The OWC Winter Swimming Guide: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Year Round Swimming

NOTE: This was originally published in November 2015. I am reposting it and will likely keep it at the top of the blog page for the remainder of the winter season.


Introduction (Please Read this First!)

Here at OWC, a small group of us will continue to swim during the months of November through March – often in extreme air, water, and weather conditions. It is a very intense challenge that requires a completely different mindset as well as meticulous planning and preparation.

With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to provide you all with more details on exactly how we engage in this type of activity. But before I dive this topic, I need to emphasize three things:

1) OWC winter meetups are NOT “polar bear” swim events.

This is not a “get in, get out” photo op moment that you do on a dare and follow up with hot cocoa in a warming tent. We are serious year-round swimmers, and you will find no support tents, lockers, changing rooms, hot showers, or equipment/gear rental services whenever you come out to any of our meetups.

So do NOT come out to any of our meetups if this is your expectation. At the very least you will embarrass yourself and be asked to leave. At the very worst, you will jeopardize your physical health and safety and potentially eliminate the OWC winter swimming opportunity for all others. Which leads me to my next point…

2) If you are unprepared for this experience, you can easily succumb to very negative consequences such as shock, frostbite, hypothermia, and untimely expiration.

During the warmer months, the key swimming hazards are infrequent and are usually limited to large waves or heavy chops. But the calculus is completely different once the air and water temperatures fall below the 50F (10C) demarcation point.

Under these temperature extremes, “system shock” due to rapid heat loss and cold temperature exposure is almost assured unless you have deliberately taken measures to prevent it. Which is a perfect segue to my final point…

3) As a responsible adult, you need to arrive at each meetup fully prepared to swim in whatever conditions present themselves while out at the lake – and to take full responsibility for your own personal safety at all times.

Bottom line – if you have any difficulties understanding and accepting the aforementioned items, then you candidly have no business engaging in this type of activity. For your sake and for the sake of others, please stay out of the lake this time of year!

Now that I’ve totally rained (snowed?) on everyone’s parade, let’s dispense with the gravitas and delve into the actual specifics of successful cold water swimming…


The OWC Winter Swimming Guide: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Year Round Swimming

Based upon my experiences with year-round swimming over the past several years, I believe there are five key areas that you need to focus on in order to maximize your chances for a successful winter swimming outcome.

I’ve organized this information into chapters below – just click on the links for the details:

Chapter 1: The Inner Game – How Your Brain Works in the Open Water (and elsewhere)

Chapter 2: Pre-Swim Preparation – The Real Key to Mastering Cold Water Settings

Chapter 3: Gear Selection – What to Wear During Winter Swim Conditions

Chapter 4: Taking the Plunge – How to Effectively Manage the Swim Start

Chapter 5: The Afterdrop – What it is and How to Manage it 

As with all of my instruction and advice, this is a continual work in progress.  So whenever I discover new information or experience something that adds to or alters this knowledge base, I will be sure to keep you all updated.

See you out at the lake!


Swim Report – December 10, 2017 – Into the Basement

People sometimes raise an eyebrow whenever I tell them that it’s actually much more difficult to swim in December than it is in January. The reason for this is that you have to overcome tremendous physical and psychological resistance this time of year – all internally generated by a brain that seems hell bent on keeping you out of the water by any means necessary.

Eventually, though, your repeated forays into the harsh elements send a strong signal to your stubborn noggin that “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” So at that point – usually some time in early to mid January – the role of your brain transitions from “let’s keep this tomfool out of the water” to “let’s preserve this tomfool in the water – since he’s obviously continuing a pattern with no apparent end in sight.”

We haven’t quite made it to the second phase yet, so yesterday’s swim was most certainly a challenge…

Last weekend’s mild temperatures turned out to be very short-lived as Old Man Winter decided to show up early and make himself at home right at L1. Yesterday’s air temperature at 7:00am was a biting 26F, and the surface lake temperature shattered the 40F floor, coming in at a bone cracking 38.1F.

