Recovery from the Ice

Lots has been written about swimming in the ice, the shock, physical and mental, the pain in the fingers and feet, the inability to breathe and the stroke. We still have lots to learn about swimming in the ICE but we certainly have learnt lots in the past several years.

It is certainly a very intense and condensed extreme experience and therefore very personal. When I was planning my “beach holiday” in Antarctica I searched for as much advice and experience I could find. There was very little out there at the time and not everyone was happy to share. I made contact with Lynne Cox, the woman who’s stories inspired me to go to Antarctica and we chatted few times. She was very careful about the Personal Experience aspect and about Giving Advice about the ICE. She told me what worked for her. I learnt a lot from her wise words. Later on, I learnt a lot about “what works for me”.

I have done many Ice miles and many more 1km to 1.5km Ice swims. Like most of us, when we do something extreme repeatedly, we develop our procedures and rituals on how to deal with ICE and the recovery. For me, the swim is not nearly as scary as the thought of the recovery. While swimming, I am acutely aware that the harder the swim is going to be, the harder the recovery is going to be. The harder and the longer I am pushing myself in the ICE, the longer and harder it will take me to come back from the ICE. It is not like any sport in that you “hold back” or have to reserve some energy and focus for the time period after you finished your extreme challenge. I always said “the swim is not over until you have fully recovered” and if you ignore it you will still recover, but you may never come back to get better and better. That memory of recovery may push you away from the ICE forever.

I plan for the recovery subject to the time I expect to spend in the water. Not the distance I am going to swim. I have no problem with 10min to 15min even if the water temperature is around 0C. I recover very quickly without any real need for support. I may still be cold for hours if I didn’t have a shower or sauna after the swim. But if I am dressed warm and comfortably, I can function and continue the day as normal. Every now and then I can feel “The ICE Train” it’s this little vessel that carries icy blood from remote places in my body into my warm core. I can literarily feel it moving from somewhere into my centre and it is usually accompanied by a sudden shiver.

When I plan to be in the water over 20min I also plan very carefully for my recovery process. I am aware that swimming in 0C or 4.9C is very different and I am also aware of the outside temp, wind chill and sun or the lack of it. But as a simple rule of thumb, for me, the 20min is the change from an “easy recovery” to a harder recovery. When I spend 30min or more in the water, regardless of 4C or 0C, I know my recovery will be tough. When it reaches 35min or more, it is a challenge not to be repeated many times because it will be a serious roller coaster for me. I assume everyone, with experience, will learn to find his/her own limits and work with them. LIMITS can be a bad word in an optimist’s lingo, but it is a matter of life and death for extreme sportsman or sportswomen. I personally don’t like limits and boundaries. But I also don’t like dying so I spend a lot of time studying my limits.

I specifically decided not to write this as an “Old Wise Ice Man’s” advice but rather as a personal experience, which hopefully will help others to learn their own limits and build their own processes to protect themselves and allow themselves to push further intelligibly and safely.

When I am going for an Ice Swim, I study the course carefully. Not only the swimming course, but the walking course from the changing rooms area to the pool. The exit from the pool. The route from the pool to the recovery area. I prepare my clothes to be ready for my return. I know exactly how I want to recover. I also check the safety infrastructure around me to make sure that it is sufficient to recover me if I am not capable of controlling my own recovery, which is my prime objective.

I don’t take much to the water, I want to keep as much of my clothes warm and dry waiting for me at the recovery area. I always have someone whom I brief about my desired recovery process. In events we have a second. In individuals swims I appoint my own second. When I finish the swim my skin is extremely sensitive, as if all my protection layers have vanished. My skin bruises and reacts very acutely to anything post the swim. I don’t like to be touched too much or be dragged or pulled around. Just a helping hand if required. My mind moves very slowly when I finish, it is the ICE. So any movement or voice around me feels like it is being fast forwarded in double the normal speed. Therefore, I don’t like people rushing too much around me or shouting and talking too much. It feels like there is a crisis and it increases my anxiety. I need controlled and quiet movements.

You may have noticed how unresponsive swimmers are when they come out - they are in their survival capsule, but they see everything. When people wrap me and rub the towel hard it hurts very much. I usually struggle with my goggles and cap. I am suddenly very aware of them and in need to take them off as soon as possible. I am also aware that I don’t want to lose them, so I brief my second to take my goggles and cap and keep them for me. Gently when removing them, as the head and face are very sensitive. I need protection from the wind if there is any but most important, I want to get to the recovery place as soon as possible. Through my experience, I realised that I am not aware of the severity of my condition, therefore, if everyone around me is shouting and stressing I immediately assume that I am in a very bad shape and I stress even more. I learnt to know what to expect and I brace myself for the ride. It takes me few minutes to start the ride. It feels like I am rolling slowly upwards in my rollercoaster seat, it get steeper and steeper. I await the moment when I reach the top and I cant really see the bottom anymore. I can feel it clearly; I suddenly feel an immense sensation of loss of control as the ride drops down the vertical cliff at an accelerating speed. I’ve been on that ride plenty times to know that it will end but I never know when and it always seems to go on forever. At that stage I want two things: first and most important – stay focused, don’t lose control of the ride. Second, to get warm. I don’t need to be asked again and again for my name and how I feel, I just need someone to help me to stay there. Eye contact helps, it gives me a point of focus. Talking to me helps, but not when the talking places mental pressure on me. I prefer to signal that I am ok than try and communicate. Talking is almost impossible for me at this stage. When the ride gets really rough, I just need to know or feel that there is someone there for me and I am not alone. The recovery is a hard process and it feels very lonely in this capsule of survival. So for me it is a balance of being there for me but not weighing on me. Dressing up should is usually a strenuous process. It should come as I recover. I have little control of my hands and limbs and I am very aware of it, so forcing me into my clothes or raising the voice is not helping me at all. Although I am in my capsule, remember I see and hear everything. I may not understand what you say but if you are stressed, I will hear it and get stressed because I will assume that something is not going well. So if you are stressed, don’t let me feel it. Don’t force me to recover, take me slowly out of my capsule at my own pace. When I look at others recovery I look for a smile. I am not sure why the smile is the turning point but when I communicate with a recoveree the Smile is the turning point. Maybe it is the point when the body regained control of the after drop process, it has stabilised and the wonderful euphoria of the after swim taking over. I love that point. The eyes suddenly regain their spark and focus. They look at me NOT through me. I can suddenly talk and smile And the great thing is that the recovery is short and horrible while the after Ice euphoria lasts a day or sometimes weeks. That’s a good return for effort ratio!

To summaries, not all recoveries are horrible. The first ones are guaranteed. No pain, no gain – sorry! No short cuts there. But it does get better and better. Like going to the dentist, sorry, but it is always a horrible experience. But overtime you learn to swan through the experience fairly effortlessly and appreciate the benefits.

Some like to recover with warm water, some with dry sauna, some with a shower and some under a blanket. Don’t be scared to try old and seasoned methods from remote frozen places, they have their reason for evolving to here, but most importantly, find what makes the ride easier and less scary for you. Develop strategies and methods for your recovery process the same way you develop strategies and process for your swim to be faster and more efficient in the water. Like entry to the freezing water, it will never get warmer with experience, it always hurts like hell, but you learn to deal with it and progress to the swim which many times feels great. The same is with recovery, don’t be too scared, be well prepared and it will be over soon and the after ICE euphoria will take over and carry your high on for days.

Be safe and see you in the ICE.

Ram Barkai


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