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.

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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…

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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!

Steve

Winter Swimming Guide – Chapter 3: Gear Selection

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

When the lake temperature dips below 55F, a strange thing happens – namely, most people decide that it’s too cold to continue enjoying the fun and adventure that accompanies outdoor swimming. And that’s a shame, really, since it doesn’t have to be that way.

The truth is that – with the right equipment and preparation – you can comfortably swim and train in the lake year-round.

In this chapter, we’re going to look at what type of equipment you might need to accomplish this. I say “might” because everybody has his or her own level of tolerance to various temperatures. So while one person might be able to swim comfortably in 45F or below water temperatures in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, for others this is nothing short of a Herculean challenge.

So for now, I’m going to describe a gear setup that we’ve settled on after much experimentation. You may find the need to adjust up or down based upon your own physiology and tolerance to colder water. But we’ve found that this works for most people who’ve come out and braved the lake with us during the coldest months.

Jammers

The first layer is whatever you would normally wear when swimming. I use swim jammers since they fit well under a wetsuit.

gear_1

Wetsuit

Believe it or not, we all use regular triathlon fullsuits that are designed for swimming – not heavy duty scuba wetsuits or drysuits. These typically have 3mm neoprene on the arms and back with slightly thicker layers on the chest and legs to assist with buoyancy.

Once you get over the initial shock of the cold water entering the suit, the layer of water warms up pretty quickly and you can swim quite comfortably without needing to resort to a scuba wetsuit or drysuit.

gear_2

Neoprene boots

We all use neoprene dive boots to keep our feet warm. I currently use Bare 7mm Cold Water Tall Boots, and they work quite well:

gear_3

Neoprene gloves

This is the only area where we are still experimenting. I currently use the XS Dry Five 5mm gloves. They’re slip ons, but they do a pretty good job of keeping out the water if placed on properly. The problem is that it’s often ridiculously difficult to put these on with one hand already gloved.

I tried out other 5mm gloves with velcro wrist fasteners, but they just didn’t seem to work as well as the slip-ons. Bottom line, we still have yet to find a neoprene glove that keeps our fingertips warm for more than about 15 to 20 minutes in the water once it goes below 40F.

gloves

Silicone swim cap

I wear this underneath my neoprene cap to add an extra layer on my head and to keep the cold water out of my ears:

gear_5

Neoprene dive hood

I use a Cressi Castoro 5mm Hood. The other swimmers use similar scuba hoods, but they have bibs on theirs. I’ve never gotten comfortable swimming with a hood that has a bib, but everyone else seems to be fine with it.

One plus of having the bib is that it helps protect your neck from the cold water. With the Cressi hood, there’s a small part of the back of my neck that’s still exposed. It’s a bit of a cold shock (literally) at first, but it doesn’t bother me after a couple of minutes.

gear_6

Goggles

I use standard swim goggles. I used to use larger ones that covered more of my face, and these do make a difference in the cold water. But I now just put some petroleum jelly on the exposed parts of my face, and that works fine.

gear_7

That’s it! Now you should be all set when it comes to winter swim gear!

Winter Swimming Guide – Chapter 3: Gear Selection

Chapter 3: Gear Selection

When the lake temperature dips below 55F, a strange thing happens – namely, most people decide that it’s too cold to continue enjoying the fun and adventure that accompanies outdoor swimming. And that’s a shame, really, since it doesn’t have to be that way.

The truth is that – with the right equipment and preparation – you can comfortably swim and train in the lake year-round.

In this chapter, we’re going to look at what type of equipment you might need to accomplish this. I say “might” because everybody has his or her own level of tolerance to various temperatures. So while one person might be able to swim comfortably in 45F or below water temperatures in just a swimsuit, cap, and goggles, for others this is nothing short of a Herculean challenge.

So for now, I’m going to describe a gear setup that we’ve settled on after much experimentation. You may find the need to adjust up or down based upon your own physiology and tolerance to colder water. But we’ve found that this works for most people who’ve come out and braved the lake with us during the coldest months.

Inner layer

My inner layer is essentially the same thing I swim with during the warmer months:

1. Sports “dri-fit” underwear

2. Swim jammers

So basically, wear your normal swimwear or swimsuit as your “base” layer. I used to wear a thermo rash guard underneath as well, but I’ve found that you really don’t need one as long as you have a decent wetsuit. Speaking of such…

Outer Layer

1. Full Body Triathlon Wetsuit

It’s important to emphasize using a triathlon wetsuit versus a scuba wetsuit or a windsurfing wetsuit. The latter are not designed for swimming comfortably for extended periods of time. So you want to make sure you use one designed specifically for distance swimming. These typically have 5mm neoprene on the front areas for bouyancy with thinner layers (3mm) on the arms, back, and neck area for enhanced mobility.