But four of us still made the pilgrimage out to our coveted swim spot. So for better or worse, we were committed to getting in a swim!

I went with my neoprene winter gear set up from last year – short sleeve top, shorts, hood, gloves, booties – along with overly generous portions of shea butter on my exposed forearms, legs, and face. But even with all this layering, it was still pretty harrowing for the first couple of minutes in the lake.

By the time I had reached the 1/8 mile point, everything was fine. The only glitch was that my right goggle lens was leaking a bit, giving my right eye a constant cold water soaking with every swim stroke. So while I could have done a full 1/2 mile, I turned back and ended up with just under 1/3 mile like last week.

Post-swim was the big challenge as I had not planned my wardrobe well. Instead of loose fitting sweats, I had opted for running tights that proved to be very difficult to put on with frozen clubs for hands. Bottom line, it took a bit longer that usual to get into my warm civilian clothes – and every second is critical this time of year!

The walk back to the car was a quasi-fugue state as the afterdrop started to ramp up before I even entered the pedestrian tunnel on the other side of the bike path. It didn’t help that I wasn’t able to find parking closer than Clark Street. So I was incredibly relieved when I finally got in my car and cranked up the heat.

It took about 15 minutes before the shivering reduced to a level amenable to operating a motor vehicle. But when it was gone it disappeared for good.

So hopefully I’ve sped up the acclimation process this season!

A new skating rink around L1

Gearing up in the cold

A chilly swim start

Swim Report – December 3, 2017 – Heat Wave

I made it out to the lakefront about 20 minutes before sunrise, and there were already photographers set up all along the North Avenue Beach wall. That’s a sure sign that there’s going to be a spectacular sunrise. And Ma Nature certainly did not disappoint!

Five of us congregated out at L1, and the swimming conditions couldn’t have been better with a perfectly flat lake and a surface temperature reading of 44.4F – up more than 3.0F from last week. Plus the clarity of the water had improved significantly, an indicator that the lake had completely turned over and was now sporting a new winter layer on the surface.

I debated going in without my neoprene top, but I decided to wear it as I’d been fighting off a pretty nasty cold all week. But I probably could have gone without it as I was very comfortable the entire time in the lake. This just goes to show you what a difference it makes when we have no wind and abundant sunshine!

I ended up doing 1/3 mile total and stopped several times during the swim to get some water level shots as it was quite a photogenic morning. I had a bit of an afterdrop when I got out, but certainly nothing compared to last week. By then the air temperature had risen to about 48F, so it was a pretty easy transition back to normalcy.

I wish all December swims could be like this!

Dawn colors


Lake Monsters in the pool!

In-swim footage

Swim Report – November 26, 2017 – Autumn Plunge

Four of us met out at L1 at 6:50am this morning and were greeted with picture perfect swimming conditions. Perfect, that is, if you enjoy a lake in the low 40Fs…

The air temp was a crisp 30F, but we had clear and sunny skies with some magnificent fall colors. The lake temp came in at 41.9F with only a slight swell that we hardly noticed in-swim.

I decided to add some more neoprene to my swim wardrobe this morning as I really felt the cold on my extremities during my last swim. So today’s gear consisted of neoprene shorts, gloves, boots, and hood along with a short sleet 1.5mm neoprene dive shirt – pretty much my winter setup all last year.

The swim start was somewhat of a challenge as I really felt the “cold burn” on my exposed legs and arms for the first couple of minutes. But after the initial stinging wore off, I was able to complete the 1/2 mile without any real discomfort.

Post-swim was a bit more civil than last time as since my afterdrop started much later and wasn’t nearly as intense. This made for a much more enjoyable morning – although I sure was glad that I found parking really close by!

Dawn colors


Taking the plunge

It’s officially cold!

