Best practices for exit, rewarming and recovery after a cold swim

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Preparation

Much of our success with exiting the water and rewarming safely comes from steps we take before even getting undressed to head in. This is especially true, the colder the water gets. A list of what goes in my kit can be found here.

Typically, our car is parked a ways from the beach, so a tent for shelter goes up on shore close to the water. Unfortunately, it can’t be staked into hard-packed sand or rock, but we make do most times and pulling on the fly helps stabilize the rods a bit in windy conditions. Here you can see just how close we put the tent to the water line:

Once the tent is up, a floor mat goes down (or kickboard, yoga mat, anything to protect our feet from further contact with cold ground) and each swimmer claims a corner to lay out their gear and post-swim clothing.

Exiting the water

In moderately cool/cold water, I tend to take more time getting to shelter (I’m chatty with anyone on the beach), but in very cold water it’s the main priority. If the water doesn’t chill you to the bone, wet skin and windy air will do it. I usually swim up to shore on my stomach, staying in the water and out of the wind as long as possible, and then up and out I go. Lately, I’ve asked my support to cover my hands with a towel immediately upon exit, so they are protected from wind.

Once in the tent, there’s a very set order for getting dressed. We’ve practiced this, it’s down pat by now, it takes about 2 minutes with a supporter’s help from the time I get out of the water to the time I’m fully dressed:

  • wet bathing suit comes off
  • towel dry gently (never rub cold skin, it hurts like heck)
  • upper torso gets dressed first, so thermal top goes on
  • lower torso next, thermal long-johns or jogging pants
  • socks and boots
  • swim cap comes off, wooly hat goes on
  • mitts and scarf
  • swim parka or long winter jacket
  • heat packs get stuffed between layers and slid into mitts

During very cold swims my hands are usually too cold upon exit to do anything, and I can’t wait the 15-20 minutes it takes them to warm up, so each of the steps above are done by a supporter. It’s hard getting used to someone yanking down your bathing suit or helping you put your pants on, but without someone’s help the risk of getting colder is significantly increased.

Why don’t I cover my head first? A silicone cap keeps in a lot of damp heat, more than my wooly hat, I’m willing to bet. I simply leave it on until my torso and feet are warmly dressed, then swap the cap for a hat.

A note on neoprene: if wearing gloves or booties, as Diane below does, these typically must come off first, as the wet material gets very cold in the air/wind. Diane will usually drop down to the mat layer out on the tent floor, and work off the gloves while support pulls off the booties.

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I’m also somewhat creative. One of my new favourite things is the adult onesie, perfect for cold water swimming. Inspired by a friend’s onesie, I decided it looked really cozy, so hubby bought me one for my birthday. I’m in the process of a few modifications to suit cold water swims: drawstring added to hood, pockets for heat packs sewn into torso area so they don’t slide around, thermal socks sewn into the feet so the whole thing goes on quickly and I’m fully clothed in one fell swoop. Sometimes I skip the thermal layer and just pull this baby on, it retains heat really well.

I’m a genius. When it comes to onesies.

Rewarming

I’m not an expert on hypothermia, after-drop or frostbite. But there are a few golden rules that any cold swimmer follows:

  • get dressed quickly and warmly
  • don’t take a hot shower or apply hot heat directly to extremities
  • avoid vigorous movement

Let’s break it down a little…

Getting dressed quickly and warmly

Exposure to cold doesn’t end when you leave the water, in fact, air and wind conditions can lead to a further significant drop in heat from the core if steps aren’t taken immediately, making after-drop even worse. I always leave a bit of buffer when deciding how long to swim so that I don’t get into trouble afterwards, mild hypothermia is common to most cold water swimmers, but anything more is simply not worth the risk. I get out quickly and dress warmly, always before after-drop and shivers come on.

Good reads on mild hypothermia, moderate and severe hypothermia and diagnosing and addressing moderate hypothermia.

Avoiding hot showers or hot heat directly applied to extremities

Hot heat applied quickly to the body may accelerate the rate at which cooler blood begins recirculating through the core, making the “drop” of after-drop much lower and even dangerous depending on how cold your core or the blood in your extremeties is to start with. No hot showers. Applying hot heat directly to extremities is just as bad (example, placing hands and feet in a bath of hot water to warm them up), as it may trick the body into thinking the cool blood from those areas is ready to start moving around when in fact a more gradual approach is needed. This could also make after-drop more sudden, more severe. Think lukewarm, think gradual.

And, if skin’s really cold, it can be hard to tell just how hot that water is, leaving a swimmer open to risk of skin damage. In a recent swim in Hong Kong (blogged here), I foolishly did just that. I fiddled with the showerhead but only got scalding water, so I didn’t stand directly under it (smart) but did let it run over my very cold feet (not smart) as I let my core rewarm gradually in the steam. So, soooo bad. Both big toenails have damage, the skin underneath thawed before circulation had returned, causing cells to burst. It’s just bruising, confirmed by a doctor, but it was still scary. And gross.

Avoiding vigorous movement

Same issues as above, you want cooler blood to start moving through your body gradually. Definitely start moving around, but walking is best, not running. I’m not even sure I could work up a good run after a cold swim anyhow, mostly I just want to crawl under a warm blanket. I say this, but I have friends who prefer to run up and down the beach immediately after a cold swim as a way to warm up, many people do it. To each their own, it’s just good to consider the possible impact on after-drop to doing so.

I usually grab a cup of coffee or pea soup, and go for a stroll along the beach. We also like cake, a lot, as apparently cake calories don’t count for anything if you consume them within 45 minutes of exiting cold water. According to science, so I’m told.

Recovery

A few final words…

  • We keep an eye out for fellow swimmers, someone who looks fine in the water may have trouble afterwards once after-drop hits. We keep talking to one another, it helps identify if someone’s struggling.
  • We’re always sure to bring food and hot beverages. Cold water swimming consumes a lot of energy, I’m hungry enough to eat a horse afterwards.
  • We never get behind the wheel of a car or ride a bike until the driver’s core temp has sufficiently recovered. Working through after-drop can disrupt your concentration, as can shivers, not to mention impact cognitive abilities. We wait, get warm, then go. Or not. I’d sooner call someone to come help instead if I wasn’t 100% sure I’d safe to be on the road.
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