Sensory sociological phenomenology, somatic learning and ‘lived’ temperature in competitive pool swimming | A summary

Gareth McNarry1, Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson2 & Adam B. Evans3
1 School of Sport and Exercise, University of Lincoln, UK;
Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport, University of Copenhagen;
(now at Loughborough University);
2 School of Sport and Exercise, University of Lincoln, UK;
3 Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sport, University of Copenhagen

In this article, the authors addressed lacunae in sociological analysis of the senses in sport and physical cultures by employing sociological phenomenology to explore thermoception as the ‘lived’ sense of temperature in competitive pool swimmers. Despite burgeoning academic interest in the sensorium, the lived experience of senses (such as thermoception) that stand outside the ‘traditional five’ sensorium, still remains sociologically under-researched. This is despite the importance of temperature in sustaining human life, as well as shaping sporting practices and experiences.

The article is based on findings from a three-year doctoral ethnographic project, undertaken by Dr Gareth McNarry, investigating the embodied experiences of performance swimmers. In this particular article, we explored the interpretations, meanings and understandings surrounding the lived sense of temperature as constructed within the competitive swimming lifeworld.  As brief context, competitive swimming is one of the main sports in the modern Olympics, with athletes competing at distances of 50, 100, 200, 400, 800 and 1500 metres in the pool, or 10km in open water, using the four recognised racing strokes. There are currently over 80,000 registered competitive swimmers in the UK, representing approximately 1,500 swimming clubs. Competitive swimmers regularly undertake training twice daily, covering anywhere from 25 to over 100km per week, as well as land-based training such as Pilates, weight-training, yoga, spin-cycling and circuits. These quantities of training are widely accepted as normative within the performance swimming lifeworld, and many adopt this heavy training workload during their adolescence years.

For the ethnographic study, data were collected by Gareth via participant observation and interviews across three distinct ‘immersions’ in the field, strategically corresponding with significant points within a swimming season: early season, mid-season (often the heaviest training-load), and end-of-season, tapering into final competition. In the data, Merleau-Ponty’s notion of sensory reversibility was particularly apposite with regard to the sense of touch, as swimmers are touched by the water, and also actively touch it, using hands and feet to ‘feel’, ‘grip’, and ‘hold’ on to the water. They were also found to develop a highly refined sense of temperature. Our findings and analysis were structured into two key themes identified in the data, cohering around experiences of cold water and warm/tepid water: 1) the frigidarium or cold pool; 2) the tepidarium, or warm pool[1].

The frigidarium

For the swimmers, moving from the warm-humid environment of poolside into the normally tepid pool (around 28℃)usually drew little reaction. When the temperature fluctuated, however, even by a single degree, swimmers were instantly aware of the change, commenting on the pool being either ‘roasting’ or ‘freezing’, along with corporeal displays such as gasping, grimacing, shivering, tucking into a ball or jumping up and down from the bottom of the pool to generate heat. The discomfort of early-morning shift from warm bed to acute bodily ‘dys-appearance’ (Leder, 1990) generated by a cold-water plunge was reported, with some describing being able to ‘see’ the water was cold, even before entering. The social production of ‘temperature work’ became evident, for once in the water, reduced temperature generated surprised looks, directed to those still on poolside, accompanied by comments such as: ‘Jesus Christ, that’s cold!’. In such circumstances, rapid ‘remedial temperature work’ was required:

if it’s cold you’ve gotta like sprint the first 2 lengths to warm up, and you don’t want to be doing that at 5 o’clock in the morning. You don’t even want to be doing that at night. So, when you dive in and it’s cold, it’s horrible, it’s like one of the worst things, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

Corporeal warming-up was significant in helping swimmers acclimatise and overcome the cold-water shock, and also in preparing them both physically and mentally for the intensity of the workout to follow. If the water was particularly ‘freezing’, no amount of warm-up was effective, however, deleteriously affecting performance and sometimes compromising the purpose of the session.

The tepidarium

The tepidarium, or warm room, was designed to produce a pleasant feeling of constant warmth in the Roman baths. For performance swimmers, however, any correlation of warmth with pleasure rapidly vanished as the swimmers started the hard work of swimming. The level of bodily labour required soon caused swimmers to overheat in warmer water, making swimming arduous and engendering considerable lethargy:

If it’s too hot, I feel too lethargic, just too physically hot, you feel too warm to swim… sluggish in the water, you feel like you are slipping the water, you don’t feel like you are catching anything, and warm water just makes swimming a lot harder… not nice.

The tepid water brought on a heightened sense of inner-body heat. Although this was normally welcomed as a sign of effective performance, when accompanied by increased water temperature, swimmers’ sense of thermoception was thrown into disarray. Swimmers then had to seek remedial ways of cooling-down, such as jumping under a cold shower or heading for the cool of outdoors. Tepid water also brought on the strange bodily response of sweating, one rarely encountered due to swimmers’ immersion in their already liquid environment, giving rise to dys-ease and feelings of weakness. Indeed, temperature shaped the very ‘feel’ of the water: cold water was portrayed as compact, crisp, hard, resulting in more efficient ‘catch’ or ‘hold’ of the water. ‘Hot’ water, in contrast, was described as like custard, treacle, and resulting in a loss of ‘feel’, with hands merely slipping through the water.

In summary, data indicated that in everyday aquatic encounters, swimmers’ focus was primarily directed towards ‘doing’ swimming, rather than on the swimming-body. Where temperature varied, even by a single degree, the water and the body itself became a focus of intentionality, engendering bodily dys-ease and dys-appearance (Leder, 1990). Swimming bodies were then thrust forcefully into consciousness. In addition to cutaneous reactions, interoceptive bodily effects and affects were registered, such as ‘tight’ or ‘sluggish’ muscles. The research contributes to sociological discussions regarding how humans learn to inhabit and work within aquatic environments, developing a level of somatic knowledge unknown to physical-cultural ‘outsiders’. The findings further highlight the salience of the socio-cultural framing of ‘sensory work’.

Copyright © Gareth McNarry, Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson & Adam B. Evans 2021

[1] Terms used in the Roman baths of antiquity.
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