t believe how much time swimmers spend on the beach or the harbour jabbering about the water temperature, how coooooooold it is, how awful it feels, how unbearable it is. Surely, those swimmers know how to get each other worked up. And I used to be one of them. But last time I checked, blubbering about the water temperature won’t make it rise. On the contrary, by the time you hit the ocean, the water will feel even colder. Remember – you get to feel what your mind focuses on. So, forget about the cold and think positive. Think about the cup of hot chocolate you’ll get when your swim is over – and move into high gear immediately! Don’t stand rooted on the spot, your arms curled up on your chest, gasping for air, waiting for Death to come and get you. You’re a human, not a damned penguin standing still in the middle of an Antarctic snow storm while incubating his precious egg in his brood pouch. You have only one way to counteract the loss of heat you experience as soon as you enter the water – it’s by producing heat! The same way you rarely freeze while running, working in the water will help you maintain a stable temperature. So, don’t waste your time. Cut the drama, hit the water and get straight to work. End of story!
Of course, there are physiological limits as to how long you can endure the cold, and this is where your knowledge about hypothermia plays a vital role. You must know how your body reacts and when it’s time for you to get out of the water. The last time I experienced a mild state of hypothermia was during my crossing between Denmark and Germany. We were about 7 hours into the swim. I was fighting against the current when the weather changed for the worst.
Soon, I found myself shivering all over my body and I knew it was time to react. Martin was on the watch at that moment, so I stopped very briefly to tell him about the situation. We knew I had 10-15 minutes to pick up my pace and work my way out of this first stage of hypothermia. If it didn’t work, my team would have no choice but abort the swim. Luckily, I was powerful enough to shift into a higher gear and produce the heat I needed in order to proceed safely.
This kind of knowledge is crucial – both for you and your team. Everyone involved needs to know how to look for early signs of hypothermia and how to handle them. It’s a huge responsibility you place on their shoulders, because, at the end of the day, it’s your life that’s at stake.
This being said, swimming butt-naked in cold water is one of the best challenges I’ve ever taken up. A lot of our capability to cope with the cold is mental discipline. Once demystified, facing the cold has taught me a lot about fear, limitations, endurance and determination. One step at a time, I’ve pushed off my limits and it has empowered me more than anything else.
You don’t need to swim kilometres on end like me in order to try it. Just keep calm and turn down the heat. Take your time and stick to it. Rushing through or training sporadically will only get you dispirited and you will never enjoy your swim. Be daring, but sensible. Be fearless, but self-aware and respectful of your body.
Be patient. Be committed.
Be your own hero!