But which brand of wetsuit is the best?

I get a lot of people asking which brand of triathlon wetsuit works the best for winter swimming. To be honest, I’m still figuring that out. From my understanding, all wetsuits are pretty much manufactured using the same types of neoprene. The key differences typically lie in the design and fit. So it’s important to try out various brands to see which ones work best with your body style.

One thing I can recommend, though, is to NOT invest in one of the more high-end (read expensive) wetsuits if you plan to swim during the winter. These tend to be constructed with much thinner neoprene and are much more prone to nicks and tearing – which are an enhanced risk during the winter months given the presence of ice in the water. So I’d advise going with the “clunkier” lower end models versus dropping seven bills on a snazzy wetsuit that collapses like papier-mâché in the cold water.

2. Neoprene Dive Hood (3mm/5mm)

These work great for swimming, and we’ve been able to get by with the standard varieties. I tried out a 7mm drysuit hood, and – while definitely quite warm – it was way too constrictive around my neck.

I wear a regular latex swim cap underneath the dive hood for an extra layer of warmth and to keep to colder water out of my ears. Other swimmers just don the hood and use silicone earplugs. Either way works.

One other item – for two seasons, I insisted upon tucking the hood bib into my wetsuit. I did this because the 32F water seemed like hot piano wire on the exposed band of skin around the base of my neck. However, this greatly reduced my swim range of motion and often let in cold water through open areas in my wetsuit neckline.

I’ve since switched to having the bib loose, and I’ve acclimated pretty easily to the cold water exposure on my neck. So I now recommend gutting it out the first few times in favor of a better overall swim experience.

3. Neoprene Dive Booties (5mm)

We’ve all had great luck with the 5mm booties. They seem to work pretty well in keeping our feet warm during the swim. Plus they’re pretty flexible and allow us to maintain a fairly decent swim stroke and kick.

I’ve experimented with two types – the zip up variety as well as the pull ons. The former are much easier to get on and off – which is a HUGE asset in the parking lot when you need to get out of your wet gear ASAP. But the zippers can chew away at the bottom of your wetsuit and shorten its lifespan considerably. They can also come unzipped during the swim causing a horrifying rush of cold water around your ankle that requires some pretty funky in-swim maneuvering to fix.

So we’re still experimenting with these.

4. Neoprene Dive Gloves (5mm/7mm)

This is an area where we’re also still experimenting. Nick and I use the XS Dry Five 5mm gloves. They’re slip ons, but they do a pretty good job of keeping out the water if placed on properly. The problem is that it’s often ridiculously difficult to put these on with one hand already gloved.

Dave and Mike use Deep See 5mm scuba gloves with velcro wrist fasteners. I used to use these and might go back since they are easier to put on and adjust. However, we all still have issues with cold fingertips during our swims, so what we use going forward might change once we find a better solution.

4. Eyewear

When I first started out swimming in the sub-40F water, I used a full-face Cressi freediving mask. However, since I’ve become much more acclimated to the cold water on my face, I now use a pair of wider view swim goggles – like Barracuda or AquaSphere. I put them on over my hood, and so far they’ve worked fine without leaking.

So there you have it!

This is the current setup that we use when we swim for 20-40 minutes in lake temperatures below 40F. And other than having numb fingertips on occasion, this setup works very well. We’re comfortable during the swim, and we can get in a challenging open water swim workout without over-stressing our bodies.

NEXT IN THE SERIES – Part 2: Pre-Swim Preparation

Be sure to keep checking the site for the next article in this series. In this one, I’ll go over the physical and psychological preparation you need to do to make the transition to swimming in these more extreme conditions. Many of these tips and techniques will also help you with acclimating to water temperatures that might not be as extreme – but are still colder than you’re comfortable with right now.

Thanks for reading!

Repost: How to Keep Your Stuff Safe When Swimming

When I first started going out to the lake to swim, I was always paranoid about what to do with my valuables. In fact, I would have recurring nightmares where I would visualize packs of Chicago hoodlums gleefully rifling through my possessions while I watched helplessly from 1/4 mile off shore.

These days, I’m less concerned about this since I’ve developed a system for managing this risk. Here’s what I do:

1) I only bring out items that I need – most of which I will be wearing anyway (i.e. wetsuit, goggles, swim cap).

This means that I leave many items such as my wallet, cell phone, and extra keys at home. I’ll lock up my bike and take the bike lock key with me in a zip lock bag. However, I don’t leave a bunch of stuff out in the open for strangers to peruse. If someone wants to pilfer my ratty old swim towel, I figure they must really be desperate – so I view it as an act of charity on my part.

2) If I have to bring out valuables, I make it as difficult as possible to purloin them.

