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:
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.
Here’s our inaugural swim tips video. The idea for doing this came to me while I was shoveling snow all day on Tuesday!
All humor aside, this is a great way to manage immersion shock prior to swimming in colder water temperatures. Obviously, you need access to snow. But for those of you who don’t have the luxury of snow storms, I’ll be producing a separate video on an equally effective priming technique – the progressive cold shower. So stay tuned!
Chapter 4: Taking the Plunge – How to Effectively Manage the Swim Start
When you let go of the ladder and start to wade out into the lake during the winter, the first thing you want to do is get the hell out as fast as you can. The initial gush of 32F water into your wetsuit is nothing short of overwhelming – especially if you suddenly discover there are tears in the neoprene around the more sensitive areas of your anatomy.
And this is just the beginning.
Unless you plan to backstroke, at some point you will need to get face down in the water. But you may as well be plunging your head into a vat of liquid nitrogen. The moment your face hits the water, you get an excruciating “pins and needles” sensation that triggers an immediate gasp reflex. And the sudden change in temperature disrupts the pressure in your sinuses, causing the most intense ice cream headache imaginable.
Fortunately this only lasts for about 2-3 minutes…
Believe it or not, you can actually acclimate to this experience and reach a point where this “cold shock” has a minimal impact on you. The key to achieving this is two fold – 1) proper pre-swim preparation, and 2) effectively managing the experience in the moment.
In a prior chapter, we went into detail about point one. And I can’t emphasize enough how much easier it will be for you to swim year round in the lake if you adequately prepare accordingly. But I won’t candy coat it for you – there is no way you can completely eliminate the shock of entering and remaining in the lake under these temperature extremes.
The key, then, is to effectively manage the first few minutes of this “shock zone” so that your winter swim is an invigorating challenge that excites and inspires you versus a horrifyingly painful ordeal that you don’t care to repeat. And as we touched on in earlier posts, this involves getting your physical and emotional brains on your side.
So let’s take a look at each area.
1) Cold water priming – Ideally, you’ve already done this with a progressive cold shower about an hour before the swim start. However, if you get a late start, you may not be able to fit this in before your swim. Fortunately, there is a quick fix you can do to help take the edge off the initial immersion shock.
Take a bottle of cold water and pour it on your head, face, and neck shortly before entering the water. You can store one in your fridge and grab it on your way out to the lake. Or you can bring a large tumbler and dip it in the lake to do the same thing. In either case, you’re priming your skin temperature receptors which will immediately start acclimating your body to the colder lake temperatures.
2) Mammalian Diving Reflex – This is a very effective technique I do immediately before entering the water, usually while I’m still hanging onto the ladder. It involves holding your breath and submerging your head and neck in the water. This triggers an automatic reflex that immediately lowers your heart rate and sends a signal to your brain to start moving blood away from your periphery and towards your core (head and torso).
3) Mindful relaxation – Once in the water, you will want to pay special attention to the level of tension in your neck, shoulders, and arms. The large muscles in these areas tend to seize up immediately and stay very tense upon initial immersion. So make a conscious effort to relax these areas. Because if they stay tense, your heart rate will stay elevated and you’ll burn off a lot of energy – and energy conservation is key to swimming effectively in colder temperatures!
4) Mindful breathing – Closely related to the prior point, make a special effort to take longer and deeper breaths versus short and shallow ones. This will be difficult at first since you will probably experience a “gasp reflex” which will shorten your breath temporarily. But stay aware of your breathing during the first few minutes and transition to longer and more controlled breaths as soon as possible.
1) Think “2-minutes” – Once you manage to get control over the physical shock of cold water immersion, your biggest challenge will be managing your emotions. Your logical brain, somehow present just a short while ago, will be conspicuously absent. Instead, you will likely be in a highly emotional “fight or flight” state where you are very susceptible to forming associations and memories.
The key here is that you want to form positive ones.
The best way to do this is to perform all the physical techniques cited above while thinking “2 minutes” over and over in your head. During this time, the discomfort on your face and head will subside, and the cold water in the wetsuit will warm up. When this happens, things will stabilize for you physically and you will actually become quite comfortable in the water.
