(Terry post-swim at Lake Awosting– in 53F–Nov. 2009, a year after this ’08 blog)
FROM THE ARCHIVES:
As the weather cools, we take a look back at a post on cold open water swimming that Terry wrote for the T.I. blog in late Fall 2008. He first describes a short Halloween swim with a friend in 45 degree (Fahrenheit) water at a local lake, and then shares insights on cold water swimming from famed long-distance open-water swimmers, Lynne Cox and Lewis Pugh, including some of the scientific research from cold water experiments conducted on Cox. Cox is best known for being the first person to swim between the United States and the Soviet Union, in the Bering Strait. She also swam more than a mile in the waters of Antarctica, which she recounted in her 2004 book, “Swimming to Antarctica.” Lewis Pugh is a British-South African endurance swimmer and ocean advocate. He has been described as the “Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming” and was the first person to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world; he frequently swims in vulnerable ecosystems to draw attention to their plight.
PLEASE NOTE: Extreme caution must be exercised when swimming in cold open water. The swims described in this blog were undertaken by expert long distance, cold open water swimmers. Extensive experience is needed to attempt this type of swimming, as it can lead to hypothermia and other serious medical conditions, and is potentially fatal. Always use good judgment and prepare properly with appropriate precautions if attempting cold open water swimming– be smart and stay safe!
(Terry biking around Lake Awosting with friend Willie Miller, en route to swim– Nov. 2009)
Crazy Men in Halloween Plunge
Willie Miller and I swam at a local lake on Oct 31, Halloween. It had snowed four days earlier and there were still patches of snow an inch or two deep alongside the trail, and some snow and ice on the trail at points as we biked to the lake. The higher we climbed, the more snow we saw. We briefly questioned our own sanity, but our sense of excitement over doing something so “out there” was stronger than anything that might dissuade us.
A little background: Willie, Adirondack Masters Chair Dave Barra (a TI open water coach), and I had been swimming in open water continuously throughout the fall. In early September, the water temp was about 70F and we swam approximately an hour, three times a week. When the water dropped below 60 in mid-October, we shortened our swims to 25 or 30 minutes. We often saw other swimmers during September, but saw only two other swimmers in October, the last one around mid-month, when the water temperature was 57F.
With water temperature dropping gradually over the eight weeks between Labor Day and Halloween, we found the adjustment quite easy. There was some initial discomfort at 56-58F, but within five minutes, we’d feel just as comfortable in the core as we had at 70F. We were quite aware of the water’s coldness, on our skin, but it never penetrated.
(Terry’s friend, Willie Miller, pausing on the bike ride to swim in Awosting– Nov. 2009)
The complicating factor was less water temperature than the fact that, before and after swimming, we ride mountain bikes between our cars and the lake – 30 minutes uphill before the swim and 20+ minutes downhill afterward. The uphill ride is a good warm-up, but the downhill ride – with the addition of wind chill and subtraction of warming exertion – sometimes left us quite chilled. By mid-October, with days growing colder and shorter, we would return to our cars near dark and with air temps once or twice in the mid-40s. On Oct 15, an overcast and blustery day with air temp in the high-40s, Dave and I swam 40 minutes in 56F water and felt quite chilled as we finished our swim. By the time we got back to the cars, both of us were pretty well frozen, with hands and feet so numb we could hardly feel the pedals and were fumbling as we tried to shift gears. After that we made sure to complete our swims before the cold could penetrate.
(Terry, pre-swim, at Lake Awosting– Nov. 2009)
Which brings us to Oct 31. For all the snow around the lake, the water, as always, looked inviting. Our first immersion was unquestionably painful. Standing ankle-deep for a few moments, my feet hurt as they do when first submerged in a bucket of ice water. It was stingingly cold, but quite bearable, as we waded to the “shrinkage zone” and paused for a few moments there. When I crouched to submerge my torso, I began to gasp uncontrollably and had to stand again to regain control. When I crouched again, the gasp reflex had subsided a bit. I stayed there until my breathing slowed, then immersed my face experimentally to see if the gasping would resume. When it didn’t, I pushed off into a glide and began stroking.
What was surprising was the “ice cream headache” on the back of my neck, which I’d experienced 9 days earlier in 53F water and seemed no worse than before. But my hands and feet quickly went numb, my skin burned everywhere else, and even my teeth felt frozen. I decided I’d be happy to swim just a few minutes or, say, 200 yards. But as I went on and felt no more discomfort, I entertained the possibility I might hold out a bit longer – perhaps all the way around the near cove, which is maybe 200 yards of swimming, and then back, as the crow flies, to the rock where we entered.
Willie stopped there and said he wanted to return the rock, just to be sure he could. I said I felt good enough to carry on and finished swimming around the cove. After doing so, I looked back and saw Willie swimming my way – a welcome sight because, without company, I probably would have swum back to the rock and climbed out. I swam to meet him, and we agreed to cross to the east side of the lake and continue to our usual destination – the tall rock face we’ve named “the wall.”
