Ice swimming or winter swimming is an extreme sport. It’s something I never take lightly and it's now, more so than any other time of year, that the precautions need to match the scale of the endeavour. I’ll go into the general precautions and risk assessments I do for open water swimming in a different piece. For this article I’ll focus on something which has been a cornerstone of my practice throughout my Ice Master Challenge this winter – what I do after I exit the water.
In “My Connection to the Cold” I wrote about my interest in following a holistic approach to temperature self-regulation by shunning all artificial means of warmth and utilising my own body’s capacity to recalibrate its temperature and therefore recover after a winter swim. In our artificially heated, nature detached western society we are rarely engaging with temperature self-regulation. The purpose of this piece is to share in more detail what I do in the immediate stages after I come out of icy water, including a youtube clip of my recovery exercises. I recommend that you read the article in its entirety first and then watch the short video.
Open water swimming carries all sorts of risks when you’re in the water. Yet the moments after you come out are arguably just as dangerous, if not more so. Swimming through winter carries the extra risk of the three headed beast which includes cold incapacitation, hypothermia and “after drop”. The Calleach should always be respected.
I’ve worked on a series of three exercises which I do once I’ve thrown on my robe and plugged my feet into slippers inside a bag. These three exercises are designed to firstly address the cold incapacitation of my limbs (especially arms, hands and fingers) then stimulate my body’s natural responses to fighting the onset of hypothermia. Once my dexterity has returned and I’ve awakened my body’s responses I can get dressed competently and continue the process of naturally re-warming my core body temperature. This is to prevent the ill affects of “after drop” (the body’s core temperature continues to drop for some time after water exit).
The clips which make up the video montage of the three exercises were filmed after I’d just clocked ice swims at around 0-1 degrees water temperature and sub-zero air temperatures. As per Ice Master rules I haven’t been swimming with anything apart from my togs, basic swim cap and shoes – no neoprene gloves/socks or wetsuit. Below is a description of each exercise and my reasoning.
NB: On the first exercise you’ll notice I’ve got my feet in an insulated bag. Within the bag my bare feet are in woolly slippers. I started doing this after I learned a lesson the hard way when I caught chilblains on a few of my toes after a swim in early January. Don’t forget to take care of your feet. The feet are the furthest extremity away from the heart and the most starved of oxygenated blood. Get them in a dry and sheltered environment as quickly as possible after a distance swim – especially in wind.
The first exercise I usually practice is an adaptation of an exercise that some readers might be aware of, the “horse”. I’m crossing the midline and stimulating my circulation. I’ve adapted it by hitting diagonals (a bit like a boxer) and testing my coordination. I’m also simultaneously squatting up and down, again a test of my coordination and helping with re-circulation. Furthermore, I’m blowing warm air into my hands in between each crossover.
My theory is to activate as many levels of the body as possible, at the same time. It might seem like a lot to think about but works for me. Given my body is stressed, shocked and in survival mode, I use this initial exercise as a test and a necessary (in my opinion) physiological exercise to initiate naturally re-warming (my core body temperature will continue to drop). If I can manage to remember all of this and carry it out with a decent level of coordination then I know I’ve started the path to recovery. Once feeling begins to return to my lower arms and hands I know I am conquering or have conquered cold incapacitation and I begin the next exercise.
For the next exercise in the video my squatting is a bit faster and more rhythmical. I’m now focusing directly on my dexterity (crucial for zips and buttons!). Also like in the first exercise, this is a continued test of my coordination.
I start the third exercise once I feel like I’m on my way to recovery. I also might do this again once dressed. I’m more relaxed both in terms of muscle tightness and general disposition - loose arms and fingers hanging from side to side. I’m trying to encourage gentle circulation and transition to a more normal state. I breathe slower with more controlled breath. I should be feeling my life force wakening up my hands and then I’m ready to function. I mentally imagine my life force flowing gradually to these extremities and all corners of my body. This encourages a meditative state and it's an empowering feeling when you can sense your body getting back to normal again.
Whilst my spotter asks me some general knowledge questions to test my cognition and speech, I get dried and plenty of warm layers on. Once dressed I might need go repeat these exercises in the same order or at least the third one in isolation. My core body temperature continues to drop (for a good while after) but I’ve kick started my body’s responses. I’m dry and wrapped up. My body’s natural instinct to re-warm will do the rest of the work whilst I keep up my hydration. Consequently, I believe that I am strengthening my body’s natural resilience to the cold.
As mentioned above I avoid any artificial heat to re-warm and I leave several hours before having a warm water shower. As a regular winter swimmer, by the time your next warm shower comes around you have a far more innate appreciation, gratitude and awareness for that heated water and the processes involved in getting that water to you. “Water is life” in more ways than one.
DISCLAIMER: Please always exercise extreme caution if attempting winter swimming. It’s an extreme sport, especially when going for distances. I hope what I’ve shared in this article is interesting. However, every person, body, environment and context is different. What I’ve come up with and my practice works for me but it might not work for you.
I shared these exercises with inexperienced outdoor swimmers/dippers from my local gym who I introduced to open water swimming before the lockdown. I got really good feedback and some individuals have told me that they are still using the post-swim exercises I shared with them. This made me think that I was onto something!
Depending on the conditions and how I’m feeling I’ll use a combination or just one/two of the exercises. The duration of the exercise and order very much depends on the conditions and the distance I’ve swam or the time I’ve spent in the water. I’m continuing to experiment and hone these exercises. I’m inspired when my body and mind act on natural instinct - necessity is the mother of invention.