This is the critical “breakthrough” moment.
When you reach this point, you will immediately begin forming healthy and positive associations and memories to winter swimming. And this forms the “success foundation” for practically all of your future lake swims.
So now that you’re acclimated to the frozen lake, you’ll find that you can conduct a fairly lengthy swim workout rather comfortably. As a result of all these preparations and techniques, your body is now optimized to operate efficiently and effectively in this setting. Your heat is concentrated in your core, yet you’ve created a warmer layer on most of your skin surface that you are maintaining through your relaxed physical exertion.
The only downside now is that your fingertips might start to get cold since your body heat has moved towards your core and away from your periphery. Candidly, that’s really the only current challenge we’re having right now during our winter swims. And, of course, you still have to experience and manage the dreaded afterdrop once you finish your swim!
But that’s the next (and final) piece in this guide.
NOTE – I first published this piece last year in early June, and it turned out to be one of the more helpful pieces for swimmers and triathletes who were just starting to train in the lake. I’d recommend you review this again since it provides some great insight into what actually happens when you exert yourself in colder water conditions.
First, what I really like about the piece is that it addresses the “cold shock response.” This is the physiological phenomenon that a swimmer or triathlete experiences when he or she suddenly plunges into cold water without properly preparing the body for this radical change of state. Per the authors:
One of the first things you experience when submerging yourself in cold water is something called the “cold-shock response.” This is characterized by an uncontrollable gasp for air, followed by a prolonged period of hyperventilation – more rapid breathing… the hyperventilation that happens in the cold has a profound effect on the ability to swim in an efficient manner [ed. – emphasis mine].
This is a key takeaway. Why? Because once the cold shock response is triggered – and the athlete’s respiration rate is elevated – it stays elevated for several minutes.
As evidence of this, the authors cite a 2005 study which measured how a swimmer’s respiration rate changed because of exposure to cold water. Here is a graph of the study results along with commentary from The Science of Sport:
So the rate of breathing goes up from about 16 breaths per minute to 75 breaths per minute, within the first 20 seconds. It then stays up at 40 breaths per minute for the next few minutes. It is not difficult to see how that would affect your ability to swim, because your stroke rate would have to change substantially to allow you just to breathe!
In addition to hyperventilation, sudden cold water exposure can also trigger a rapid, or even irregular, heart rate:
The other big ‘killer’ is a heart attack, which can result when the temperature of the blood returning to the heart is suddenly cooled – this can affect the electrical conduction within the heart, causing fibrillation. So it is these two possibilities – drowning and cardiac arrest that are most likely the cause of death.
Granted, such incidents are quite rare during endurance sports events, but they do occur.
Last year, I posted a piece on this site about some triathlon fatalities that took place during the swim. While there were certainly some strong opinions about whether or not event organizers could have done anything to have prevented these fatalities, I strongly feel that it’s most likely an issue of training – or lack thereof.
Bottom line, the endurance sports community does a great job at teaching people swim techniques and drills. But in my experience, it does an inadequate job of instructing people on critical items such as how to manage your respiration and heart rate during heavy exertion in cold water.
Here are a few rhetorical question to athletes of all training levels looking to improve event performance:
What if you could minimize – or even prevent – this cold shock response?
How would a lower respiration rate at the front end translate to more endurance and energy during the bike and run portions?
What would this do to your overall confidence level going into the event?
Remember, there’s an old saying that “triathlons are all about the run.”
Water enters the lungs of a person triggering automatic spasms to the larynx
These spasms temporarily seal the air pipe in order to prevent additional liquid from entering the lungs (a natural defense mechanism)
This “choking” sensation triggers a panic response which accelerates the person’s heart rate
An accelerated heart rate coupled with a sealed air pipe causes generalized hypoxia, an inadequate supply of oxygen to the body as a whole
Deprived of oxygen, the person’s cells shift to anaerobic metabolism and flood the muscles with lactic acid, causing rapid fatigue which quickly leads to exhaustion
Unable to remain afloat, the person inhales additional water which accelerates the above cycle
The continuing oxygen deprivation leads to cerebral hypoxia causing unconsciousness
As the person loses consciousness, the larynx relaxes allowing the lungs to fill with water
Unless rescued at this point, the person dies from either advanced cerebral hypoxia or myocardial infarction (heart attack)
Not drowning is also just as easy.
