11/02/2013 by Carl Reynolds
To swim in cold water is to already be at the edge of most human experience – to swim more than a few hundred meters in very cold water (sub 5) is to occupy a space than only a tiny handful of humans have been in. Regardless of your time/distance in, cold water swimming will continue to be heralded with sHocK headlines for the foreseeable future, as someone somewhere gingerly steps into a hole broken in the ice, or is captured in fancy dress at one of the innumerable dips/dashs and splashes occuring ever more frequently on Christmas, Boxing and New Year’s Day. The recent UK Cold Water Swimming Championships was publicised more around the world for the costumes and hats people wore than for the 600 swimmers who sprinted or endured sub 2 degree C water. Water and people at the edge of freezing, but still exhuberent in their celebration of edginess.
It’s hard to picture the effects of cold water on the human body in a still picture. A moving image with sound makes it easier, but even then I only have one record from the CWSC and that’s a vicarious one. See here at 4.21, as one of the endurance swimmers describes the scene in the sauna after the event. But what’s clear from reading a host of research and excellent summaries and syntheses by other bloggers, is that the more you acclimatise and habitualise, the easier it becomes and the longer you can swim. But there are edges, they are not universal and those of us who choose to explore those edges should be damn careful, as it can be a life threatening choice.
I knew a lot of the participants in the CWSC sprints and endurance. Some of them personally, some of them as FB friends. Others I’d heard of; and the converse is true. What I appreciate from these contacts is the sheer jubilation that hundreds of people (maybe thousands) in the UK take from swimming in outdoor water the year round in rubber or blubber. Most of them are in self organised clubs, that look after each other and ensure mutual safety…but they do not have a rule book. They assume people are adults and observe the maxim (apologies to Lone Swimmer, the sole exception) that swimming in pairs is your minimum.
A smaller number spend the winters swimming outdoors in more regulated spaces – those of us at Tooting Bec Lido for example. We have lifeguards, we have self appointed guardians of safety and we have club committee members who are distributed along the spectrum of thinking that swimming more than a couple of minutes in cold water is irresponsible, to those that appreciate that people can train themselves to do more and that adults should be treated as adults.
So, for example, we have one member who was told by a race organiser that he was withdrawn from the endurance race because he set a bad example. He doesn’t wear a swim cap regardless of the weather; but I have yet to see anyone else follow his example. This may not have been the bad example he sets – it may have been that he swam a km under 5C and then took some time to recover afterwards. But that’s pretty unsurprising. At the other end of the spectrum we have a committee member who insisted that the club logo be placed on the cap of a small number of people who were going to swim a km under 5C and call themselves Polar Bears.
So if you swim in a more regulated environment you also have to swim in politics. But the wider guidance for distance in cold water is still sound – inform the lifeguards; don’t do it alone; understand what your body is currently capable of (not what you think you might be able to do); have a get out process; embrace failure (you save yourself embarrassment) and pay attention to the impact you’re having on yourself and others. But don’t be overly constrained by the oh-so-British jobsworth/bean counter/bureaucrat/ARP warden tendency. Cold water swimmers are mainly eccentrics, not conservatives.