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 3, 2016 – Late Autumn Turnover

We were getting a bit spoiled in November with the unseasonably warmer lake temperatures. But Ma Nature sure let us know who was boss this morning!

Six of us met out at a chilly but calm lakefront at 7:00am. I tossed in my thermometer to get the surface temperature, and the mercury came in at a brisk 45F. So we’ve definitely (and finally) hit the fall turnover!

I was wavering as to what level of “swim armor” I should wear. I’ve had a two-week hiatus from the lake, and I’m just at the tail end of a really nasty cold. But I decided to chance it and went in with just my jammers, neoprene cap, and a healthy layer of petroleum jelly.

Thanks to a perfectly calm lake and zero wind, the immersion was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. The only issue I had was with my hands. Since I usually wear gloves in these temperatures, they were a bit painful throughout the swim. But apart from that, I was able to do a 1/2 mile without any difficulties.

The post-swim recovery was brutal. I hastened out of my wet swimwear and into dry layers as soon as humanly possible. But this was substantially compromised by my cold hands and tortoise-like reaction times.

After completing my change of clothes and gathering all my gear, I made a hasty goodbye to the others and indicated that I needed to retreat to the sanctuary of my heated car. So accompanied by new Lake Monster Cedric, I walked the seemingly endless 1/4 mile back to my Mazda in a total fugue state and managed to start my car just as the afterdrop kicked in (ugh!).

We spent the next 10 – 15 minutes shivering off the effects of the 43.4F lake (<-- yes, it was much colder in swim) before finally joining Steve at Elly's for breakfast. And let me tell you something - their hot coffee never tasted as good as it did this morning!

December lakefront



The late autumn crew


Cedric, Lake Monster 435


The “cold warriors” at Elly’s


Swim Report – November 12, 2016 – Blaze of Autumn

A hearty crew of eight Lake Monsters met out at L1 on Saturday morning. Thanks to the time change, sunrise came a bit earlier at 6:30am.

Although the air temperature was a bit crisp at 39F, we were fortunate enough to have yet another weekend with clear morning skies. So we hung out on the lakefront along with several other early morning sky worshipers and watched the sun make its grand entrance.

And what a sight it was!

Because of the plentiful sunshine and relatively calm water, I went with just my jammers and a neoprene cap. I did cheat a bit, though, and slathered on a healthy layer of petroleum jelly on my chest, neck, and arms. That seemed to really take the edge off of the 51.4F lake.

While my right shoulder was fine this time, I was plagued with a strained levator scapulae muscle which made it quite difficult to move my neck without discomfort. Fortunately, the colder water completely numbed the area, and I was able to do the out-and-back to Oak Street Beach in a fairly decent time.

I did not, however, stop at the beach and socialize this time!

Sunrise sequence






Front row seats


The November crew


Warming up in the lake!


Swim Report – November 5, 2016 – Autumn Perfection

The cloud cover over the city broke on Thursday and ushered in a magnificent fall weekend. And we sure took advantage of it!

Six of us met out at L1 at 7:15am, and there were already numerous people out at the lakefront. They weren’t runners – and they certainly weren’t swimmers – but they came out for the brilliant sunrise. And Ma Nature certainly did not disappoint!

The clear skies and calm water helped magnify what was to become an absolutely stunning early November sunrise that started out deep red and then blazed into a fiery white orb within a few short minutes. Not a bad start to a swim!

I had to do a double take when I pulled the thermometer out of the lake. The surface temp reading came in at an astonishing 57.1F! And while the official in-swim temp ended up at 55.4F, it was still an unexpected – yet very welcome – rise from the previous week.

I went sans wetsuit this time, although I did double up on the headgear with both silicon and neoprene caps. And after a very brief immersion shock, I acclimated right away and was quite comfortable the entire swim.

I made it down to Oak Street Beach and decided to get out and jog most of the way back as I was feeling somewhat fatigued. But the obsessive side of me decided to leap back in the lake at the 1/8 mile point and swim back to L1!

Several of us stuck around for a while afterwards as the overly abundant sunshine and lack of wind made for a very pleasant post-swim experience with only a minimal afterdrop to contend with. And the nicer weather brought out many more people who could not believe that we were actually out swimming in November.

Little did they know – the lake is MUCH colder in May!

Lakefront sun worshipers


Autumn leaves



Sunrise shots





Happy Lake Monsters!


Back at L1!



Sunrise video

Swim Report – October 22, 2016 – Bright and Brisk

Since we haven’t yet turned our clocks back, sunrise is around 7:05am these days. This later swim time gives us a bit more sleep which we definitely need to help fortify us from the cooler fall weather.

Fortunately, we got lucky this morning and managed to avoid the overcast skies that appear this time of year. So despite it being a crisp 40F outside, we had lots of sunshine that really helped take the edge off of the 57.0F lake.

Nine of us met out at L1 just before sunrise, and it sure was a spectacular one! We snapped several shots of nature’s show and then suited up in the nippy weather before going out to the lake to warm up.

I was able to do a full mile this time, although the swells were deceptively stronger than last week – particularly on the way back to L1. But the lake definitely hasn’t turned over yet. So we may still have a few weeks left of lake temps above the 50F level.

One can only hope!

Autumn skyline


The 7:00am crew



Sunrise sequence




Peter and Jeff at the beach


Steve, Lake Monster 433


Caitlin, Lake Monster 434


Swim Report – October 15, 2016 – Sub 60F zone

We managed to punch through the 60F ceiling at our last meetup, and I was hoping to get something similar this Saturday. And while the surface temp reading came in at a promising 61F, the in-swim mercury read a solid 59F. So fat chance on reversing this trend anytime soon!

