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Post Ice Swim Recovery

There are many descriptions to recovery from an Ice Swim. Some will describe it as “out the body experience” a “bad trip” or “black rain”. In some ways, it is a very personal experience because it is a hard one and painful, we all deal with it physically but mostly mentally in our own way. For me personally, the possible hard recovery is always part of my swim and my planning. My swim ends when my recovery ends. When I push further in the ICE I take into consideration that I have to come back and it will be steeper.

It is a fascinating element of our mad and frozen sport that requires better understanding and experience. Great swim with really bad recovery is not a great swim. No recovery is pleasant, but severe recovery tells its own story about your condition. I always had a rule of thumb for my swims “I want to come out dignified” it means to me, that regardless of being solid frozen sometimes, I am still here. I am aware that sometimes, when attempting an extreme challenge, in any extreme sport, one pushes to the utmost limits. For me, in the ICE, the utmost limit is the sum of the Swim and the Recovery. I see it as an integral part of the Swim.

The theory behind the recovery or post Ice Swim process is not new to most. If you have done few Ice Swims of 20minutes and longer in water temp of 5C or less, you have learnt it up close and personal.

The professional medical fraternity dealing with us are mostly not swimmers and they deal with our recovery in the same manner they would deal with any mild or severe hypothermia patient. Which is the correct and professional protocol. Their focus is on rewarming the patient and monitor all vital signs until all stabilises and gets back to “normal” range. The process of recovering a hypothermic parson is not a new one. There is a lot of experience in the field out there.

We are all aware of the importance of our Core Body temperature, however, the most accurate way to measure it is with a rectal thermometer. You go and chase a recovering swimmer with a rectal thermometer. Good luck with that. Some Doctors, which I tend to agree with them, claim that core body temperature after a mile swim is not the most important, but the brain core temperature that is critical. Well, you try and chase an Ice Miler post a swim with an invasive brain prob. Good luck again.
I always saw Ice Swimming as a hugely Mental challenge rather than just a physical one. It was always that facet that fascinated me the most and still does. I have done many recoveries personally and saw many more. In all events I participate, I try and check on every single swimmer as they are in recovery. I let the Doctors do their thing. I am not there to replace them but to assist the swimmers mentally and learn. In a way, I see the medical staff role to examine the swimmers for emergencies, possible problem and monitor recovery. I don’t think it is required for the medical staff on site to perform the recovery unless the Swimmer requires medical assistance or attention. Until such time, anyone with experience in Ice Swimming and recovery can assist the Swimmer in process of recovery.

I have managed my own recoveries in all my swims, with doctors and medical staff on site.
I look at the eyes! They tell me very thing I need to know.
Many focus on core body temperature and vital signs such as Pulse, blood pressure and if need be an ECG. All critically important to asses if the Swimmer requires medical attention or is at risk. I would like to clarify that I don’t like the excess use of medical terms (for us not medical professionals) and I never claim to replace the medical process. I assume that the Swimmer is not in danger and is being overseen by the medical staff on site. I focus on making my and our own recovery a less painful and more understood process. I also would like to distinguish between what we refer to as recovery and the medical recovery which focuses on your core body temp coming back to normal and that your vital signs are normal and stable. I focus on that horrible after-drop process that takes us in this roller coaster ride of recovery.

To illustrate a point I would like to take you through a specific recovery experience I had in one of my swims in Norway in 0C in a small frozen dam full of floating ice sheets I had to push as I was swimming, I stayed in the water around 30min. I swallowed the temp capsule before the swim. My core reading was 36.5C an hour before the swim. It climbed up to 37.8C just before the swim and went down to 35.4C after swimming for 30minutes in 0C. As usual, the after drop came around 5-6 minutes later. I was in a heated car taken to warm shower in nearby farm. Few minute later, while in the shower, my core started plummeting 1C per minutes. 34C, 33C, 32C, 31C and then it hit 30C. That drop is that rollercoaster that hits you post swim. In 30minutes my core went up 1.3C and down 2.4C, but actual net drop from 36.5C to 35.4 which is only 1.1C in 30 minutes! Post swim my core temp dropped 5.4C in around 9 minutes. That was a hell of a ride. But what fascinated me the most was the fact that 10 minutes later I came out the shower, in full control, smiling and joking, dressing up by myself and desperate for a wee dram. My core body temp was 33.4C. I was still cold inside, but 100% clear and fine. I was aware that I was still in the zone that is considered dangerous and the doctor followed me for another 30 minutes making sure I am fine. Don’t get me wrong, 33.4C is not normal and not safe. But I was “fine”, focused, 100% in control and basically normal with core body temperature of 33.4C and warming…I was stable.

