If you ask any open water swimmer what is their biggest fear about swimming the English Channel at the top of the list would most probably be ‘The Cold!’
The fear of hypothermia and the dangers associated with it are real and should be fully respected. Many swimmers worry about how long they can endure the cold and whether they are actually capable of getting through it, and rightly so. I know when I started this wonderful sport of ours this was a big concern, with my competitive nature, I knew I would push myself through the pain and discomfort. However, it was the fear of the unknown and the situation being taken out of my control that worried me the most. One thing I would like to make clear from the outset is that I don’t take any of this for granted and know my limits – believe me I have had a few learning curves. Anyone looking to apply themselves to open water swimming should build themselves up gradually one step at a time. It is a liberating and fulfilling experience to swim in open water and when the temperature drops even by half a degree it becomes a whole new challenge to the body.
In the earlier stages of training at Dover I would hear other swimmers discussing temperature and how long they were going to swim. I would join in preempting the misery before we got into the water. This became the unintentional focus. This was due to the fear of the unknown, lack of experience and therefore self doubt of what I was capable of. After a few training sessions I decided to see a hypnotherapist who has become a very good friend of mine called Clem Turner. He taught me a number of tips of how to focus on the positives and not the negatives. He would say ‘Adam while you are thinking positively you can’t be thinking negatively and therefore while you are telling yourself you are warm you can’t be thinking you are cold.’ He would also teach me the power of visualisation, thinking about the end goal, how great it will feel when you’ve finished turning negatives into positives and in general this technique has helped me through other obstacles in life.
‘The Best You’ interview – Power of Positive Thinking on a Swim
I soon realised how important the mental side was to this sport not just in the water, but in preparation as well. For example if I was to think I will be cold in a minute, then my mind will tell my body that this is the case and so I will feel the cold more. During my experiences I found that you get what you focus on. I quickly thought the best preparation before immersing myself in cold water was to joke about it, saying things like ‘It’s so warm outside!’ ‘I’m so lucky to be able to cool myself down in the water’. This approach really helped me as I would convince myself into a relaxed mindset before entering the water. Once I was in I would then focus on positive thoughts. Many times I swam for 6 hours just saying different versions of ‘hot warm hot’. Now, I know what you think, how incredibly boring right! However, whilst I was focused on being warm I couldn’t be thinking the other! I would also visualise a warm ring around me and while I was swimming in that ring I couldn’t possibly be cold. After a while I wouldn’t even say the word cold and say things like ‘not as warm as we would like’ By not saying this word took away it’s meaning and association. It was as if I erased it from my mind and it no longer existed. If you ask anyone in my swim camps they will tell you that the “C” word is not allowed 🙂
The constant dips and being regularly immersed in ‘water not as warm as we would like’ set me up for the next swims, some of which were a lower temperature such as the Cook Strait and the Irish Sea. The perception is that you require a good layer of fat to withstand the temperature of open water, but I have always remained a healthy weight throughout the seven years. When I think back to my first 6 hour swim at 15 degrees and how uncomfortable it was compared to the second and the third I can see that after each swim I became stronger and found the will to push through. I believe that from my experiences I am confident in the water from a psychological perspective and subsequently I cope better as a result.