The Polar Bear Club

Polar Bear blog 1

I’m pining for the water. Our reservoir is beautiful but oh so cold at the moment, wavering around the 3-4C mark. I feel like I’m counting down the days until we can go in and not worry about getting cold. To be able to just go and swim, or float & enjoy the scenery for however long I feel like. But, alas, it’s not to be, it’s just too cold to spend that long in there and I’ll have to suck it up and wait.

What I have realised though is that I’ve not written properly about our “mission” over the winter. As I’ve talked about before, we made a promise to carry on swimming regularly through the winter this year. We didn’t have a clear idea of how or when, but we wanted to see if we could.

I happened to see a post on facebook one day about something called the Polar Bear club. The idea is that you have to swim a minimum of 200m in open water twice each month between November and March. You swim in line with the International Ice Swimming Association Rules. That means swimming in only a swimsuit, one swim hat and goggles. No wetsuit, no shoes, no gloves, no woolly hats. Any swim stroke is acceptable as long as you do the distance in the approved kit. Heads up breastroke is more than acceptable, indeed encouraged.  I absent mindedly commented on it and mentioned it to the bestest swim buddy with little expectation that we’d actually attempt it. Oh how wrong I was!

Most of the groups that attempt this do it as a bit of a fundraiser. Each entrant contributes a bit of cash to go towards a badge or certificate upon completion of the challenge with any leftover money being donated to charity. The bestest swim buddy jumped on it in a flash! Her reckoning was that if we set it up we’d have to complete it just to save face………….we couldn’t suggest it to a load of other people and then not do it ourselves. Quite a motivation to keep us swimming all winter.

And so the Polar Bear Club began. It’s been set up as an add-on to a local open water swimming facebook group to which we both belong. Out of the 215 members on the site I think we have 10 signed up to attempt the Polar Bear. Notably only 2 men have signed up, the rest of us are toughened up ladies. It’s an honesty based challenge. People post on the group spreadsheet when they’ve swum. There’s no pressure from anyone and you do it when you fancy with whoever you usually swim with. Most of us are local but we don’t all swim together and there’re are a couple who are further afield. Leftover cash from the collection will be going to the Ride for Charlie charity. A trust set up in memory of a local lad who one day didn’t wake up. He was an amazing youth cyclist and through the trust his parents hope to help other youngsters to gain the life experiences he had and should have continued to have. So, this is a Swim for Charlie!

It’s this that’s been keeping us motivated over the winter. We’ve done our two swims a month within the Polar Bear rules as well as plenty more where it was just too cold or dark to brave it in just our cozzies. It’s this that’s forced us into understanding how our bodies work and how, when you do it often enough, you start to adjust to the cold and it’s after effects better each time. I’m astounded we’re managing it. As the temperatures started to drop in November I wasn’t sure we’d do it. However, our amazing bodies really have adjusted and after surviving a couple of ice topped dips I realised we can do this!

I feel I need to add a bit of a health warning here too. I regularly get asked how cold it is, both by people who think I’m stark raving mad but also by a small minority who fancy giving it a go themselves. Some people I’ve spoken to seem to have little concept of just how cold the water is. When I say the water’s 4C they’re genuinely shocked, expecting me to say it’s still 10 or 12C.

In an inland reservoir the water loses and gains heat significantly faster than the sea. If the air’s cold the water temperature will drop. Granted, the water temperature will often be a couple of degrees warmer than the air at this time of year, but not by much. Add to that the increased heat conductivity of water and the cooling effect of the water will be significantly greater than just standing outside in your pants on a cold day. The result of that sudden heat loss when you go in the water puts significant stress on your body. It can lead to immediate hyperventilation, loss of use of your limbs and put sufficient enough strain on your heart to cause cardiac arrest. That’s just the cold water shock. If you’ve managed to deal with that you have a longer term risk of developing hypothermia during and after your swim.

Your body can overcome all of these things, and with time, learn to deal with them better. It’s this gentle acclimatisation, or cold conditioning, that we’ve been doing every week since the summer. If I’d stopped swimming outdoors in September there’s no way by body would be able to cope with the extremes that it can now endure. The message here is that if you fancy giving open water a go wait until it’s warmed up a bit. If your body’s not used to it even dropping into 18C water on a sunny day in midsummer can induce cold water shock and hypothermia in someone who is not used to it. This is what’s usually happened when you see those tragic headlines about a fatality in a reservoir. By all means give it a go but do it with some knowledge and understanding of what can go wrong and how to do it in the safest way possible.

Safety bit over! We now have two months left to go, only four more official Polar Bear swims needed. We have made one concession to the rules though – woolly hats are now allowed. I can safely say I never thought I’d be swimming heads up breastroke in a reservoir in the middle of winter wearing only a woolly hat and a cozzy. This swimming malarkey regularly keeps surprising me!

Polar Bear blog 2

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