Mind Over Matter, Swimming 1000m @ 0ºC

Mind Over Matter, Swimming 1000m @ 0ºC

For centuries, men and women have purposefully immersed themselves in cold water for a variety of reasons. From monks in Japan and Russians in Siberia to early-morning swimmers in the Serpentine and their counterparts from the Americas to Oceania, these extremists have pushed the limits of what is physically and psychologically possible.

Each extremist had their own personal reason for swimming colder, experimenting further and further how much they could challenge themselves in cold water. With snow on the coastline and air temperatures below 0ºC, these explorers are constantly pushing the envelope.

While pockets of ice swimmers gathered and lived long, healthful lives from Boston to Melbourne, Lynne Cox really kick-started a whole new generation of ice swimmers with her well-publicized 1987 Bering Strait Swim between Little Diomede Island in Alaska and Big Diomede Island in Russia. Her athletic accomplishment with political overtones soon inspired a whole new generation of ice swimming adventurers. From Lewis Pugh to Ram Barkai, a number of swimmers challenged themselves to swimming further and further distances in colder and colder water. Combined with the information distribution on the Internet, many people were attracted to swimming in the cold.

But no one has demonstrated the outer edges of cold water capabilities like Andrei Sychev (2250m in 1:06:15), Alexander Brylin (2200m in 1:01:43), Henry Kaarma (1650m), Nikolai Glushkov (1050m), Natayla Gray (1050m), Jackie Cobell (1000m), Nuala Moore (1000m), and Elena Guseva (1000m) who all managed these distances in water temperature of 0.3°C and air temperatures between – 30°C and -33°C at the Russian Winter Swimming Championships.

But these swimmers have prepared themselves for these extremes. The hardening process is not a matter of weeks or months, but more safely, a matter of years. But even there are differences in swimming styles. While many ice swimmers prefer breaststroke where their hands and arms remain at the same temperature as the rest of their body, others prefer freestyle where their hands and arms are exposed to significant differences between the cold water and even colder air temperatures. “In Russia where the water temperature was 33°C warmer than the air, the wind burn was a huge factor,” explains Moore.

Either breaststroke or freestyle, these swimmers know that when the human body is immersed in 0°C, there is a massive onslaught to the system. Moore says, “The immediate is the freezing, the tingles, and the intense pain of the perimeters on your feet and hands. Especially without long-time conditioning, your skin burns and the muscles freeze up, restricting movement. The physiological effects are that the veins and arteries restrict and getting blood to these areas is a huge battle. The blood pressure increases as the blood cannot find a way through to the limbs that are moving; the blood backs up and with that the pressure. The challenges with increased blood pressure can be medical or psychological. The anxiety leads the elevated heart rate.

With increased exertion where the veins and arteries are constricted has its own challenges, possibly even leading to a stroke or embolism, the cardiology is all related to internal working of our own systems

Even at 50 meters, Ram Barkai knows the feeling. “The 50m swim at the Russian Winter Swimming Championships was so short and intense, we can’t remember the dive or the strokes but we did feel the intense pain in our fingers and our feet. The cold and the swim gives one such a rush and sense of health and vigour which is hard to explain unless you have done it.”

At ice swimming competitions, the ice swimmers undergo multiple multiple medicals in order to be cleared by experienced physicians before each swim.

Moore knows first-hand what the extreme cold feels like at these extreme distances, “As the distance increases, these physiological challenges cause the brain to crave the body to send the blood away from the heart and “save” the brain (wrongly). This can cause the person to black out. It is possible as the O2 reduces in the blood and the heart stops or becomes under pressure, the swimmer becomes a casualty. This is the survival mechanism.”

But that is not all. “The intake of freezing air into your lungs also has its own challenges. You are breathing fast and hard. This brings air as cold as -30°C in Tyumen deep into the lungs. What are the effects of cold air that deep? Teeth? Exposed nerves in mouth? Mountaineers wear masks and scarfs to protect their mouths and lungs as they breathe. What do swimmers have? Can the capillaries in the lungs become damaged from air that freezes when it reaches moisture?” asks Moore.

Barkai gives his own perspective, “At -30ºC, everything is frozen in seconds. We saw a woman who swam breaststroke without goggles. Her eyelashes froze solid and she couldn’t open them. They dragged her to the sauna to slowly defrost her eyes. Moisture in the nose froze solid. Breathing is like inhaling wasabi in slow shallow intakes. Any facial hair or long hair exposed to the icy air just froze immediately. Yet the water looked surprisingly inviting at just above 0ºC. It was utter madness.”

And the battle against Mother Nature is not over even as the swimmer finishes and gets out of the water. “The expectation on exit of the water is the swimmer is not being sufficient to manage their own recovery,” Moore continues. “This is where the biggest battle happens and help is needed.”

The Russians have their own time-tested process for rewarming and managing the afterdrop.

From the open body of water to getting dry in dry sauna begins the process. “The sensation of your inner cold is hard to describe. Your chest is tight and your mind is somewhere in a very narrow tunnel vision of survival. Your memories from previous recoveries keep surfacing as I braced myself for the after drop roller coaster,” explains Barkai. After the dry sauna, nurses took buckets of snow and rubbed their skin hard. It is a painful exercise, but it gets the circulation going before the swimmers are given a wet towel and water treatment. Swimmers are then sent to a wet sauna where they are covered with wet towels. Cold water and warm water is poured on the towels in a repetitive process taking 20 minutes to bring the swimmers back from their hazy cognitive state in the afterdrop world.

