So, you've been enjoying summer swims and want to carry on? While you can swim unlimited through the summer, there are few things that change as autumn settles in. Follow these simple guidelines to stay safe.
Not quite winter swimming
Talk about winter swimming and a cautious, risk-aware approach is clear. It's the in-between seasons, Spring and Autumn, that catch most people out. Why? Because the weather is incredibly variable, water temperatures vary too and, in Autumn, we've become used to relatively carefree swimming.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to water temperature. Tolerance not only varies from person to person, but it is also affected by things like illness, fatigue, hydration and nutrition. In other words, you can swim for half an hour at fifteen degrees centigrade one day, and only tolerate the same temperature for 15 minutes the next.
It's also worth bearing in mind that, while it doesn't sound like much, even a degree drop in temperature can make a big difference. Once the water drops below 14 degrees, you need to really pay attention. And if the air temperature is cold or there's wind chill to consider, it's time to be even more vigilant.
The following guidelines will help you. Please remember that this is advice from an experienced winter swimmer and coach, but it's not a substitute for common sense. So, the absolute number first golden rule of outdoor swimming is:
Listen to your body and learn what it's telling you. Don't have a time or distance in mind, have a cue. Getting out before you get too cold is key, so make sure you stop while you're still enjoying it.
Don't swim alone. A swim buddy or someone to hold the towels is a lifeline. Not only can they keep an eye on you, they can also help you warm up.
Take warming up seriously. Ok, when it's 16 degrees out and sunny, you might feel foolish in a bobble hat, but wrapping up warm and drinking a warm (not hot) drink is essential.
Wear a swim hat. This helps with heat retention and makes you visible.
Eat something. Getting your digestion going after a swim will help you warm up from within.
Eat, drink and rest well. Making sure your well fed and hydrated before your swim will help you warm up afterwards.
Avoid hot showers and baths. Warming up too quickly can cause all sorts of problems, so hold off from having a hot bath or shower for a couple of hours after swimming.
Go somewhere warm. There's no better excuse for going for a coffee. I'm also a big fan of the heated seats in my car.
Just a dip
You may have heard of the 'minute-per-degree' rule. This is a guideline for outdoor swimming that says that you should limit your swim to one minute per degree (centigrade) of water temperature. So, if the water's 15 degrees, your swim should be 15 minutes max. This is a fairly decent rule of thumb, but, again, it's not a substitute for common sense. If you're an experienced outdoor swimmer and know your body, then you may be perfectly fine to swim for longer. If you're new to outdoor swimming and you're feeling shivery or uncomfortable after five minutes, get out.
I feel weird
It's best to understand risks and avoid them, but making an error of judgement is easy and it's something most outdoor swimmers have done. Understand what's happening to you or another swimmer, though, and you will be able to help.
Problem: Cold water shock
Cause: Getting into cold water
Signs: Gasping, panic, hyperventilation.
Help: Breathe out gently. Don't jump or dive in. Cold water shock passes after one or two minutes.
Cause: The cold blood at your skin and extremities mixing with the warmer blood at your core after you get out of the water.
Signs: Shivering, stopping shivering, feeling very tired, disorientated, dizzy, nauseous, heavy limbs. Essentially, the symptoms of early stage hypothermia.
Help: Get dressed into warm layers as soon as you get out of the water, have a warm drink and something to eat. Avoid warm baths or showers for a couple of hours.
Cause: Core body temperature dropping below 35 degrees centigrade after staying in cold water for too long.
Signs: Shivering, slurred speech or mumbling, slow or shallow breathing, weak pulse, clumsiness or lack of coordination, feeling emotional and crying, drowsiness or very low energy, confusion or memory loss, paradoxial undressing, loss of consciousness.
Help: At the early stages, getting yourself warm is key, but do this slowly. If you can, get yourself or the casualty to a warm place, preferably warmer than 25 degrees or cover them with as many layers as possible. Try and keep the casualty horizontal (lying down), but not on a cold surface. Call the emergency services.
Problem: Dizziness or fainting
Cause: Drop in arterial blood pressure when you stand up after swimming in cold water.
Signs: Swimming head, distorted vision or tunnelling, feeling sick, fainting.
Help: If you feel dizzy, tell someone. Sit or lie down. If your swim buddy faints, get them into a horizontal position, get them as warm s possible and call for medical help.
Problem: Nerve damage or Reynauds
Cause: Vasoconstriction in your fingers and toes when you get into cold water.
Signs: Numbness, followed by tingly fingers and toes that appear white.
Help: It's important to warm your core first before thinking about fingers and toes. Once you're dressed, put on gloves and socks, wrap your hands around something warm, or wash your feet and hands in warm (but not hot) water.
As the mercury drops
Regular swimming will ensure you stay acclimatised. But remember to reduce the amount of time you spend in the water and make sure that you warm up properly afterwards.