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Recovery From The Ice

Courtesy of Ram Barkai, International Ice Swimming Association.

People write, people talk, people present all the time.

Some write about training, racing, kayaking and crewing. Some write about what to eat and what to drink or how to pace or how to do dryland training.

But when we want to learn about the open water, we listen to those who have done it time and time again over the years. We believe that experience in the open water is vital and those who have done swims over and over again in various parts of the world under myriad conditions and during different parts of the year have sufficient know-how to share important information.

So when it comes to doing unprecedented swims, people like Lynne Cox of the USA and Lewis Pugh of the UK are renowned authorities. When it comes to marathon swims, athletes like Claudio Plit of Argentina and Petar Stoychev of Bulgaria know what they are talking about. When it comes to racing, people like Gerry Rodrigues and Shelley Taylor-Smith of Australia know their stuff. When it comes to channel swimming, Kevin Murphy and Alison Streeter of Great Britain can share a stupendous amount of practical information. When it comes to swimming with disabilities, James Pittar of Australia and Craig Dietz of the USA share unique perspectives. When it comes to organization of events, Wayne Riddin of South Africa and Pedro Rego Monteiro of Brazil can share the most appropriate guidance and advice.

In cold water swimming, there is arguably no one who has swum further and in most locations than Ram Barkai. He has done so as a solo swimmer, as a tandem swimmer, as a racer, in Antarctica, in carved-out pools in Poland, UK, Russia and South Africa, as an organizer, and as an administrator. His perspective starts from the day of planning an event until the last person in the event is cleared and safely going home.

So like Cox, Pugh, Plit, Stoychev, Rodrigues, Taylor-Smith, Murphy, Streeter, Pittar, Dietz, Riddin and Monteiro, Barkai has unique experiences and know-how to share. Their love of the sport is palpable and their passion is evident [see video below of Barkai] having fun in helping the local organizers of the Poland 1 km winter swimming championships prepare for their event [see results here].

Barkai shares his thoughts, observations and advice about recovery from cold water swimming:

Lots has been written about swimming in the ice, the shock, physical and mental, the pain in the fingers and feet, the inability to breathe, and the stroke. We still have lots to learn about swimming in the ICE but we certainly have learnt lots in the past several years.

It is certainly a very intense and condensed extreme experience and, therefore, very personal.

When I was planning my ‘beach holiday’ in Antarctica, I searched for as much advice and experience I could find. There was very little out there at the time and not everyone was happy to share. I made contact with Lynne Cox, the woman whos stories inspired me to go to Antarctica. We chatted few times. She was very careful about the Personal Experience aspect and about Giving Advice about the ICE.

She told me what worked for her. I learnt a lot from her wise words. Later on, I learnt a lot about ‘what works for me’.

I have done many Ice miles and many more 1 km to 1.5 km Ice swims. Like most of us, when we do something extreme repeatedly, we develop our own procedures and rituals on how to deal with ICE and the recovery.

For me, the swim is not nearly as scary as the thought of the recovery. While swimming, I am acutely aware that the harder the swim is going to be, the harder the recovery is going to be. The harder and the longer I am pushing myself in the ICE, the longer and harder it will take me to come back from the ICE. It is not like any sport in that you hold back or have to reserve some energy and focus for the time period after you finished your extreme challenge. I always said, “The swim is not over until you have fully recovered.” If you ignore it, you will still recover, but you may never come back to get better and better.

That memory of recovery may push you away from the ICE forever.

I plan for the recovery based on the time I expect to spend in the water. It is not based on the distance that I am going to swim. I have no problem with 10 to 15 minutes even if the water temperature is around 0°C. I recover very quickly without any real need for support. I may still be cold for hours if I didn’t have a shower or sauna after the swim. But if I am dressed warm and comfortably, I can function and continue the day as normal. Every now and then I can feel “The ICE Train” – it is this little vessel that carries icy blood from remote places in my body into my warm core. I can literarily feel it moving from somewhere into my centre and it is usually accompanied by a sudden shiver.

When I plan to be in the water over 20 minutes, I also plan very carefully for my recovery process.

I am aware that swimming in 0°C or 4.9°C is very different and I am also aware of the outside temperature, wind chill, and sun or the lack of it. But as a simple rule of thumb, for me, the 20 minutes is the change from an easy recovery to a harder recovery.

When I spend 30 minutes or more in the water, regardless of 4°C or 0°C, I know my recovery will be tough. When it reaches 35 minutes or more, it is a challenge not to be repeated many times because it will be a serious roller coaster for me. I assume everyone, with experience, will learn to find his or her own limits and work with them. LIMITS can be a bad word in an optimist’s lingo, but it is a matter of life and death for extreme sportsman or sportswomen. I personally don’t like limits and boundaries. But I also don’t like dying so I spend a lot of time studying my limits.

