The ESC Sea Splashers visit to EEL
Published 13:07 on 8 Dec 2021
Last week a small group of our sea swimmers were invited to Portsmouth University's "Extreme Environments Laboratory". Our host, Dr Heather Massey, is a Senior Lecturer in Sport, Exercise and Health and leads cutting edge research into human physiology in extreme environments. As the sea temperatures at ESC are currently reading a chilly 8˚C, we had lots of questions for her about what happens to our bodies when we swim.
We learnt all about the "cold shock response" and she explained the importance of entering the water gradually, getting our breathing under control, and not staying in too long. Heather explained the "swimmer's high" which means we don't feel cold on exiting the water. This is the body's response to the cold-water shock; the body is flooded with dopamine, cortisol and happy endorphins, which is why sea swimming is totally addictive! But there is an after-drop where we continue to lose body heat after swimming for the next hour or so. So, it's always important to get dry straightaway, and layer up.
Over just a short period of regular swims, our bodies become "habitualised" to cold temperatures and amazingly, this can last over several months. In other words, if we return to swimming after taking a few months break, the habitualisation effect kicks in enabling us to endure the cold.
We learnt that we have three different types of body fat (white, "beige" and brown). The white fat is the bad kind (!) but she said not to worry too much about it. White can convert to beige as we exercise in cold water. Perhaps it converts back when we tuck in to coffee and cake after the swim.
Heather talked about 4 important key signs to recognise if a person has hypothermia, which are affectionately known as the "Umbles" (grumbles, mumbles, fumbles and stumbles) useful information for sailors and swimmers alike. If someone shows these signs, get them out of the sea fast, get them out of wet clothes immediately, and wrapped up and out of the wind, with a warm drink, and stay with them. She also talked about the very real dangers of wearing a badly fitting life-jacket when sailing. In a capsize it can float above your head and pin you underwater.
We had a tour of the lab and saw the different "extreme environment" rooms where training and research takes place. One room simulates conditions at Everest Base Camp, by reducing oxygen levels in the room as well as being very cold. Next to it was a room at 45˚C, for desert training. Then we saw the flume pool, with fast flowing water, for research in different water temperatures. EEL is used to help with acclimatisation and testing gear for expedition teams, military personnel, sports persons, RNLI, and, of course, for scientific and medical research.
We were delighted that Heather also came to swim with us recently at the Club and really enjoyed it. Hopefully she'll join us again sometime.
PS Heather mentioned that she is looking for people with Type 2 diabetes, recently diagnosed, who may be interested to be involved in some current research. If anyone fits the criteria and is interested, please get in touch with the Office at ESC.