Swim Report – November 12, 2017 – Autumn Ice

Nicole, Tim, and I met out at L1 at 6:30am yesterday. On the plus side, the overnight rain had stopped, giving us a small aperture of time to get in a swim in a very calm lake. However, we still had to contend with a very cold lake!

The surface temperature came in at a crisp 44.4F, likely due to the 39F air temperature. But that didn’t make much of a difference as the official in swim temperature came out to 45.2F – so clearly the lake has turned!

As my winter gear is still in storage in my garage, I had to go with only my neoprene cap and shorts (i.e. no gloves or booties). But I piled on the shea butter on all exposed areas of skin, and that seemed to make a difference in swim.

The initial immersion was its usual shock, but surprisingly not as bad as I expected. I still had the low level ice cream headache for about a minute or so, but even that had gotten better from last week.

Given the placid conditions, I kept a pretty vigorous swim pace and stayed fairly close to the wall. I turned around at the 1/4 mile point and headed back right away as I was starting to really feel the cold in my hands.

I criss crossed a bit on the return let, but made it back to L1 much faster than ususal – likley motivated by the desire to get back into my warm clothes!

I dried off and got into my civilian clothes as quickly as possible and made a quick exit to the warmth of my car – which fortunately was parked only a few blocks away!

November skyline

An icy L1

Gearing up

Swim Report – November 5, 2017 – November Nose Dive

Five intrepid Lake Monsters met out at L1 to get in a swim. Fortunately for us, the wind gods decided to sleep in, giving us a completely calm and flat lake. But the Autumn spirits never give anything up for free as we found out once we got in the lake!

The surface temperature came in at a crisp 51.1F, but the official in-swim temperature was 50.4F – not yet cracking the floor, but pretty darn close! We didn’t really have any sunshine with all the foggy conditions, but we were fortunate enough to have a 57F air temperature. So things could have been much worse!

I didn’t don a wetsuit, but I did layer a neoprene cap over my swim cap to help keep my head insulated. I also decided to experiment with a new pair of 3mm neoprene shorts, which turned out to be an absolute godsend. But the real key was the copious layer of shea butter I smeared all over my exposed arms, legs, neck and torso. That really took the edge off of a nippy lake!

The first two minutes were a bit of a pain – literally – as I had to endure a low level ice cream headache. But once that subsided, I was able to get a pretty decent swim rhythm in the completely flat lake.

As it has been two weeks since my last swim, I wasn’t planning on doing a longer workout. But the calm conditions made it pretty easy to get in a 1/2 mile, and I was actually quite comfortable for most of the time in the water.

Post-swim was its usually frenetic ritual of drying off and switching into dry clothes before the afterdrop reared its ugly head. But it turned out not to be as intense as I was expecting.

Hopefully this means that I’m acclimating quicker these days!

Morning fog

November Lake Monsters

Into the mist

At the halfway point

L1 post-swim

Swim Report – October 22, 2017 – Evading Old Man Autumn

Autumn closed its dark gray grip over Indian Summer on Sunday – but not before we got in a swim in all the sunshine!

Four of us met out at L1 just before 7:00am. The lake temp came in at 62.0F (official in-swim reading), and the air temp was a tolerable 60F. But we had a sustained and rather cutting wind from the southeast that made things seem very brisk out at the ole’ swim site. Plus, to keep things lively, Lake Michigan gave us some vigorous chops just to let us know who was boss!

I went with just my swim cap and jammers, and the initial immersion was a bit of a jolt. I tried to assuage this by taking a cold shower about one hour earlier, but my ability to properly thermoregulate has been somewhat compromised by the nightly squalls of Hurricane Joseph. Nevertheless, the chill wore off after about a minute, and I started my swim south.

I did 1/2 mile total in the surprisingly clear lake, and I was even able to find a rhythm in the heavy chops. Overall, it was quite an enjoyable experience with the glorious October sun streaming in from the east.

But the best part was that the clouds didn’t move in until just after we had gotten out of the water. So we were able to escape the clutches of Old Man Autumn one more time (probably our last)!

