Antarctica – The recovery

It’s been a week since returning from Antarctica, and most of the questions I am getting regarding the Ice KM race are around the recovery. Ice Swimming is still in early stages, and there is not much written on the recovery – worse yet, each swimmer is different and research does not necessarily help with one’s recovery. 

According to IISA’s rules and regulations, a “Second” is a person accompanying the Swimmer that watches him throughout the event, from the change room to recovery. I was lucky to have Leszek, a Polish experienced ice swimmer as Second, and before starting my swim, he asked me if he could record the recovery process with his GoPro.

These are not easy videos to watch, and there are some more dramatic scenes, but the 1-minute clip below can give an idea of what the body goes through after an ice swim. 

Viewer discretion advised

Before starting the swim, most of us raised our body temperature a degree or two, as a defense mechanism. So by the time we hit the -1.5C waters, our body was at 38C. When we finished the race and were measured our temperature again, this was between 28C and 32C. Most books define these temperatures as Hypothermia – Stage 2.

I won’t get technical (I couldn’t) but we were explained that the warm blood that was retained in our core to protect the basic functions during the swim is redistributed to the extremities, which are now holding cold blood, and it is that process of mixing different temperatures that poses threats to the body. The key is to warm it up in a very gradual fashion (room temperature – warm – hot).

Once we reached the recovery area in the ship, we were treated with hot towels on top of us, while putting our feet and hands in a basin with room temperature water. I reckon I stayed like that for about 15 minutes and it got very uncomfortable as the whole body went through that blood-mixing experience. Right after that, we were put into the sauna, which at that time seemed even cold, as the body kept shivering. And once stable (say another 15 minutes), we were put into the Jacuzzi. By that time, the body was stable and in control again.

Big, wide smiles

It seemed incomprehensible that we were back to normal in less than an hour after the swim. It is however well known that if you push it too much you can create irreversible nerve damage. For some people is the feet, for others is the hands. We had the joke that once your iPhone recognizes your thumbprint again, you are fully recovered. It took my iPhone a week.

Let’s not forget that this is an extreme sport, and we all need supervision, however experienced we might be. If we want to make this a Winter Olympics sport, we need to make sure we keep it safe and sound. Tons of people are watching.