I'm so dizzy!

Updated: Nov 2, 2018

And yes, my head is spinning just like a never-ending whirlpool. Vic Reeves might have been an outdoor swimmer, because dizziness is very common - especially in open water. But why?


I remember finishing my first open water event, and the image that the event photographer captured was of me and the man next to me quite literally holding each other up because we were both too dizzy to stand unaided. It's something many of my coachees complain about too - post-swim dizziness.


There are a few things going on when we swim that affect our balance. The balance organ is part of the inner ear. But to be balanced, we actually need that balance organ to work together with vision and muscles and joints. When any of those three senses or systems is compromised, or if the brain doesn't manage to centre them, we can become off-balance, or dizzy.


Your eyes

Starting with vision, your swimming position and perception can affect your balance. Because we swim front crawl with our faces in the water, lifting our heads to breathe, we can become really disorientated. In open water where there's much less visibility, whipping your head from side-to-side to breathe can make you very dizzy.


Add in choppy water and forward motion, and you can even get a bit of motion sickness. If you find you feel travel sick in the back of the car or if you try to read while in motion, that's the kind of experience you're getting swimming face down in opaque water.


Your ears

Another reason can be that you're getting water in your ears. When you disturb the normal blood circulation or fluid pressure in the inner ear, you're altering the pressure on the balance nerve. This can make you spin out (vertigo) or just make you feel unsteady or lightheaded. And, get this, it is often aggravated by certain head motions or sudden positional changes.


And here's something even weirder. By getting cold water in your ears, you're effectively doing a caloric test on yourself. In medicine there's a procedure called caloric vestibular stimulation (CVS). Your left ear canal is irrigated with ice cold water, which stimulates the vestibular nerve, and then part of the brain stem, and then a nerve in the eyes, and that sets off reflexive eye movements called nystagmus.


CVS is said to cure all sorts from phantom limb pain and psychotic episodes to pain and low moods. But not only does nystagmus look weird (and makes me wonder whether or not my eyes do this while I'm swimming), the side effects to CVS are vertigo and dizziness.


Your body

There are a few other physical factors that might make you feel dizzy when you swim in cold water. For a start, do you feel nervous or anxious before you swim? Feelings of tension or stress before or while you're swimming can reduce blood circulation to your brain and make you feel dizzy.


And then there's hydration and nutrition. If you're swimming on an empty stomach or not had enough water, you can expect your blood sugar to be on the low side. You can also get dehydrated because as your blood pressure increases in response to the cold, your body compensates by losing liquid the easiest way it can, by making you pee more.


Lastly, it could be down to the way you breathe. This is something that I talk about an awful lot when I coach, because even seasoned open water swimmers over-breathe. That means that your inhalation is too big, you take on too much air, and your body doesn't really know what to do with all that oxygen. Over-breathing, or holding your breath when your face is in the water, is unsustainable and can make your feel very dizzy indeed.


How can I feel less dizzy?

There are a few things that you can do to stop that spinning out feeling when you swim in cold water. Some are to do with your technique, and others are simply about preparing yourself for your swim.

  1. Eat and drink before your session: drink water - even better if it's warm (not hot, not caffeinated) and eat a decent meal a couple of hours before you swim and have a quick snack 30 minutes before you get in.

  2. Wear earplugs: they protect your eardrums from the cold water. Warm up: get your muscles and joints limbered up and relaxed before you get in the water and get your heart pumping.

  3. Get in, then get out, then get in again: Get in and swim until the cold water shock response subsides, and then get out and repeat your warm up. This helps warm you up and gets rid of any tension you're holding.

  4. Breathe easy: concentrate on making your breath as normal as possible. Breathe out all the time that your head's in the water, lift it to take in a normal sized breath, and then breathe out again. If you're gasping, try breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose.

  5. Keep your head still: imagine you're on a skewer and you're rotating around it. Your head should naturally turn to breathe when you rotate from the hips. Your spine should stay relaxed and neutral.

  6. Slow everything right down: breaststroke or freestyle, concentrate on making each stroke stronger and more deliberate, but do fewer of them.