I have seen many styles of recovery and I develop my own preferred method. I also realised that other experienced ice swimmers developing their own recovery process styles. I realised that some like the hot wet towels and some don’t. Some like the Sauna and some hate it. Many don’t like a warm shower, I do. Some like to lie down under blankets, I hate it! Some like to walk and some like to sit.

My recovery

I like to be able to walk out of every swim. I don’t like to be handled, pulled or pushed. I feel very “brittle” when I come out and experience showed me that I can get injured easily in the recovery regardless of the fact that I don’t recall pain or the incident. I am very well aware that my control is lacking but the effort to walk and manage my recovery taught me to recover very fast, overtime. I don’t confuse recovery with rewarming, which may take much longer.

I like to have my goggles and cap off as soon as possible. Gently, but off. I am very aware of that pressure on my face and head. I need it to go away and I want to dry my head and face. It gives me good level of comfort. I like to manage my recovery so I can remain active. I am aware that one of my main strength in the Ice is my body ability to generate heat while swimming, good amount of heat. When I stop swimming, I try and continue that process and slowly stop. I just like to remain active. Nothing radical, no running, jumping etc…but active. Walk around, move…

I like to get to a warm place as soon as possible (I assume this is very normal) and I like to start the rewarming process. I don’t like to lie down, I tried it twice and it created a chaos in my brain. I think that the horizontal position so soon in the after-drop period may bring icy blood to my brain and as mentioned before, it may cause a sudden rapid drop of brain core temp which throws me into an orbital space odyssey 2001 trip. Since, I simply refuse to lie down unless I am in a medical situation that requires it. Once the After-Drop roller coaster ride starts, I prefer to sit down and focus. I continue the rewarming process while keeping my eyes open at all times. I want to know where I am, what is going on and watch this ride so I can see the end. I allow for a shiver but I try and control my breathing and relax. Severe shivers have caused me some serious muscles cramps and can derail me from the ride back into space.

I stay away from Jacuzzi for a while. Again, the reason is that water conduct heat 30 times faster than air and that induced rewarming eject me into the dark space again. I love Jacuzzi once the after-drop process shifts into pure rewarming. I don’t mind the hot wet towel although I know some that don’t like it. I personally prefer dry sauna for a while and then shower, YES SHOWER! I am ready for the shower after around 10 minutes from swim end. I can sit or stand, sometimes with some help. I usually start the shower with lukewarm water. Probably around 25C. I take the temp up slowly as I feel the need to rewarm. I make sure my head is out the water for quite sometime. Again, the reason, I assume, is to allow the core temp of my brain to adjust slowly. I’ll put my head under the water when I know I turned the corner. I can indulge in the shower for hours but I usually stay for 5-10 minutes, I dry myself and dress up.

Again, I learnt a lot overtime. My recovery after a 1km Ice Swim is very quickly. Even if water temp is around Zero. I know I haven’t been in the water for too long so the after-drop will be a very short ride. I hold tight for couple of minutes and its gone, rewarming always takes time. In mile swims my recovery is harder and longer. However, I had great 2-3C mile swims and tough 4-5C swims. Same applies for recovery. I always brace myself for a serious ride and surprise myself.

My conclusion is that regarding the medical recovery procedures we follow the professional experience and trust it. However, when it comes to a personal process, we need to develop our best individual process. Identify what work best for us and develop it. We all handle pain and misery well, maybe even addicted to it in some bizarre way, like all extreme and ultra-endurance athletes. But we handle it differently. Stroke is about technic, recovery has some rules and the rest is individual.

Never recover on your own, always have someone observing your recovery, in case you get into trouble. As to the eyes! If you watch swimmer’s eyes in recovery, the eyes look right through you. They look at nowhere. Their look is inward, that is why it looks like they see through you. The eyes are a like a screen sending messages, if you care to watch.

Once the eyes start engaging and look outwards, respond to actions in front of them, acknowledge conversation and questions, the swimmer is coming back from his/her internal battle. When the eyes smile, the Swimmer is back! But still cold inside.
We have all learnt a lot in the past several years. We all looking to push more, further, exploring. That is the beautiful part of the ICE, don’t hold your knowledge and experiences. Share them, teach your learnings, it will may save others some pain and risk and possibly save someone’s lives one day.

Be Safe and never be scared to dare…
Ram Barkai
founder IISA