Sunday, November 17, 2013

FAQ# 6: How Do You Train for an Ice Swim?

As I was pounding out a complicated set at Wayland yesterday and dreading my trip to the L Street Bathhouse in Southie for an ice training swim later in the morning, a thought occurred to me: Training for an ice swim is a lot like a scene from one of my favorite movies, Dr. Strangelove.

"Say what? Dr. Strangelove isn't about swimming! It's about nuclear bombs and the obliteration of human kind. What's that got to do with ice swimming?" you ask.

Let's back up a few paces. 

When people find out I've done an "ice swim" (that is 1 mile in water 41 degrees or colder without a wetsuit), they frequently ask how one trains for such an endeavor. How on earth can a human being possibly get used to the sensation of extreme cold and learn to tolerate swimming in water that cold for a mile or more? Isn't that the realm of whales and seals? Doesn't exposure to water that cold result in death by hypothermia in just a few minutes? Think of all the people who fall through the ice each winter around the world and die-- that doesn't take long! Doesn't it take the average swimmer 25 to 45 minutes to cover a mile? How is that time in the water not lethal?

It's not lethal because the human body is an amazing piece of machinery capable of extraordinary ranges of tolerance for heat, cold, pain, and exposure when-- AND ONLY WHEN-- it's given the appropriate means to adapt. An ordinary human can transform into any number of seemingly superhuman forms when trained properly. 

Jerome and I put our training to the test last December
during our successful one-mile ice swim. Our approach
to training worked.
Proper training for most things, ice swimming included, requires consistency and methodical practice. That means frequent engagement in the desired activity or practices that build up to the desired end result. For ice swimming, that means swimming frequently in progressively colder water for consistent durations of time each session. 

Many budding ice swimmers--assuming they are already comfortable with open water swimming--will start by getting used to cooler water temperatures. By way of example, let's consider would-be ice swimmers who typically train in 70-degree and warmer water. For them, it would be advisable to start getting comfortable swimming in water temperatures of less than 70 degrees for a season. If they're built like most people, they'll start pushing the boundaries of comfort and safety when they hit the low 60s. That's great progress for a season. 

The next summer, perhaps they can hold out into the fall as the mercury dips below 60 degrees and learn what the mid- to upper-50s feel like. That's great progress for a season, too, and year over year, shows an incredible range of tolerance for cold accumulated through diligent practice. 

The next year, perhaps these same swimmers might try hanging in there an extra couple weeks in the fall until the temperatures drop into the low 50s and upper 40s and see how they do. Their swim sessions will necessarily become shorter as the fall progresses, but as long as these swimmers can access progressively colder temperatures frequently, they may begin to surprise themselves with how long they can continue swimming outside, long after their swimming buddies have fled to the tropical confines of the concrete box. 

Or you could always do what Greg did and
do the swim in April with a less gradual
approach to temperature changes.
But that's just nuts.
(SAFETY SIDEBAR: It's good safety policy to never swim alone anywhere, no matter how nice, comfortable, and presumably safe the water is. But it's just plain STUPID to swim in sub-55-degree water alone. Bad shit can happen quickly once the body is exposed to water temperatures 40 degrees less than normal body temperature. Don't try it at home and don't EVER pursue extreme swimming endeavors on your own. Ok, you've been warned. Safety rant over.)

But learning how you react and how your perception of cold and pain alter as the temperature drops over time is a good way to train for an ice swim. Ride the temperature down all fall. It's the most intuitive and effective way I know of to train for an ice mile.

 And this is what made me think of Dr. Strangelove.

At the end of the film, the nuclear bomb dropping device in the bottom of the B-52 bomber gets jammed and Major T. J. "King" Kong (played by Slim Pickens) climbs aboard to fix the faulty wiring. As the payload doors swing open, he ends up riding the missile down rodeo style. Embracing his impending doom with gusto.

And that's sort of what it's like riding the temperature down all fall. We know we're headed for a searing and blanching burst of white-hot cold, but it's a hell of a ride down. Yahoo!


Lelane Rossouw-Bancroft said...

As an Ice Swimmer, I'm not so sure that an Ice Mile can't be lethal... but I like your Dr. Strangelove analysis!

Elaine Howley said...

Excellent point and thanks for bringing it up. Yes, this can be lethal. That's why swimmers should never undertake any of this alone and should always use utmost care during training.

After Jerome and I finished our swim last winter, the EMT asked if he could use us as a case study for his continuing education class. He couldn't understand why we were still alive and doing so well and wanted to discuss it with his colleagues to try to figure out what made our outcome different from what would have happened to most people if they were put in the same situation. I ascribe our success to training properly. Had we just jumped in to do it without building up, it likely would have ended badly.

Thanks for reading and commenting! Hope to see you soon!