Chapter 4: Taking the Plunge – How to Effectively Manage the Swim Start
When you let go of the ladder and start to wade out into the lake during the winter, the first thing you want to do is get the hell out as fast as you can. The initial gush of 32F water into your wetsuit is nothing short of overwhelming – especially if you suddenly discover there are tears in the neoprene around the more sensitive areas of your anatomy.
And this is just the beginning.
Unless you plan to backstroke, at some point you will need to get face down in the water. But you may as well be plunging your head into a vat of liquid nitrogen. The moment your face hits the water, you get an excruciating “pins and needles” sensation that triggers an immediate gasp reflex. And the sudden change in temperature disrupts the pressure in your sinuses, causing the most intense ice cream headache imaginable.
Fortunately this only lasts for about 2-3 minutes…
Believe it or not, you can actually acclimate to this experience and reach a point where this “cold shock” has a minimal impact on you. The key to achieving this is two fold – 1) proper pre-swim preparation, and 2) effectively managing the experience in the moment.
In a prior chapter, we went into detail about point one. And I can’t emphasize enough how much easier it will be for you to swim year round in the lake if you adequately prepare accordingly. But I won’t candy coat it for you – there is no way you can completely eliminate the shock of entering and remaining in the lake under these temperature extremes.
The key, then, is to effectively manage the first few minutes of this “shock zone” so that your winter swim is an invigorating challenge that excites and inspires you versus a horrifyingly painful ordeal that you don’t care to repeat. And as we touched on in earlier posts, this involves getting your physical and emotional brains on your side.
So let’s take a look at each area.
1) Cold water priming – Ideally, you’ve already done this with a progressive cold shower about an hour before the swim start. However, if you get a late start, you may not be able to fit this in before your swim. Fortunately, there is a quick fix you can do to help take the edge off the initial immersion shock.
Take a bottle of cold water and pour it on your head, face, and neck shortly before entering the water. You can store one in your fridge and grab it on your way out to the lake. Or you can bring a large tumbler and dip it in the lake to do the same thing. In either case, you’re priming your skin temperature receptors which will immediately start acclimating your body to the colder lake temperatures.
2) Mammalian Diving Reflex – This is a very effective technique I do immediately before entering the water, usually while I’m still hanging onto the ladder. It involves holding your breath and submerging your head and neck in the water. This triggers an automatic reflex that immediately lowers your heart rate and sends a signal to your brain to start moving blood away from your periphery and towards your core (head and torso).
3) Mindful relaxation – Once in the water, you will want to pay special attention to the level of tension in your neck, shoulders, and arms. The large muscles in these areas tend to seize up immediately and stay very tense upon initial immersion. So make a conscious effort to relax these areas. Because if they stay tense, your heart rate will stay elevated and you’ll burn off a lot of energy – and energy conservation is key to swimming effectively in colder temperatures!
4) Mindful breathing – Closely related to the prior point, make a special effort to take longer and deeper breaths versus short and shallow ones. This will be difficult at first since you will probably experience a “gasp reflex” which will shorten your breath temporarily. But stay aware of your breathing during the first few minutes and transition to longer and more controlled breaths as soon as possible.
1) Think “2-minutes” – Once you manage to get control over the physical shock of cold water immersion, your biggest challenge will be managing your emotions. Your logical brain, somehow present just a short while ago, will be conspicuously absent. Instead, you will likely be in a highly emotional “fight or flight” state where you are very susceptible to forming associations and memories.
The key here is that you want to form positive ones.
The best way to do this is to perform all the physical techniques cited above while thinking “2 minutes” over and over in your head. During this time, the discomfort on your face and head will subside, and the cold water in the wetsuit will warm up. When this happens, things will stabilize for you physically and you will actually become quite comfortable in the water.
This is the critical “breakthrough” moment.
When you reach this point, you will immediately begin forming healthy and positive associations and memories to winter swimming. And this forms the “success foundation” for practically all of your future lake swims.
So now that you’re acclimated to the frozen lake, you’ll find that you can conduct a fairly lengthy swim workout rather comfortably. As a result of all these preparations and techniques, your body is now optimized to operate efficiently and effectively in this setting. Your heat is concentrated in your core, yet you’ve created a warmer layer on most of your skin surface that you are maintaining through your relaxed physical exertion.
The only downside now is that your fingertips might start to get cold since your body heat has moved towards your core and away from your periphery. Candidly, that’s really the only current challenge we’re having right now during our winter swims. And, of course, you still have to experience and manage the dreaded afterdrop once you finish your swim!
But that’s the next (and final) piece in this guide.