If I decide to bring out a cell phone or house keys, I’ll stash them in one of the other swimmer’s vehicles or I’ll find a way to secure them on site. One of my favorite gadgets for this is a PacSafe travel pouch used by backpackers and travelers. It’s “slash proof,” and you can lock it up to your bike or to a fixed object.

3) I always try to swim in an organized group setting so there are people around to keep watch.

This is one of the side benefits to running and organizing a swim group. Having more people out at the swim site raises the overall level of monitoring and supervision. Not only does this keep you safer in the water, but it also ensures that more people will be watching over everyone’s stuff.
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GET THE EDGE OVER THE PACK!

Call us at +1 (312) 927-0299 or send us an email, and we’ll talk about your specific needs and how we can tailor a training session just for you.

Attention Wetsuit Makers!

Open Water Chicago is actively looking to sample – and promote – wetsuits that can handle year-round swim conditions here in the Great Lakes.

Send me a note at srhernan@gmail.com if you think you might want to tap into our market (hint: you do!).

P.S. Your participation will most likely include a video review of your product (wow!).

New OWC Gear: Custom Made Lake Monster Shirts!

For those of you who have already joined the Cult of Cool, you can now order custom made shirts that feature your very own, hard-earned Lake Monster number! Here’s what they look like:

And for those rare and intrepid souls who did 1/2 mile or more in sub-35F water temps, you can get your Lake Monster Elite (a.k.a. “Ice Monster”) number on the back instead:

Just send me a quick note at srhernan [at] gmail [dot] com, and I’ll get back to you with pricing and sizing options.

And finally, for all the rest of you who haven’t yet made it out to Ladder #1, you can always check out the OWC store where you can buy a whole bunch of really cool OWC stuff!

But until you actually come out and swim with us, you will have to gnash your teeth in silent envy and/or caterwaul with rage whenever you see one of us sporting our ultracool Lake Monster numbers!

Product Review: Xterra Vortex 3 Fullsuit

Back in May 2009, my 5-year-old Ironman Instinct finally ended its useful life for my purposes. So I went to a number of Chicago-area multi sports stores and tried out a variety of brands including Zoot, BlueSeventy, and Orca. While they all looked great and had some really neat features, none of them seemed like much of a departure from my Instinct.

As chance would dictate, I received an email ad from Xterra Wetsuits about their Spring 2009 special on their Vortex 3 and Vector models. I had seen Xterra’s wetsuits at a number of triathlons and swim events, but I had never had an opportunity to try one out. This is because the company has a direct order business model that doesn’t use distributors. So the only way to get one is to order directly from Xterra or to visit their factory outlet store near their San Diego, CA headquarters.

Given an attractive price point ($199), I decided to give the Vortex 3 a shot.

Appearance and Fit

I ordered the fullsuit version of the Vortex 3 directly from Xterra’s website. The company shipped out the product the same day, and it arrived four days later. Also included in the package was an Xterra mesh wetsuit/swim bag and an Xterra latex swim cap – both unexpected surprises.

As you can see, it’s a pretty sharp looking wetsuit:

Probably the most significant visible feature of the Vortex 3 is the 5mm layer of neoprene that extends from the neck to the ankles on the front side of the wetsuit. This maximizes swim buoyancy – especially in your lower extremities. The 5mm (versus the 3mm-4mm used by other companies) really made a difference for me as my lower legs tend to sink and drag if I’m not swimming at a fairly brisk pace.

This thicker layer also provides a high degree of insulation against colder water temperatures. In fact, I delayed writing this review until I could test the Vortex 3 in our winter swim conditions. And I am happy to report that the wetsuit provides very adequate thermal insulation even when the water temperatures fall below 40F (4.4C).

But my favorite feature is undoubtedly the fully-body X-tra Stretch Liner:

This highly flexible inner liner covers the entire inside of the wetsuit. Not only does the X-tra Stretch Liner provide excellent flexibility and range of motion, but it also makes the Vortex 3 very easy to get on and off.

Performance

As mentioned earlier, I recently field-tested the Vortex 3 in icy Lake Michigan, and I was very pleased with how the product held up under these extreme conditions. I wore it over my thermo shirt and neoprene dive hood, and the wetsuit provided plenty of insulation without causing constriction around my neck or letting in excess cold water. I also had a full range of swim motion in my arms and shoulders despite this rather snug set up.

During my numerous training and event swims in 2009, the Vortex 3 performed exceptionally well in terms of buoyancy, swim ability, and thermal protection. There are, however, a few minor issues I had with the Vortex 3 that definitely warrant mentioning.

First of all, given Xterra’s direct sales model, you can’t really try on a Vortex 3 before you purchase it. You have to rely on the detailed sizing chart on their website and hope that you choose the right size. I was actually on the border between two sizes, so I chose the larger one. This proved to be a mistake, and I had to go through the return/exchange process to get my correct size.

