Raynaud's and Open Water Swimming
What is it?
When anyone is exposed to cold temperatures, your ‘extremities’ (fingers, toes, ears, nose etc.) start to lose heat. This is because the small blood vessels under the skin start to contract, to slow down your blood supply, so that your body’s core temperature can be preserved.
In people with Raynaud’s, the blood vessels are more sensitive, and ‘overreact’ to the cold. They become much narrower than is typical, which reduces the blood flow more significantly. As well as cold temperatures, Raynaud’s can be triggered in some cases by anxiety and emotional stress.
There are two types of Raynaud’s. ‘Primary’ Raynaud’s is a stand-alone condition, that happens for no known reason. ‘Secondary’ Raynaud’s usually occurs due to other underlying illnesses or injuries, or as the result of taking specific medications. Whilst Secondary Raynaud’s carries a higher risk of issues, severe complications are fortunately rare. Primary Raynaud’s is the most common form.
What does it look / feel like?
Raynaud’s is characterised by changes in colour to the skin. Skin will appear white/blue when the blood has been restricted, and will then turn bright red as the blood returns. Those who suffer with Raynaud’s report a spectrum of feelings in the affected areas, from numbness, pins and needles or a mild throbbing, through to excruciating pain; with symptoms lasting from a few minutes to several hours.
How can I manage Raynaud’s whilst Open Water Swimming?
We asked two open water swimmers with Raynaud’s for their top tips, for before/during/and after swimming in the winter months. Marian started her cold water swimming aged 62 in 2015, and has been swimming all year round for the past 8 years, and Mike has been ice swimming in cold water for over 40 years – including in Russia where, “Chainsaws had to cut through 18 inches of ice, and air temperatures were around minus 50 degrees!”
Please note, the following suggestions are anecdotal, and do not constitute medical advice. Everyone’s experiences of Raynaud’s will be different, so please only do what works for you. If you are concerned about your health and Raynaud’s then always consult a GP.
Before getting into the water: “Preparation is key”
- Travel to your swimming venue with as much of your kit already on as possible, to minimise heat loss when getting changed. i.e., swimsuit, wetsuit, swim socks etc.
- Keep your hands as warm as possible by wearing any gloves on the way to your venue, if getting your neoprene gloves on early is not practical.
- Whilst getting changed, try to keep out of the wind. Choosing venues with changing facilities can help with this.
- Drink plenty of water (at least a pint) before swimming. Dehydration can lower the amount of blood moving through the blood vessels, and contrary to popular belief, you do sweat in cold water!
- Arnica, (traditionally used for bruising and muscle aches), can also help improve your circulation, so taking an arnica tablet an hour before entering the water may help.
- Jogging on the spot, breathing exercises, and stretching, will all help to ensure that your circulation’s at an optimal level before entering the water.
- Sildenafil citrate (only available on prescription) has been used to treat Raynaud’s as it improves blood flow around the body. It is however the active ingredient in Viagra, so we shall leave that one up to you!
During: “Listen to your body”
- Wear thermal neoprene gloves, socks, and a hat (under your regular swimming hat) to protect the extremities, as soon as you feel a drop in the water temperature. Cold water is generally considered to be anything under 15 degrees, but you can wear these at any time.
- Listen to your body. Swimming in cold water is much more labour intensive for everyone. 80% of your oxygen intake will go to keeping your core warm and only 20% will feed your muscles, whereas the reverse is true in the warmer temperatures. It’s always safer to get out having done a shorter swim, than stay in for longer and experience pain or other unwanted symptoms.
- Let your hands and feet dictate how you feel and how long you swim for. The more numb they become in the water, the harder it will be getting dressed afterwards and this may cause further heat loss.
After: “The golden rule is to warm up slowly and steadily”
- Remove all wet layers as quickly as you can under a change robe and pat yourself dry.
- Silver foil blankets do not help swimmers – unlike runners for example, swimmers are not radiating heat post swim, so there is no escaping heat for the silver foil blanket to trap.
- If the ground is cold, stand on something as you change to avoid losing more heat from your feet, i.e., a changing mat, towel, or bath mat.
- Have lots of loose layers of clothes ready to put on, including thermal socks and gloves. Organising them in the order in which you’ll need them, can speed up getting dressed.
- Wrapping your post-swim clothes in a hot water bottle will also keep them toasty warm for when you’re finished! If you have warmed up your clothes with water bottles, ensure that heat is never applied directly to the skin.
- Ensure that you have a thermos of warm (NEVER HOT) drink for after the swim, to gently warm the body from the inside, and a sugary snack to help raise your body temperature.
- When (anyone’s) hands and feet are very cold, it’s not advisable to put them on a radiator, car heater, or too close to a fire as this can cause chilblains and considerable pain.
- Alternating dipping your hands and feet into a bowl of lukewarm then cold water can help to bring them back to life. For some sufferers of Raynaud’s however, this will not be possible. Warming your wrists by rubbing them together can be an effective, and less painful way of generating heat.
- Taking a lukewarm shower afterwards, can help increase your body temperature at a safe rate. This will of course depend on your Raynaud’s symptoms and levels of tolerance. For some swimmers, this will be too much.
- A note for all swimmers - never get into a hot shower, or hot tub, afterwards as this could send blood too quickly back to your arms, legs, hands and feet, and therefore away from the heart and brain which could cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure.
- A wide range of aromatherapy oils including ginger, cypress, eucalyptus, black pepper, rosemary, lavender, and peppermint (to name just a few) are all used to improve circulation and blood flow, so creating your own blend of these to massage onto your hands and feet after swimming could be advantageous. Remember to use a carrier oil so the essential oils are not applied directly to your skin.
Written by Lindsay Buck our amazing Ambassador