This week we have been asking “where did spring go?” Just when we were beginning to imagine relaxed, sunshine filled evenings and gentle, warm sea water we have been faced with a return of frosty mornings and breath-taking cold winds. We’ve most unusually even had snow flurries here on the Isle of Wight. (I have to own up here to thinking that they were flurries of blossom before realising that they had gone on too long and that any tree with that amount of blossom would need to be the size of the Eiffel Tower…. which obviously my neighbour does not have). It had not been at all expected for Easter Week but snow it was, how ever fleeting…or should that be sleeting?
Naturally this drop in temperature has provided my sceptic swim buddy to moan about how it’s all my fault for having ‘coerced’ her to swim in the first place. That somehow I was making this happen to test our resolve to keep swimming throughout the full year and that it was my fault that she was feeling so cold. And her response? To start swimming without a vest top in the vague hope that the snow was a mirage and that spring was actually with us!
The water is still pretty cold by most people’s standards and we have both experienced ‘ice cream head’ or ‘brain freeze’ at points throughout the winter. We’ve found that we have been swimming breast stroke and ‘head out’ crawl rather than putting our heads underwater. Although most days I announce that I’m going to “swim properly” at some point and promptly plough forward with my head under the surface trying fiercely to control my breath with each stroke. There is definitely a pattern of thinking – firstly “it’s not too bad”, then “this feels uncomfortable” and finally “I have to stop before my sinuses explode” and “did someone ambush me with a full cornet in my face?”. Brain freeze or ice cream head has set in. It’s painful and we’re yet to truly crack the art of really cold water submersion crawl without gasping.
Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, to give it it’s medical term, is when a sharp headache pain is induced through cold. This can be through eating very cold foods such as ice cream, or, funnily enough, by putting your head into cold sea water. It is thought to be caused by the dilation and restriction of the anterior cerebral artery in the brain although the process is not fully understood. There are no doubt other more ridiculous methods for creating a pain in the head but it’s cold water swimming that we seem to be obsessed with. Not only is it totally self inflicted but there isn’t even a sugar hit at the end.
Interestingly “the most common headache that swimmers suffer from is known as an External Compression Headache” (ProSwimwear) caused by goggles that are too tight or overly firm fitting swim hats. On this front we are clear to ensure that our orange hats aren’t too constricting and goggles are comfy as no one wants the embarrassment of a hat induced headache. No, the cause of any head pain for us (alcohol abuse aside) is definitely the cold waters of Blighty. This does mean that Karen is at a definite disadvantage having grown up amongst the tropical waters of Hong Kong, although obviously I have given her no sympathy on this front and insisted that she ‘swims through it’, reassuring her that it’s character building stuff! Giggle and swim on… whilst squealing from the cold.
We watch with envy those who seem to have overcome the bite of the cold on their submerged heads – but hey, there’s always another winter coming to embrace the ice cream head brain freeze. In the meantime, we are very much looking forward to getting to the point in the year when we experience ice cream head from actual ice creams rather than icy swimming water. Without wishing time away, hopefully it’s not too long now? Mine’s a Mr Whippy with a flake!
NB: Karen and Fran swim daily and have become accustomed to the low water temperature (to a degree!).We do need to point out that cold water swimming must be taken seriously and undertaken with caution. Sustained head pain may be the sign of something more serious and should be acted upon swiftly.