We didn’t have the benefit of a calm and sunny morning this time. But that still did not deter the ten hearty Lake Monsters who showed up at the super late hour of 7:00am to get in an autumn swim. The air temp was around 53F at the lakefront, and it came across a bit nippier thanks to a sustained 5 – 10 mph wind from the southwest. So we wasted little time in preparation and quickly got in the water where it was mercifully warmer!

I was fighting off the beginnings of a head cold, so I only managed to get in just over 1/2 mile this time. But it was still a fantastic swim as the water was quite clear with only a slight swell to contend with.

Because I wasn’t in the water as long as the last few swims, I didn’t have as much of an afterdrop once I got out. Also, I remembered to bring a thermos of hot tea this time – a very wise decision which I shall be repeating from this point forward!

The Autumn crew


Lake Monster action shots!



John, Lake Monster 431, hailing all the way from the UK!


Amber, Lake Monster 432 (congrats!)


Swim Report – October 8, 2016 – Autumn Chill

I arrived at L1 a bit early as I made good time on the drive south from Evanston. The air was a crisp 46F, but we didn’t have the gusty winds and overcast skies of the last two weeks. So I was very pleased when the lake temp reading came in at 60.2F – a slight surge from the previous week but quite welcome!

I spent a few moments briefing some of the new swimmers, but I had to stop occasionally to check out the magnificent show. As I have written many times in the past, the sunrises in October are arguably the finest of the year, and we sure got a great one Saturday morning!

Just like last week, I did the out-and-back to the beach. But this time I had a curious cormorant accompanying me for part of the way south. Being the quicker and more agile swimmer, he soon lost interest in my slower paced efforts and darted off to more exciting ventures.

By the time I returned to L1, the iridescent October sun was out in full force. So I stayed around and chatted with some of the other swimmers while the bright sunshine helped stave off the afterdrop.

Yet another majestic fall morning that you all missed out on (again)!

Pre-dawn colors


Sunrise sequence




Lake Monsters in their element




The L1 cormorant


Joseph, Lake Monster 429 (congrats!)


Frank, Lake Monster 430 (congrats!)


Swim Report – October 1, 2016 – Cracking the Floor

October sure came in like a hellion with overcast skies, three foot swells, and a 59.9F lake. So much for Indian Summer!

An intrepid group of swimmers met out at L1 on Saturday to usher in the new month. Despite the later sunrise and swim start time, it took a while to shake off the sluggishness that accompanies a cooler autumn morning. But we managed to limit our procrastination enough to get in the lake before 7:00am!

The high winds from earlier in the week had churned up the lake to the point that water visibility was near zero. However, we didn’t have any sneaky thermoclines to contend with – just a uniformly cold Lake Michigan. So once we got in, we acclimated pretty quickly.

The swim south to the beach was deceptively easy because the winds from the north had created a current that pushed everyone along. This became quite apparent on the way back as we found ourselves swimming directly into the wave crests. So we had to put in a bit more effort to make it back to L1!

Overall, though, this was a milestone swim in that we finally “cracked the floor” – i.e. broke through the 60F mark. And the way Lake Michigan works, we probably won’t see that again until some time next May!

Skyline at dawn


The morning crew



Oak Street Beach


Peter, Lake Monster 428 (congrats!)


Swim Report – September 24, 2016 – Turbulence

It was a rather raucous morning out at the lakefront on Saturday as Ma Nature gave us some 3 – 4 foot swells and heavy chops. But the 66.5F lake temp made it quite palatable – even while dodging the seaweed obstacle course!

Eleven of us met out at L1 just after 6:30am. As with last week, the overcast skies didn’t give us much of a sunrise to enjoy. However, the lake temperature came in much higher than we expected, and this helped temper the steady wind from the east.

I decided to swim out a bit further from the edge so as to avoid the back and forth “washing machine” churn that you get from the waves ricocheting off of the side wall. But the continual swells kept veering me back, so I had to constantly readjust my swim path. About 100 feet from Oak Street Beach, I did a hard left so I could avoid “Hell’s Corner” and land at the middle of the beach.

Given the more vigorous swim conditions, I decided to do only 1/2 mile and walk back to L1. But I did get back in the lake up there and had a lot of fun playing around in the chops!

Morning chops


Autumn swimmers


Puppy fix for the day


Swim start


Race to the beach!


Shore waves



Courtney, Lake Monster 426 (Congrats!)


Anthony, Lake Monster 427 (Congrats!)


Video in the chops

Swim Report – September 22, 2016 – One Last Summer Fling

One OWC tradition that we’ve tried to keep every year is to get in the last swim of Summer and the first swim of Autumn all at once. To do this, we’ve met up at L1 right before the exact time of the Equinox, and we’ve gotten in the lake with a minute or so to spare. This way, we could start our swim in Summer and finish it in Autumn – all within the space of a few minutes!

Well, careers and life events intervened this year, but I still wanted to shake down Mother Nature for one last Summer swim! So I managed to get my lethargic self out to Lighthouse Beach at 6:30am this morning to get in the lake before 9:21am – the official Autumnal Equinox. And boy was I glad that I did!

The lake came in at a crisp 61.1F, but the sunrise was amazing and the water was blissfully clear. ‘Nuff said, below are the pics from a few hours ago when it was still Summer!




In-swim shots



Surprise visitors in my alley!