It is not uncommon to feel a little off balance or disorientated after the swim and there are a number of potential reasons that can all contribute.
Maintaining your sense of balance actually involves gathering information from three senses and then your brain to make sense of it all:-
Firstly vision is important – your brain tends to defer to visual cues as a reference point when all else fails.
Secondly the balance ‘motors’ in your inner ears which respond to movement – these also help to stabilise vision (a bit like the ‘missile lock’ on a fighter plane) to keep you focused despite your head moving around.
Thirdly the nerve endings in your muscles and joints (particularly the large weight-bearing ones and the ones that support your back and neck for posture) – which is known as proprioception.
Finally a healthy brain with a good blood supply rich in oxygen and nutrients, to process all of this data.
So we can see that swimming can have several affects on these aspects of our balance system.
Firstly, these systems have evolved to work best for us as upright weight bearing beings, so being horizontal and supported by water provides a challenge and requires a little time to adapt to.
Secondly, if cold water gets in our ears – even with a healthy, intact and waterproof eardrum – it will stimulate the balance organs in our inner ears and confuse them (it does this by inducing movement of the fluid in the inner ear across the temperature gradient – the ‘caloric effect’).
Thirdly our vision is compromised to varying degrees by swim goggles which can distort things, particularly in the periphery of our vision.
Finally, if you haven’t got your pre-race nutrition right and are a bit low on sugar or dehydrated, your brain is not going to be up to processing all of this data from the various senses to make sense of your balance. Similarly if you have been over-breathing due to the exertion or due to a bit of anxiety, this can affect your brains ability to function. Standing up quick getting out of the swim may also drop your blood pressure a bit and make you feel light-headed.
Get your nutrition and hydration right.
Consider ear-plugs and / or a swim hat that covers your ears – particularly if its going to be a cold swim.
Give yourself a minute – if you do feel dizzy or disorientated coming out of the swim, don’t try to run straight away. Walk or even stand. Find some even ground. Take your goggles off to optimise vision. Adopt a broad base to your gait or stance. Get your breathing under control. Move off only when you feel re-orientated with your surroundings.
Rarely there can be other medical conditions that can cause dizziness and vertigo, so it goes without saying, but see your doctor if symptoms are severe or persistent !