Dawn colors


Into the chops!

Views from water level

The geese have discovered our swim spot

Swim Report – October 15, 2017 – Deluge

Three of us met out at L1 yesterday morning at the tail end of this weekend’s inundation. Despite the gusty wind conditions outside, the lake was as calm as could be. Plus the official water temperature came in at a balmy 63.4F – not bad at all!

I swam to the 1/4 mile point before turning back, so about 1/2 mile total. Post-swim was a bit nippy as the air temperature was only 61F and we didn’t get much of anything in terms of sunshine. But the skies were starting to clear up a bit at that point, so we definitely timed everything right!

Drizzly morning

Other L1 swimmers

In-swim shots

Swim finish!

Swim Report – October 8, 2017 – Marathon Morning!

Daryl, I, and a flock of geese met out at L1 early Sunday morning. Given the marathon mess taking place to the west, I came in from north Lake Shore Drive and avoided LaSalle Street altogether. I wasn’t expecting to have a civil swim site waiting for me, so imagine my delight when I exited the pedestrian tunnel to face near perfect conditions!

Longtime readers of this blog know that I strongly contend that October sunrises are the best ones of the year. That’s because you have the perfect combination of color, contrast, and clarity – and the show starts way before the actual sunrise with all the haunting colors of daybreak. So for all of you pearl clutchers who gasped in horror at the idea of coming out to swim on marathon morning, you sure made a bad decision!

While the sunrise was nothing short of astonishing, the lake conditions were absolutely flawless. The in-swim lake temp came in at 64.6F, and we had perfectly calm swimming conditions with clear, blue water that was an absolute joy to swim in.

As before, I swam to Oak Street Beach and walked back – but not before hanging out for several minutes taking more shots of a perfect Lake Michigan.

Truly one for the ages – but where were you?!?

Autumn sky at dawn

L1 Geese


B-roll filming by Channel 2 News

Our own (free) private swimming pool

Swim finish at Oak Street Beach

More geese

Marathon runners!

Today’s video:

Swim Report – September 23, 2017 – Autumn Scorcher

Summer went out with a bang this year and decided to spill over into Autumn this weekend. Not that any of us minded, however…

The air temperature read 80F when I stepped outside yesterday morning, and it continued its upward climb throughout the day. I had snuck out to the lake on Friday morning, so I wasn’t too surprised by the lake temperature. Still, after weeks of it rather obstinately entrenched in the 65F range, it was awfully nice to see it back at 72.5F!

We had a record crowd out at the world’s best swim site – at least 25 swimmers from what I can recall. The heat wave coupled with the later meetup time seemed to have sparked much more interest in coming out to the lakefront. Plus the rumor that we were going to have perfect swimming conditions turned out to be true (again, not that any of us minded.)

We all got a bit of a late start as we were very distracted by the absolutely stunning sunrise. But once we got in the lake, it was business as usual making our way to the beach.

Because the lake conditions were perfectly calm, I was able to get a decent swim rhythm right away. So by the time I hit Oak Street Beach I was hardly winded at all! Nevertheless, I still decided to walk back as I ended up spending a lot of time at the beach taking more shots of all the swimmers.

By the time I got back to L1, things had really started to heat up and the lakefront was getting exceptionally busy – particularly on the multi-use path. So I figured that this would be a good time to make a quick exit before the weekend mob arrived.

Happy Autumn 2017!

First dawn of Autumn

Swarm of Lake Monsters!

Another photogenic morning

The in-swim view to the east

Beach landing!

Andrew, Lake Monster 476 (congrats!)

Simon, Lake Monster 477 (congrats!)

Becca, Lake Monster 478 (congrats!)

Erin, Lake Monster 479 (congrats!)

Marc, Lake Monster 480 (congrats!)

Nicole, Lake Monster 481 (congrats!)

Carlo, Lake Monster 482 (congrats!)

And lastly, Eric, Lake Monster 483 (congrats!)