I stumbled onto this blog today written by Doug McConnell who is training for an English Channel swim this summer in an effort to raise money for the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
In his post, Convincing Your Brian of What Your Body Already Knows, he talks about the mental challenges of marathon swimming and preparing for the English Channel. In particular, he talks about the mental challenge of swimming in cold water:
Even mildly cold water is unpleasant; very cold water can be dangerous. Everyone has their threshold, but for me, it is below 55 degrees. The first time I jumped in water that cold, it was a shock. Your body responds to the cold in some surprising ways – first you panic because you can’t breathe, then you have this pins-and-needles feeling all over your body, particularly in your face. It turns out that you can’t breathe because the cold causes a temporary paralysis in your diaphragm, like having the wind knocked out of you when you land hard on your back. The pins-and-needles in the face are from the cold, and for some reason give way to an equally surprising hot sensation.
The first time this happens, it is terrifying. But, you force yourself to swim through it. I learned that things feel better if I can take 100 strokes, so I force my head down, and start swimming and counting. I get to 100; I am breathing, I am warm, and my body has successfully taught my brain that I can cross that threshold. The second time you force yourself into that cold water, you know what’s coming. Just like before, you can’t breathe, you get the pins-and-needles, the whole bit. That part doesn’t change. But you’ve been here before, and now your brain knows. There is no panic, because your brain knows that in 100 strokes and you’ll be warm. Your body has taught your brain that it is something that will only hurt for a minute.
His description of what it feels like to be in cold water is spot on. First it is a shock and you have trouble breathing. Next you start feeling pins-and-needles all over your body (if you are not wearing a wetsuit) but especially on your face. The pins-and-needles is followed by an oddly hot, or burning, feeling.
I like his trick about figuring out what his threshold is (100 strokes) and training his brain to know that his body is capable of crossing that threshold. They say that 90% of marathon swimming is mental. I think that 90% of cold water acclimation is also mental. Sure, your body may make changes and get accustomed to the cold water to a certain degree, but I think the most benefit comes from training your brain to know what to expect and that you can survive it.
For me the hardest part about our weekly cold water swims is not the pins-and-needles or the numb face, but thinking about getting out of the water. When I am in the water and swimming, I am fine after 100 yards or so. It's getting out and dealing with the shaking that scares me. I had mild to moderate hypothermia once after a swim at Red Fish Lake in Idaho. It took me a couple hours in a sleeping bag with hot chocolate to stop shivering and to warm back up. I was scared. I think the memory of that swim is what has been keeping me from trying to go further at Bountiful Lake.
From Doug McConnell again:
"One of the most important lessons is that your own thoughts and doubts can be your biggest hurdles and, once the doubts are cleared, the confidence that you gain can be unbelievably liberating."
This is exactly what I need, a breakthrough cold water swim to boost my confidence.