How to mentally cope with the cold in open water swimming

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 🙂

nottingham

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.

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17 thoughts on “How to mentally cope with the cold in open water swimming

  1. Thanks for this. I’m working on getting over my fear of not so warm water. I’m not sure if this is a good method or not, but my friend and I were getting in with a wet suit, swimming for a bit, then taking it off and realizing that we actually felt fine without it. But this may not be the best way to acclimate.

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  2. Great post. I used a similar technique to deal my “wildlife” phobia on my recent Robben Island swim. I trained myself to think of puppies whenever a Great White thought popped into my head. Which was only every 10 strokes or so. Lots of puppies.

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  3. Thank you for putting this up today.
    I will get my mind ready and swim in a warm ring, the past two weeks have been easy to swim outside as water is now 13+.
    Stroke is coming along nicely,just finding it hard to breath at a slower pace of stroke,but I’m sure this will come in time.
    Piers.

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  4. When I swam the Monte Cristo 5K swim (no wetsuit) last June, I got really cold quite early on. The water was initially around 17C but dropped to probably 15 or 16C for most of the swim. As I’m on the “could use more brown fat” side of swimmers, I do get cold but I usually swim through the discomfort. The only thing that kept me going that day was the thought of my two little girls at the finish. Without them as a goal and their happy face, I might have given up. My hands couldn’t even close at some point, as I was so cold inside. I’m lucky that a kayaker next to me was also very supportive and motivated me to the end. In hindsight, I was maybe a case of mild hypothermia but I didn’t want to let go. I’m glad I did it, though. I’ll remember your advice next time. Thanks, Adam!

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  5. This is good advice on positive projection or enhancement. What helped me in becoming ‘cold adapted’ is understanding that the training is not to tolerate GETTING cold, it’s training to PREVENT getting cold. The whole object is to train the body’s mechanisms to minimize heat loss and to maximize the metabolic pathways that generate heat production. The key to which is for these mechanisms to start immediately at or even before the exposure to cold water. The training program thus is by progressive exposures to cold water – increasing the time of the exposure and in progressively colder conditions. This may take months – but it works!

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  6. Great articles. I’ve been doing a bit of snorkel training, really helps with body placement and breath. As for cold water, yes visual mental techniques and positive thinking does help enormously. Swimming is my life , when I can’t throw an arm anymore, I will still immerse myself.

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  7. Awesome stuff! I hate the cold…known by my local club to despise the cold more than anyone! Very interesting read! Hopefully this summer in my Catalina triple attempt I have no problems getting cold… hopefully El Nino has a little after party for us out here!

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  8. Great advice thank you but can I ask how can you recognise hypothermia in yourself while you are swimming. ( apart from feeling like you’d like to be warmer!)

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  9. Good article Adam! I have never reached a point where I feel I am too cold to continue but kind of limit it based on time and known temperature of the water. I’ve been swimming in all temperatures down to 3.5 C. What do you feel when you get to the point of not being safe? I felt dodgy after getting out from 10 to 15 minutes in 3.5 but not while I was still in the water.

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