As we did, I began to feel some breathing difficulty again. Not gasping, but slight difficulty in filling my lungs. I concentrated on exhaling more emphatically and it passed after a couple of minutes. Then I started to feel my left calf cramping in and tried to stretch it by flexing my foot. This brought an odd sensation — I had little sensation on my skin but could clearly sense my muscles, which felt somewhat rigid and resistant to stretching.
But we reached the wall uneventfully and made the short crossing back to the west side and began to swim back. Over the next five minutes, I felt progressively more at home – feet and hands still numb, skin burning slightly, but totally comfortable in the core. As we passed the last point and crossed the final 150 yards from the head of the cove to our rock, I had two thoughts: (1) This feels so manageable I think I could keep swimming another 10 to 15 minutes (we’d been swimming nearly 20 minutes at that point) and (2) How remarkable that my skin which felt so painful when I first got in, now feels unremarkable.
When we got back and stood up, I wasn’t at all chilled, but was quite unsteady on my feet in the rocky shallows because I had so little sensation on the soles. I waded carefully to shore to retrieve the thermometer we’d brought to measure how “crazy” we were and threw it to Willie. When he read it at 45F (7C), we were both, in the words of Alan Greenspan, “irrationally exuberant.” Our goal of swimming at least once in sub-50 temps felt far more satisfying at 45 than, say, 49.
Back on shore, we felt surprisingly comfortable, standing near-naked in a stiff breeze, as we dried off and put our biking clothes back on, but that lasted only a couple of minutes before shivering set in. Which, for me, didn’t stop until an hour later after I’d soaked for 20 minutes in the hottest water I could stand at home.
For Dave, Willie and I, cold-water swimming has become almost addictive, mainly because it’s so invigorating. After swimming for weeks in water 20 to 30 degrees colder than typical in pools, its stimulating effect has made normal swimming seem almost pallid by comparison. We also felt that something that stimulating must be healthful in some way, although we had little evidence to support our supposition. The day Dave and I had gotten chilled, I’d actually considered not swimming because I’d had a fairly severe sore throat – the kind that usually precedes a particularly nasty cold – since waking. Well, the cold did come on the next day, and it was indeed a severe one. Still, I swam again two days later – because the cold symptoms had already peaked and begun receding. I came out of that head cold faster than any time I can recall.
(View of Lake Awosting from upper cliffs bike ride en route to swim– Nov. 2009)
After our Halloween swim, I did some web research on cold water swimming. Here’s some of what I found:
- Cold water robs the body’s heat 32 times faster than cold air
- Physical exercise — like swimming — causes the body to lose heat at a much faster rate than remaining still in the water
However, stimulus like cold-water immersion causes a general vasodilation – opening and expansion of blood vessels. Some of the possible effects of vasodilation include:
- an improvement in blood circulation
- increased resistance to infection frequency
- faster and easier recovery from illness
- reduced risk of heart attack
Professor Bill Keatinge of the University of London, a pioneer in the study of hypothermia, brought Lynne Cox, the famed Antarctic swimmer to London for experiments in his lab. “We were able to confirm that she can maintain stable body temperature with her head out of the water and in water temperatures as low as 44F,” he said. “Anyone else would immediately feel pain like an electric shock, their muscles would flail and the heartbeat would go completely adrift. In technical terms, ventricular fibrillation. Then, you’re dead in a matter of minutes.”
Keatinge thinks Cox has somehow trained her body to keep most of her blood at her body’s core and away from the skin where it’s exposed to the cold. The blood stays warmer. But there is something else – call it her natural insulation. ” She’s got an extremely even fat layer going right down the limbs and it’s an ideal setup,” he says. Lynne always starts her cold-water swims at high speed, to counter the cold right away. I started mine at a very leisurely pace, but suffered no ill effects from doing so.
And then, there’s Lewis Pugh, who swam 1000m – about 20 minutes – at the North Pole in 2007. An account of his swim read as follows:
“Before he dives in, he spends around 15 minutes using mind power alone to superheat his body. His pulse rate shoots up from 70 to 160 a minute and his temperature rises from 37C to 38.4, causing him to sweat profusely. This is all without moving a muscle – and something which would take an ordinary person around 30 minutes of hard exercise to achieve.
He also plays aggressive rap music – Eminem is a particular favorite.
Describing the feeling of swimming in water more suited to seals, whales and polar bears, he says: ‘Before I get in, my body feels like a furnace. I become very aggressive, and my surroundings seem to slow down. Then I hurl myself in. At first, you experience massive hyperventilation. Controlling this is extremely difficult.’
On leaving the water after his swim, his core body temperature had fallen to 36.5 degrees and it dropped further to 35 degrees (95F) 20 minutes later, but a warm shower enabled him to return to normal.”