If you've read our blog about the Cold Water Research Project, you'll know that not a great deal is known about the impact on the body after swimming in cold water. What we know from the fields of emergency medicine and rescue is that your core body temperature continues to drop even after you get out of cold water.
For about 30-45 minutes after you exit the water, your temperature continues to drop, before it starts to rise again to normal levels. This is known as the ‘after-drop’ effect.
Our friends at Outdoor Swimmer magazine have written a great little post with some advice on how best to deal with the after-drop if you're getting out of the water and not planning to be active after that. (We'll follow up with a piece with insights into how to maintain your performance if you're running after you get out of the water - in a triathlon or swimrun for example - when the folks at the Cold Water Research have shared their data)...
What exactly is the 'after-drop'?
If you've spent any time hanging around open water swimmers you may have heard the term 'after-drop'. If you’ve done any swimming in cool water, you may have experienced it. For the uninitiated, after-drop refers to the decline in your core body temperature after you have got out of the water.
When you swim in cool water the body cleverly tries to protect vital organs by reducing blood flow to the skin and limbs. Thus the core stays warm while the skin, arms and legs cool down. The process is known as peripheral vasoconstriction.
Shortly after you exit the water, peripheral vasoconstriction ends. Cold blood from your limbs and skin returns to your core where it mixes with warmer blood thereby causing your deep body temperature to drop, even if you’re warmly dressed and move into a warm environment. This is why you often only start shivering 10 to 15 minutes after leaving the water.
It’s a good theory, but can it really be true that your core temperature keeps falling for quite some time after finishing swimming?
I had the chance to find out when I took part in a study at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at Portsmouth University a few years back. For the experiment I had to swim in cool water (16 degrees and 18 degrees) for two hours while the researchers monitored (among other things) my deep body temperature.
After two hours at 18 degrees my body temperature had dropped by about half a degree. I towelled off, dressed, put on a coat and hat and drank a hot tea. I was then able to watch my temperature fall to just over 36 degrees before it stabilised and then started climbing back up. The same thing happened at 16 degrees but the effect was greater, the minimum temperature lower and the time taken to stabilise longer. After-drop is real. While your average body temperature may be increasing, your core will be cooling.
And, what can I do about it?
- Get dressed quickly and into warm clothes. Immediately after swimming you may feel great as the cooled blood has not yet returned to your core. Best to wrap up warmly before it does. It’s much harder to dress when you’re shivering.
- Don’t take a hot shower as this will increase the rate at which cooled blood returns to the core and makes the drop faster and deeper. Cold water swimmers have been known to faint in hot showers. Wait until you’ve warmed up again before showering.
- Don’t attempt to drive or ride a bike until your core temperature has recovered. Driving and shivering is not a good combination. If your core temperature drops too much and you become hypothermic it can also affect your cognitive abilities. Again, not good for driving.
- Drink something hot and eat something. Shivering is a highly energy consumptive bodily function. You need to fuel it.
- Keep an eye on your fellow swimmers. Someone who appears completely fine getting out of the water may be in trouble 10 minutes later and may need your help.
- Get out of the water before you get too cold as you will continue to get colder after swimming – give your body a margin of safety.