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Saturday, September 15, 2012

If The Claw Appears, It Is Time To Get Out

Most open water swimmers are tough. Many are tough and courageous. Some are tough, courageous and fanatical. A special few go way beyond those parameters.

These athletes can enter a realm where the physical discomfort is completely ignored and they can literally will their bodies beyond excruciating pain.

It is a type of swimming that Skip Storch calls "survival swimming".

"When a marathon swimmers enters the outer limits of their swimming endurance and pushes their abilities, they become a survival swimmer. That is, they are swimming ineffectively and are swimming to survive. In most instances, survival swimming is a prelude to the swim being terminated."

But this very small fraternity of humans who can transform themselves into a survival swimmer push forward when other swimmers would have ended the ordeal much earlier.

Storch understands the inherent risk of going to the outer limits of human endurance. "If one becomes a survival swimmer, both the crew and the swimmer must be on full alert and understand the dangers involved. All decisions must be made by an experienced crew without being overruled by the swimmer. Additionally, the swimmer must be able to alter their stroke and breathing patterns. They must take longer and more frequent breaks, occasionally taking different strokes and kicks. They need to make sure not to fatigue, exhaust or injure their muscles while refueling."

One indication that a swimmer has entered the survival mode is when they start fisting in the water while they swim. Fisting is when the swimmer's hands become so cold that their hands start to involuntarily close up into a fist. The swimmer's hand naturally does this to help maintain circulation. Often the fisting is one indication that the swimmer has gone too far and can be occasionally accompanied by a blueness on the skin in other areas of the body. An inability to grip the water bottle is another easy indication of extreme physiological stress. The "claw" is sometimes another term used for this condition.

There is a time to swim and there is a time to pull a swimmer. It is our belief that when a swimmer's stroke count has slowed beyond 10% of their normal pace and fisting or the "claw" becomes the norm, they must be watched very carefully and frequently stopped to check their mental acuity by asking simple questions (e.g., what is your postal code? what are your children's birth dates? where did you first learn to drive? what was your best subject in school? what is the model of your car?). If the swimmer must pause and think about the answer or cannot answer the question at all, it is time to call it a day in our opinion.

Copyright © 2012 by Open Water Source


  1. The Claw isn't a fist. With The Claw, (which term I think has originated and spread out from the Sandycove swimmers in Ireland to elsewhere), all fine motor control is lost and the fingers spread apart, and the swimmer in unable to close them. The tendons contract due to impaired peripheral blood flow and the fingers bend slightly, like a person imitating a cat's claw-strike. For those used to cold water, appearance of the Claw is normal, and only experience by the swimmer can tracks its progression from mild to the state at which it indicates immediate water evacuation is required. However it is not a useful external visible indicator.

    With worst case Claw, when I was in my most hypothermic state, I was still able to hold a feed bottle. Also, as experience progresses some swimmers report incidence of Claw decreases, but all other hypothermic warning signs are still relevant. I say this because it's important to be accurate about cold and not rely too closely on formulaic solutions or warnings. A 5% stroke rate decrease is sufficient for many swimmers to be pulled, depending on their past experience and 10% is probably the outside range by which the swimmer is already in Moderate (dangerous but recoverable) hypothermia.

  2. We understand various terms like the Claw (or the Grip) have been bandied about by swimmers since at least the 1970s. But these terms probably were used much earlier by the previous generations of cold water swimmers, from South Africa to China in various languages.

    With all due respect, we do believe that the fingers moving in grosteque directions is ONE useful external visible indicator of hypothermia for many swimmers. The Irish swimmers are best prepared for cold water swimming due to year-round cold-water conditions. While Sandycove swimmers experience the Claw as a normal physiological reaction, there are many other swimmers around the world who do not regularly experience this in their own open water training. At the world championships for example, there are usually swimmers from 45+ countries. Even in mid-winter, the water temperature in many of these countries does not fall to the level of the Irish seas in mid-summer. Therefore, it is difficult to be prepared for cold-water swimming like swimmers can do in Ireland. It is not that these swimmers are weak or not committed to preparation or acclimatization, it is simply that they live and train in locations where the water does not drop below 10 or 15 or sometimes 20 degrees C year-round. [Note: the reverse is usually true when Irish swimmers go to warm-water competitions where the water is above 25 degrees C.] But when these non-Irish swimmers start to display the Claw during their swims, we believe that more-than-usual care should be taken by their coach and crew.

    While you mention a 5% stroke rate decrease is sufficient for many swimmers to be pulled, we believe this is a bit premature. At a 70 spm rate, this means that swimmers are pulled when their stroke rate falls to 66-67. This decrease may be due to tiredness or boredom or a lack of focus at times. At a 10% decrease (i.e., 63-64 spm in the above case), then the suggested guideline really comes into play in our opinion.

    While you do not advocate relying on formulaic solutions or warnings, we believe these percentages are helpful guidelines and they have been used for decades by experienced individuals including those who coached English Channel record holders in the 1960s and 1970s. It is important to establish guidelines because we hear of swimmers and coaches who continue the swim despite spm decreases of much higher percentages (e.g., from high 70s to low 50s). Again, guidelines are also useful and meant to provide general assistance in combination with other factors (e.g., kicking rate, mental acuity, air temperature, water conditions, experience/age/general condition of the swimmer). Ned Denison, along with a number of other renowned English Channel swimmers, will speak to these issues at the Open Water Swimming Safety Panels at the 2012 Global Open Water Swimming Championships in Long Beach, California this coming week.

    Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the swimmer to know their own limitations and normal physiological reactions to extreme conditions (both warm and cold). It is also the responsibility of the coach to know the limitations and abilities of their swimmers and to have the knowledge, ability and authority to pull their swimmers.

    We understand that there are swimmers in the marathon community who do not wish to be pulled until the very end. There are swimmers who believe it is their own decision and right to determine how far they should be able to swim. They do not want to pulled unless the last possible moment. These are individual decisions that fall outside the general guidelines that we advocate.

    Whatever is decided collectively by the Sandycove swimmers is best for your community of swimmers. The information included in the article above is the information shared with open water swimming coaches in warmer climates; most of whom coach athletes who do not benefit from year-round cold-water training in a venue like Sandycove.

  3. this is a product that can help http://nonumbsurf.com/

  4. This product could help preserve your stroke in cold water http://nonumbsurf.com/


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