Second, the Vortex 3 fullsuit is a very well-insulated wetsuit that retains a LOT of heat. And while this is highly desirable in colder water conditions, I could see this becoming a problem during longer swims in warmer water temperatures. In fact, there were a couple of times that I interrupted my swim to take off my Vortex 3 as I was feeling somewhat overheated.

My final critique of the suit involves its outer lining. For some reason, it seems more vulnerable to fingernail gouge marks than other wetsuits I have used. So you have to be extra careful putting it on or you’ll easily end up with one of these:

The Bottom Line

Overall, I am very pleased with the quality, fit, and performance of the Xterra Vortex 3 fullsuit. I think it’s a great all-around wetsuit that you can use for both training and competing. It’s priced at $400 on their web site, but the company occasionally runs time-limited promotions where they offer the wetsuit at a 50% discount.

So if you’re in the market for a new wetsuit and feel comfortable with ordering one directly from the manufacturer, I highly suggest you check out what Xterra has to offer. You’ll get a really high quality wetsuit for a price significantly lower than that of a comparable – or even lower quality – wetsuit at a local retail outlet.
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** UPDATE – 5/5/10 **

I have to be honest here. This wetsuit has not lived up to my expectations since writing this review in January 2010. It turns out that the suit is much more vulnerable to rips and tears than I expected. In fact, despite being very meticulous in putting the wetsuit on and applying copious amounts of Suit Juice during the process, I still somehow managed to develop very frustrating rips and rents in numerous places.

And let me tell you something, folks. It is NOT pleasant to have cold water rush in through rips located near some of the more, er, “delicate” areas of the human anatomy.

Here are a few pics showing the rips and the repair jobs I had to do (I used both Black Magic and Aquaseal)

I don’t have long fingernails, so that’s not the issue here. I think that the wetsuit just has a shorter shelf life – especially when exposed to more extreme temperatures. And once it reaches a certain point, it just starts to deteriorate where it’s thinner (forearms) and where you place the most stress putting it on (legs and crotch).

So I cannot, at this point, strongly endorse this product.

** UPDATE – 5/25/10 **

Many of you have read this review, and a few of you have contacted me directly about it. Let me just clarify a few things.

First, I purchased this wetsuit in May 2009, and it did perform quite well for an entire year. I deliberately waited until January 2010 because I wanted to see how the suit performed under extreme cold water swimming conditions. And as I had originally reported, the Vortex 3 did indeed perform quite well even under the most extreme swim conditions.

My primary issue with my Vortex 3 was that the softer outer neoprene layer seemed to be much more prone to tearing after having to endure three months of sub-40F water temperature exposure. And to be fair to Xterra – these are not typical swim conditions that most triathletes practice in or face on race days.

One other FYI – when I informed Xterra recently of this issue, they immediately sent me another Vortex 3 as a replacement. So while I may have had some frustrations with my Vortex 3, this doesn’t necessarily imply that you will have the same experience. And even if you do, Xterra has definitely demonstrated that they are willing to go above and beyond to make their customers happy.

I hope this further clarifies everything for everyone. If anyone has any other questions, feel free to send me a quick note at srhernan [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks!

Product Testimonial Video: Suit Juice

Here’s the final cut of the marketing piece we did for Suit Juice. We’ve got some additional footage that we’ll most likely post separately, but be sure to check out our recent masterpiece!

How Zazzle Loses Customers

Here are some pictures of the technical shirt many of us received for doing the Harbor Lights Triathlon:

As you can see, whoever did the printing on these shirts did a pretty good job. The images and logos are clearly printed on the synthetic fabric, and the colors and textures are uniform.

Now here’s what at least one OWC customer received from Zazzle:

Yep…that’s heat damage to the micro fiber fabric, folks. They clearly don’t know what they’re doing.

Which is why we no longer use them.

High Tech Swimsuit Wars

There’s an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the ongoing debate among Masters Swimmers on whether or not it’s legal or ethical to use some of the newer, “high-tech” swimsuits.

DTswimsuit

The Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) issued a ruling over the summer stating that, beginning in 2010, only suits made from “textiles” that do not create “air trapping” effects will be allowed in competitive events. But there’s still a lot of debate going on as to what exactly constitutes a permissible swimsuit. And in the meantime, these “supersuits” have wormed their way into the layswimmer’s turf.

My take on this is simple. I think it’s silly to be constantly obsessed about shaving one or two minutes off of your swim time unless you’re an Olympic athlete or a serious (read professional) competitor. What this means is that you’ve allowed a hypercompetitive mindset to subvert a health and fitness one.

So go ahead and get one of these if you want to be the fastest person in your swim lane. Just remember one thing, though. You’re still mimicking a hamster on a wheel – you’re just doing it faster.