When fitness and guts aren’t enough

The sun is out but the water’s cold: Lou finds out what happens when fitness and guts aren’t enough


With normal endurance events you’ll be fine if you have endurance through appropriate training, lots of willpower and a bit of luck. When swimming in cold water, though, fitness and guts aren’t enough. You also need an ability to keep functioning in cold water.


The good news is that it is trainable. The bad news is that it takes a long time to build up and you have to be careful not to feel that you’ve ‘failed’ if you have to end your session early through cold. (Or that’s what I’ve got to be careful of, anyway.)

Since mid-April the sea temperature has slowly increased, as has the length of our swims. Over three weeks my swim time went satisfyingly from 10 mins to 47mins and I thought ‘Way hay, summer’s here, the nasty cold stuff is over. I’ve been swimming through the winter, it’s all easy from here.

I got stuck at 47 minutes. Everyone else seemed to be cracking the hour, then 90 minutes. Swimming forums have started to feature people achieving their two-hour Channel Relay qualifiers and even a few six-hour Channel solo qualifying swims. And the water’s still only about 10 or 11°C!

I was stuck for four or five swims. I finally popped out 64 minutes a week ago and 1:15 this weekend. However, on the 1:15 swim I had to get out before my friends and jog the last 200m back to base because I was so cold I’d stopped making progress and it was getting silly – and dangerous. It’s left me feeling down in the dumps.


I’d been swimming for over an hour and we were on our way back to our base on the beach. The sun was out, the sea was flat and I’d been enjoying feeling strong and swimming smoothly. In fact up until then it was a wonderful swim with teammates Jo, Gary and Alice.

But then I noticed my right hand starting to claw (when you can’t close the fingers and they involuntarily bend into a claw) – an early sign of approaching mild hypothermia. I acknowledged this and put some more effort in, hoping to push on against the slight current to get home before it got too bad. Then the others started zooming past as if I was going nowhere. The cold doesn’t just affect muscle function but also messes with motor nerve function. Rubbish nerves + rubbish muscles = you can’t move normally and there’s nothing you can do about it. It was as if I was completely stationary despite working hard.

Thanks to some judicious prompting by Alice (“time to get out I think, Lou”) I got out and jogged the 200m back to base feeling disappointed. On a positive note, I now know what swimming feels like when I’m too cold (I felt like one of those six-legged spider machine things in the movie, Prometheus) and that’ll help keep me safe in the future.

But why was I disappointed? The fitness and willpower were there… it was the cold that got me and I’ve got no control over that.

I’ve thought about it. I felt – stupidly and illogically – that I’d failed. Surely all the winter pain and freezing should have made me superhuman and immune to the cold? I’ve swum in 3.5°C for goodness’ sake! Logical me knows it doesn’t work quite like that and as with many sorts of training, changes don’t happen overnight. You have to keep plugging away and eventually you’ll reap the rewards. It’s still early days for the longer swims and they’re just as challenging as the shorter, colder dips of a few months ago.

I just have to keep getting into cold water and trust that the ability to last for two hours will come eventually.  It can’t be a coincidence that my buddies who sea-swim several times a week are the ones better able to cope. In addition, for most of them this isn’t their first season – a clear demo that consistency and specificity are huge factors in successful training.  From now on I’ll make an effort to get down to the sea twice a week rather than just once to push things along a bit. Meanwhile I’ve got to do some stern talking to the impatient, competitive part of me that wants to be in the two-hour gang NOW.

Lou is training for a Channel relay attempt in September 2013, raising money for three charities. You can donate via her fundraising site http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/LouWalker and follow her on Twitter: @LouArtfulHen or at www.louwalker.com/blog.


Photo credit: Keith Cummings