8 Ways to Handle Swimming in Cold Water

Kevin Koskella of Tri Swim Coach has an article at Active.com on “8 Ways to Handle Swimming in Cold Water.” Here are his recommendations:

1. Wear two caps. You lose most of your heat through your head, and doubling up your “capage” helps you to keep your heat in.

2. Wear a neoprene cap. Neoprene is better suited for cold water than standard latex.

3. You also lose lots of heat through your feet. Neoprene socks are a good idea, but you may want to use these mostly on training swims, as they can be a hassle when it comes to transitioning to your bike on race day.

4. Wear a wetsuit—but more specifically, a full suit. The sleeveless suits allow heat to escape through your armpits. I learned this the hard way when doing the Alcatraz swim in 52 degree water with a sleeveless, Farmer John-style suit. By the time I finished, I was in the early stages of frostbite. Keep in mind that, according to USA Triathlon rules, wetsuits are allowed at triathlons with water temperatures of 75 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

5. Put in earplugs. When the water drops below 60 degrees, I think earplugs become necessary—and they do work well in keeping your core temperature up.

6. Practice swimming in cold water in the weeks before your race. At first, it can be a shock to your system that can lead to hyperventilating or a panicked feeling. You will want to swim slowly until you catch your breath. The first time you experience this it can throw you off, but with practice you will get used to it and be able to relax into your swim.

7. Do a significant warm-up the morning of your race (10 to 15 minutes, minimum). This will minimize the shock effect that cold water can have and allow you to get into a stroke rhythm much faster.

8. Blow bubbles before taking off on your swim. When the cold water hits your face, the shock causes your lungs to contract, causing breathing problems. Go waist deep into the water and submerge your face to blow bubbles. This helps alleviate the shock of the cold water.

These are really good tips, especially the part about taking it slow early on in the race. Just a few items to add to this list:

9. “Prime” your body with a progressive cold shower 30-45 minutes prior to immersion. Train the water on your head, face, neck, and upper torso since these areas contain the greatest concentration of skin temperature receptors. If done correctly, you can easily forgo the ear plugs, neoprene cap, booties, and even the wetsuit in water as low as 50F.

10. Avoid dehydration (i.e. alcohol, caffeine consumption), low electrolyte intake, and sleep deprivation 8-12 hours before the swim. These things compromise your body’s ability to manage colder temperatures.

11. Smile and have fun out there!

7 Comments

  1. dive dave
    June 4, 2009

    it would be a good idea to practice swimming in cold water to build up your tolerance. the racers that wear wet suits in 60 to 75 degree water in races make me laugh. races have to allow it and will go to great lenghts to find water cold enough to allow the wet suits to keep many from crying their eyes out. if your tough enough to race learn to handle the cooler water. i have seen 3mm full suits in 85 degree indoor pools. if your going to race spend some money and learn how to swim then practice in the open water.next they will want taxi rides during the run so they don’t need to run so far.

  2. srhernan
    June 3, 2009

    I would love it if the park district set something up for us swimmers! The post-swim hot shower for me involves a frigid 15 minute bike ride back to my apartment.

    We’re involved with a number of local groups, mainly to secure year-round beach access for non-motorized sports (i.e. swimming, surfing). Our goal is to raise awareness for this issue and promote responsible recreation for people who wish to use the lake on their schedules. In fact, many of us in the swim group are lifeguards or have lifeguard training.

    We did this to add some more legitimacy to our cause and to show that we’re not a bunch of “swim mavericks” (whatever that means).

    I’ll be out in the Bay area on 7/12 for the Alcatraz Challenge. Look me up if you’re doing that event!

    • tony clarke
      June 6, 2009

      I’m not in that event, but would be happy to meet up for a bay swim in Aquatic Park/Dolphin Club prior to your event. Send me an e-mail prior to your visit.

  3. tony clarke
    June 2, 2009

    best hint not on the list: 10 minute hot shower followed by a sauna till you sweat

    Standard issue advice for all swimmers at http://www.dolphinclub.org

    Is there a place near the swim to take a hot shower? Public or private?

    • srhernan
      June 2, 2009

      Hi Tony! The North Avenue Beach boathouse has outdoor showers, but they’re not hot. We usually rely on the morning sun to warm us up post-swim (when it’s available, that is).

      • tony clarke
        June 2, 2009

        Thanks. That’s too bad that no hot showers are nearby. That would make a world of difference for non-wetsuit swimmers. Daley ought to take some stimulus money and put in a hot shower or two and a basic changing room. I swim 2-3 days a week in SF Bay (www.dolphinclub.org) and have a brother in Chicago who swims occasionally where you go. While the temp is anywere from 50-60 out in aquatic park, I wouldn’t want to do it without a hot shower afterwards. Removes the chill and eases any “afterdrop”. Your water there looks great. Have you ever tried to lobby the city/park district for what I’m suggesting? You’ve got a great spot for it.

  4. diver dave
    May 30, 2009

    ?? what no fresh pineapple with special sauce ??
    that alone can keep one warm and toastee in the coldest waters without a wetsuit….
    I am willing to bet he never swam in slush and ice filled waters ! ! !


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