Friday, January 9, 2009

Cold Water Preparation: Nature or Nurture?

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

It’s cold outside. The water is also cold – freezing cold in many locations. Throughout the winter months, there are a large and growing number of Polar Bear Swims around the world. The swims range from Hawaii (Maui Polar Bear Fin Swim) to Finland (Finnish Winter Swimming Championships).

What is the best way to prepare for these cold-water swims? It reminds us of the nature vs. nurture debate. Modifying this classic debate for our sport, is an open water swimmer’s innate qualities (e.g., body fat percentage, natural ability to withstand cold water, mental toughness, ability to push oneself) more important than the swimmer’s personal experiences (e.g., amount of training and acclimatization to cold water) when determining one’s ability to swim well in cold water?

One 25-year-old former pool swimmer of slender build (170 cm, 54.4 kg or 5'-7", 120 lbs.), Laurin Weisenthal, is one example that nurture certainly plays a very important role in cold-water swimming performance.

The background of this nature vs. nurture debate is the Dolphin Club's annual Polar Bear Challenge in San Francisco. The competitors attempt to swim 64K (40 miles) between December 21st to March 21st when the air ranges between 4° and 10°C (40° - 50°F) and the water is between 8.3°-10.6°C (47° - 51°F).

Records for the Polar Bear Challenge include (1) the shortest number of days to 40 miles, (2) the shortest total elapsed time to complete 40 miles (including rest and re-warming periods), and (3) the total number of miles completed. The swims take place in Aquatic Park, a protected cove influenced by tidal currents.

The total elapsed time competitions are unique in that they subject the swimmer to multiple repetitive periods of hypothermia and re-warming throughout the course of several days. In laboratory rats, repetitive cold water swim stress, with intermittent re-warming periods, produced what psychologists call 'learned helplessness' and 'behavioral despair'.

The repetitive chilling and re-warming cycles produce unique psychological challenges beyond the obvious physical challenges. Many (if not most) people in our open water swimming community who do cold water swims agree they are quite happy to warm up and they do not relish the thought of quickly re-entering the water for another cold-water swim on the same day.

The existing record for the "Fastest 40" was set by Daniel Considine in March 2008. Daniel completed the 64K Polar Bear Challenge in 3 days, 12 hours and 43 minutes (84 hours and 43 minutes).

Daniel's record was broken in the last week of 2008 by Laurin who completed 65K (40.5 miles) in a total time of 2 days, 12 hours (60 hours flat). Laurin swam 14.5 miles (23.3K) in five segments in 11 hours in 10.3°C (50.6°F) water on Day 1, 11.5 miles (18.5K) in five segments in 10 hours in 10.0°C (50°F) on Day 2, and 14.5 miles (23.3K) in six segments in 12 hours in 9.8°C (49.6°F) water on Day 3.

Laurin, who was coached and escorted by veteran Reuben Hechanova, explained her preparation, "I had been swimming in Aquatic Park since September, about 2.5-3 miles 2 or 3 times a week. The Sunday before the Polar Bear Challenge started, I wanted to see how my body would react, so I did 3 x 2-mile swims in 52°F (11°C) water in Aquatic Park, resting and re-warming similar to what I was going to do during the actual Challenge. After that, I decided it wasn't so bad, so I figured I'd just go for it!"

Laurin emerged from San Francisco Bay after each swim segment with moderate to severe subjective hypothermia according to her father who is a physician. Her re-warming routine consisted of 20 minutes in a shower (cold, then warm, then hot) while she consumed a portion of a baked potato, warmed Clif Bar electrolyte drinks, and 100 calorie GU energy gels. She then spent 20 minutes in a sauna. Dressed in boots, a swim parka, and a ski cap, she then rested for an additional 20 to 40 minutes at room temperature before preparing for the next water entry and swim.

Video clips of Laurin’s swims are here.

So it is nature or nurture? A combination perhaps?

Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association


Anonymous said...

Nice piece Steve. In the debate of how heredity and environment shape who we are, I have always been a proponent of mind over matter. During my various expeditions climbing (Everest), biking (RAGBRAI) and relay swimming (English Channel) I have seen some of the world's best athletes compete in their various categories. I can tell you, these people are just like you and me. Nothing special about them expect their mental fortitude and their enduring sense of hope. Mind over matter is my argument. I vote nurture. Watching Laurin's training videos is an example of nurture -- her training ethic would make any physique a record breaking swimmer.

Anonymous said...

While Laurin is certainly fast, she was not truthful in her miles swum in AP. She cut corners.
While I respect her speed I do not respect someone who cuts corners.

Larry Weisenthal said...

With regard to the "corner cutting" charge, that's libelous. She was "piloted" (led) by the rowing commissioner of the Dolphin Club, Reuben Hechanova, as clearly shown in the videos of the three days. You may write to Mr. Hechanova for confirmation of this. Every one of Laurin's swims was witnessed by Mr. Hechanova, in their entirety and he personally led her around the course in virtually all of the swims -- again as documented by the videos. Mr. Hechanova could be asked for his own opinion of this spurious charge.

Mr. Hechanova is a 25 year member of the Dolphin Club and has more piloting experience, I believe, than anyone else. He was the pilot for the swimmer who held the previous record. Laurin just joined the club two months ago. She swam exactly where she was instructed to swim. If there was a concern about the course being swum, it could have been voiced to Mr. Hechanova or Laurin personally, at any time during the three days of the swims (27th, 28th, 29th). For someone to basically accuse someone of cheating and not have the guts to sign his/her name and to omit the fact that Laurin was instructed and guided as to the precise course to be swum by the most experienced pilot at the Dolphin Club is contemptible, in my opinion.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach, CA, USA

Yeah, I'm her Dad. I don't think that one ever gets over being a swim parent, does one?

Neal Mueller said...

I personally vouch for Laurin, having been there for much of her swim training and also for her final day of swimming this record breaking swim. Laurin completed this swim in record time and we should all be very proud of her. She actually swam 40.5 miles (0.5 miles more than needed) to cover herself against allegations like the one above. This is all according to my own eyes and according to her pilot, who is a longtime member and rowing commissioner of the Dolphin Club.

Furthermore, I call into suspicion anyone who questions someones honesty while keeping themself anonymous.

Way to go Laurin. Just like Dory says, Just Keep Swimming... just keep swimming... yay!

Shawn said...

I agree with Larry and Neal, do not make harsh statements and hide behind anonymous. Laurin keep up the good work! A swimming fan from Chicago.

Ahelee said...

Looking forward to hearing more about Laurin's open water swimming!

All that cold water - grey chilly weather - wind and fog in San Francisco can make some people a little grouchy.

I know, I was born and raised there.
But when the sun is shining, all are out with smiles and flowers in their hair!

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