I specifically decided not to write this as an “Old Wise Ice Man’s” advice, but rather as a personal experience which hopefully will help others to learn their own limits and build their own processes to protect themselves and allow themselves to push further intelligibly and safely.

When I am going for an Ice Swim, I carefully study the course. I study not only the swimming course itself, but also I note the walking course from the changing rooms area to the pool as well as the exit from the pool and the route from the pool to the recovery area. I prepare my clothes to be ready for my return. I know exactly how I want to recover. I also check the safety infrastructure around me to make sure that it is sufficient to recover me if I am not capable of controlling my own recovery, which is my prime objective.

I don’t take much to the water. I want to keep as much of my clothes warm and dry waiting for me at the recovery area. I always have someone whom I brief about my desired recovery process. In [competitive or official] events, we have a second. In individuals swims, I appoint my own second.

When I finish the swim, my skin is extremely sensitive, as if all my protection layers have vanished. My skin bruises and reacts very acutely to anything post the swim. I don’t like to be touched too much or be dragged or pulled around. Just a helping hand if required.

My mind moves very slowly when I finish. It is the ICE. So any movement or voice around me feels like it is being fast forwarded in double the normal speed. Therefore, I don’t like people rushing too much around me or shouting and talking too much. It feels like there is a crisis and it increases my anxiety. I need controlled and quiet movements.

You may have noticed how unresponsive swimmers are when they come out – they are in their survival capsule, but they see everything.

When people wrap me and rub the towel hard, it hurts very much. I usually struggle with my goggles and cap. I am suddenly very aware of them and in need to take them off as soon as possible. I am also aware that I don’t want to lose them, so I brief my second to take my goggles and cap and keep them for me.

I gently take off the goggles and cap when removing them, as the head and face are very sensitive. I need protection from the wind if there is any but most important, I want to get to the recovery place as soon as possible. Through my experience, I realised that I am not aware of the severity of my condition, therefore, if everyone around me is shouting and stressing, I immediately assume that I am in a very bad shape and I stress even more.

I learnt to know what to expect and I brace myself for the ride.

It takes me few minutes to start the ride. It feels like I am rolling slowly upwards in my rollercoaster seat, it get steeper and steeper. I await the moment when I reach the top and I can’t really see the bottom anymore. I can feel it clearly; I suddenly feel an immense sensation of loss of control as the ride drops down the vertical cliff at an accelerating speed. I’ve been on that ride plenty times to know that it will end, but I never know when and it always seems to go on forever.

At that stage, I want two things: first and most important – stay focused and don’t lose control of the ride. Second, to get warm.

I don’t need to be asked again and again for my name and how I feel. I just need someone to help me to stay there. Eye contact helps. It gives me a point of focus. Talking to me helps, but not when the talking places mental pressure on me.

I prefer to signal that I am OK rather than try and communicate. Talking is almost impossible for me at this stage.

When the ride gets really rough, I just need to know or feel that there is someone there for me and I am not alone. The recovery is a hard process and it feels very lonely in this capsule of survival.

So for me it is a balance of being there for me, but not weighing on me.

Dressing up is usually a strenuous process. It should come as I recover. I have little control of my hands and limbs and I am very aware of it, so forcing me into my clothes or raising the voice is not helping me at all. Although I am in my capsule, remember that I see and hear everything. I may not understand what you say, but if you are stressed, I will hear it and I will get stressed too because I will assume that something is not going well. So if you are stressed, don’t let me feel it. Don’t force me to recover, take me slowly out of my capsule at my own pace.

When I look at others recovery, I look for a smile. I am not sure why the smile is the turning point, but when I communicate with a recoveree the Smile is the turning point.

Maybe it is the point when the body regained control of the after drop process, it has stabilised and the wonderful euphoria of the after swim taking over. I love that point. The eyes suddenly regain their spark and focus. They look at me NOT through me. I can suddenly talk and smile. And the great thing is that the recovery is short and horrible, while the after Ice euphoria lasts a day or sometimes weeks. That’s a good return for effort ratio.

To summaries, not all recoveries are horrible. The first ones are guaranteed. No pain, no gain – sorry. There are no shortcuts. But it does get better and better. Like going to the dentist, but it is always a horrible experience. But over time, you learn to swan through the experience fairly effortlessly and appreciate the benefits.

Some like to recover with warm water; some with dry sauna; some with a shower, and some under a blanket. Don’t be scared to try old and seasoned methods from remote frozen places. They have their reason for evolving to here, but most importantly, find what makes the ride easier and less scary for you.

Develop strategies and methods for your recovery process the same way that you develop strategies and process for your swim to be faster and more efficient in the water. Like entry to the freezing water, it will never get warmer with experience. It always hurts like hell, but you learn to deal with it and progress to the swim which many times feels great.

The same is with recovery. Don’t be too scared, be well prepared, and it will be over soon. The after ICE euphoria will take over and carry your high on for days.

Be safe and see you in the ICE.

Copyright © 2015 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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