Ice swimmers prepare themselves in various ways, but the South Africans and Irish occasionally train in ice baths. “Before I went to Tyumen (Siberia, Russia) with Anne Marie Ward and Pádraig Mallon, I went into ice baths at a fish factory with my heart rate and blood pressure monitors,” described Moore. “I monitored the changes in my body, the burns, the heart rate which actually reduces, and the blood pressure which goes through the roof but then settles.

When I got into the water, it was numbing. The -33ºC was a HUGE challenge for us. Dehydration and exhaustion from travel also was an overwhelming challenge. Our blood pressure in the morning was 160/100. The medics would not let us swim until our blood pressure regulated. We were all sent away until we showed a drop in our blood pressure. After an hour, it dropped. Emotionally the challenge was too much. Anne Marie said, ‘No one expects anything from us. Let’s just enjoy the swim.

At their first go, both Ward and Moore swam 150m and got out, recovering within 30 minutes. Mallon went 300m. But they wanted more.

I came home and though I knew I could go longer, I had a lot of thinking to do, I have to visualise everything,” explains Moore of the challenge ahead of her. “Murmansk was a fantastic opportunity to go back to the 1000m. I trained in the pool, but I needed to bounce off walls, learn how to count, and not get frustrated. I spent time in the ice baths, monitoring my emotional challenges and worked on my mental strengths. I had to clear all the clutter of issues that would become my monsters, when we dig. I was strong.

My medicals were 100%, I hydrated 100% and I was 100% in form, I could count to 40 lengths in my mind over and over. I visualised every medical thing. I also knew that when I was rescued from my ice swim that even at lowest ebb of energy I had strength. I had a reason for every pain that I would encounter, so it could not be a challenge

But 0ºC is still 0ºC even with the strongest mind, especially when the goal distance is 1000 meters. “Once in the water, the freeze was instant. The pins and needles were intense and instant. I decided to count to 5 doubles of 4. Arms and legs go heavy, some people sink. Your movement is limited. Your muscles get very tight. Breathing is elevated and hard to manage. I knew that I would have to pull back the effort and then balance. Once I got into a rhythm, I could start to work hard again. Touching the walls each time was a challenge as hands can get stuck to the ice.

Like an Olympic swimmer in a stadium of 15,000, the ice swimmer is similarly focused although crowds tend to be sparse, especially when the air temperature is south of -30ºC. “Counting works as a distraction and occupies the mind. It’s very important to work on the mind as you can slip,” continues Moore. “So I counted and counted and then did a body check. I started at my head and then worked down, actually check everything. The fingers at about 10 minutes were very tingling and numb. I get tunnel vision. You are aware that people are there, but I picked out one or two people. That is all I could see each time. Once I got to the 800m mark, I could feel huge changes but I was also aware that I was very strong. I tried to increase my effort once I had 6 lengths left. It was NOT a hope. My breathing was elevated, and I was gulping air. I knew I had to recover my mind as anxiety was lifting with the lack of air. The increased effort didn’t have enough O2 so I pulled it back as I got dizzy.

My ankles don’t flex. They get tight and square so my leg kick is kinda of flop flop. My arms towards the end are now heavy and flopping. I kept reminding myself that I was still alive and very strong. Mind over matter. Over the last 2 lengths, my vision was now only able to pick up one or two people. At the end of the 1000m, I found climbing up the ladder [out of the pool] was difficult. I was good enough to get to the tent with assistance.

Anne Marie and Mariia supported me to the recovery area with the sauna and towels. Walking was difficult. Keeping my eyes open enough to walk was a challenge. There is a huge amount of work to be done internally at this point. The need to support the swimmer is secondary to the swimmers’ need to work on themselves. Everything and everyone was moving and talking too fast. I was processing so slow and they are moving too fast. I found that the communication was not that important and didn’t find myself responding, with the exception of when it affected me. You become quite selected in responses. My speech was slurred. My recovery was about 30 minutes. In that time I was working really hard at NOT allowing my body to make bad decisions because it wants to sleep. So I shouted at myself. It’s about a 20-minute struggle. Then you are out

Her blood pressure after the 23-minute 1000m ice swim was 160/90. “This was to be expected as the blood couldn’t get to where it was going, but it reduced in an hour. The warming of the perimeters is NOT important – only the core. The Russians use hot wet towels and this operates to draw the cold out of the core. It is amazing to witness and feel. You can actually feel the cold coming out and they repeat.”

Other lessons learned included keeping the lower back, stomach, and groin areas warm while the head is covered, and leaving the hands and feet be. “Heating the hands and feet will send cold blood back to the heart and that is not good, so leave the hands and feet be.”

Professor Mike Tipton of the Extreme Environments Laboratory in the Department of Sports Science at the University of Portsmouth, says, “Cold water immersion is one of the greatest stresses that the body can be exposed to.” With that kind of stress, ice swimmers tend to quickly learn humility and respect within the community that swims in open bodies of water at 0ºC.

And they earn the respect of the rest of humanity who are humbled by their ability and willingness to push themselves to such extremes.

For another perspective of swimming over 1000 meters in 0ºC, read Ram Barkai’s account here.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones