Raynaud's and Watersports - How to Cope

It’s a scene we’ve all come to know and love; it’s dawn patrol, below freezing, we’re zipping up our wetsuits, waxing icy boards, or untangling frozen kit lines. Extreme weather conditions are part of the excitement and provocation of watersports. The best sets of waves tend to be in the bleak mid winter if you’re in the UK, and sometimes the best wind and least busy beaches are just as the sun is coming up. So how do you prepare your body for physically demanding conditions on the water, especially when you suffer with Raynaud’s disease?

Raynaud’s Phenomenon is a vascular disorder that effects about 10 million people in the UK. The circulatory disease is characterised in ‘attacks’ or ‘episodes’ where the extremities of a person, normally their fingers and toes, temporarily overreact to low temperatures or stress. Sufferers of the disease will notice their fingers and toes feeling very cold, turning white or blue, will tend to loose all feeling, experience numbness and it can be very painful and uncomfortable

As a life long sufferer myself, the onset of a Raynauds attack is almost always triggered by contact with the water. For me, the water does not need to be particularly cold, or the outside temperature particularly low – it simply happens when my body tries to conserve heat.

Now as a watersports instructor and outdoor fitness trainer, this can be agonising for many reasons. There’s nothing worse than coaching a session to realise your fingers have ‘gone white’ and you now have basically zero dexterity, strength or motor skills. So when the child whose boom clamp has come undone, asks you to fix it, the odds of success administering the repair are pretty low!

Or, if I’m surfing out on the break facing a lengthy paddle back to shore, and my hands decide to drop into an attack of Raynuads and I loose all ability to form a paddle shape with my fingers and end up paddling my board with a claw shape for a hand, it’s more annoying than anything else. 

I have spent more hours on the water with raynads than without it. I often question if I had picked an office based career would I even know I had the disease?

Attacks for me can happen in the humidity of the Caribbean, in rainy Cornwall and sometimes even if I’m just in the frozen Isles at supermarket. There is no rhyme or reason to the episodes, and once it starts to happen, (the lack of feeling in my fingers, the numbness and the pain) it is a long road to getting them feeling normal again. It can take 5 mins to even a few hours for me to fully recover. 

In all seriousness, I have suffered with Raynauds for my whole life, and as a person who is basically never indoors and spends 90% of my working life in the sea, it can really effect productivity, performance and mood on the water. After looking for medications, tips and tricks to lessen the likelihood of my attacks, I have come up with the best ways you can hope to avoid suffering an episode, wether you’re in the sea, in the office, or on the ski slopes!

Here are my tried and relentlessly tested tips:

1. Eat Before You Go

There is usually a slight increase in your body temperature after you eat, and going out on the water with energy in your body, which will be converted into heat, is a foolproof way of having a one up for Raynauds. 

2. Layer up

Wearing a base layer, middle layer, and outer layer, whether you’re in a wetsuit or not is a sure fire way to fight your Raynauds. 

Wetsuits keep you warm by trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the neoprene. The thicker the wetsuit, the more heat trapping insulation you will have. By adding an ‘under top’ or a ‘thermal rashvest’ you will be much warmer. Also, wear neoprene gloves, boots and a hat, as you loose the majority of your heat out of your extremities. 

If you’re in the mountains, same thing goes, layering up increases the amount of air pockets you have between your clothes and will help you hold onto heat more easily than if you wear one big thick item of clothing. 

3. Healthy Lifestyle

Exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and not smoking, will help increase your circulation over time and reduce the likelihood of suffering with Raynauds. As it is a vascular disease, anything to improve the quality of the blood vessels is a major bonus. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol before sessions and if possible, limiting emotional stress.

4. Think Ahead

If you know you’re going to get out of the water freezing cold with Raynaud’s, have some things set up in advance to ease the pain. I like to have the van set up with my towel easily accessible, a changing mat , the heating ready to go, a toweling robe ready to hide your modesty while you’re desperately trying to undo the zip on your wetsuit with far from functioning fingers, and a wooly hat and socks all lined up ready to hop in the shower. 

5. Movements To Do When An Attack Strikes

The following movements help increase blood flow to the fingers, try them out and see if any work for you! 

  • The Full Swing

Swing your arms in 360 degree circles all the way around your body, and try to feel the blood entering your fingertips with a throbbing sensation. Repeat until you feel circulation returning. 

  • The Hand Flick

As if you were trying to flick water off your finger tips after washing your hands, shake your fingers facing downwards to the ground, and try to isolate the movement to only from the elbow downwards. Again, repeat until the feeling returns as much as possible. This can be done on a paddleboard, windsurfer, etc, if you are mid activity when an attack strikes

  • The Penguin 

Hang your arms down by your sides, and flex your hand at the wrist, repeatedly pulse up and down with your shoulders, keeping your hands in place- as if you were performing trapezius raises in the gym, until the blood flow returns. I find the penguin the most effective, especially if I’m on the water, but it can be a bit of a logistical nightmare if you’re sitting on a surfboard…

  • Hot Water Immersion

Don’t run your hands directly under hot water, as this will result I chilblains, which can be painful. If you are going to use hot water to treat your symptoms, run warm, not hot, water over your forearms as this will help warm your fingertips up quicker than exposes the water directly to the extremities.

**There are medication to help ease the symptoms of Raynauds, speak to your doctor if you would like some more advice on this. 

Ah, chill out! Raynaud’s disease sufferers will naturally struggle with outdoor sports more than non-sufferers, but by no means should that deter you from getting on the water in colder weather. Just get prepared, figure out what works for you and the best ways your body can cope with adverse conditions, try and go out with a mate, and crack on!

Written by, India Rae Bornhoft


If you’re interested in more ideas to get warm after a swim, take a look at this great video from Rachel, also known as ‘Everyday Athlete Rach‘!