The key is to interrupt this lethal cascade of events as early as possible – and one of the best ways to do this is to become comfortable with the technique known as drownproofing.
One of my biggest beefs with the endurance sports community is that they never seem to teach this as part of their open water swim training (as least I’ve never seen it being taught anywhere). Instead, they teach you how to tread water, swim faster, sight in open water, and navigate the chaotic scrum of the swim start.
But never how not to drown in the first place.
Whenever I work one-on-one with a swimmer for an open water lesson, the first thing we go over is drownproofing. I make sure they’re comfortable handling any situation that might potentially trigger the drowning process.
And drownproofing is really easy to learn – even a small child can do it:
So the next time you’re out in the open water with your swimming or triathlon training group, be sure to ask everyone whether or not they know how to drownproof.
And if the coaches don’t teach it – or if they don’t know what you’re talking about – you have my permission to nail them on it…
This is a guest post from Nuala Moore, a veteran open water swimmer and event organizer who hails from SW Ireland. In addition to many other swimming feats, Nuala was part of a relay team that swam around Ireland (830 miles – no wetsuits) over 56 days. She’ll also be making a local appearance next month during her 6th Chicago Triathlon. Welcome Nuala!
My name is Nuala Moore, and I am an open water swimmer living in the SW of Ireland. We are surrounded by amazing beaches, and the water flowing through our islands is the fastest and the freshest in spirit that you can swim in.
The water temperatures vary from early 40’s to 60’s (Fahrenheit). A huge variable is the air temperature. We rarely get above 70 so that means that the air is whipping the heat from our bodies quickly.
I am a super fan of deep water swimming and love the jaunt away from the shore. One of the biggest challenges that swimmers face here is that of the power of the water. Sometimes you wish to swim one way but it may not be possible. So we time our swims with the tide.
Anxiety and stress can often be the main reason that swimmers don’t finish. I try to work with that. We really have to learn to trust the boat crews. Their job is soley to mind us, and actually handing that trust can be a huge issue.
This weekend we have a 6km swim and a 3km swim in a beautiful bay of Ballydavid. It is called The Massacre after the 1580 battle in Smerwick harbour. We swim to the base of the monument. -Dramatic name!!
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We also have a regatta to contend with, so it’s limited to 30 swimmers. Due to the tidal flow and emptying of the bay, we swim in a direction south of our destination; and the tide leaving the bay will usually bring us to where we need to go. The tide should be turning to get us home the other 3km.
You could end up swimming 2km longer just by getting this line wrong. How bays empty and fill is so important to know and to study for safety reasons. Also, it’s essential to have swimmers who can adjust their plans as well and not get stressed when they see themselves heading somewhere else.
(click for larger image)
Challenges differ in all waters, but overall I love the open ocean. It is so rewarding seeing swimmers battle and get there. I am a fan of getting swimmers to regroup and swim in a pod. It is very responsible and gives the surge of confidence and energy to drive on. We always have BBQ and a hot chocolate afterwards – super to share the experiences.
I also host swims of 2km/3km and 5km. I think once you’re wet and you have no plans for the afternoon, we may as well forge away.
Swimming is such a liberation of mind and soul. All the voices in your head are quelled by your own bubbles.
Here’s hoping for a super Massacre and the hope that Mother Nature looks kindly on us! All my swims are charity based, and we are all winners.
As much as I enjoy swimming outdoors, I have to admit that it’s not always a pleasant experience. Unlike a swimming pool (well, unlike MOST swimming pools at least), the lake is not a sterile and antiseptic environment.
So at any given time, you might find some or all of these niceties in the water:
– Bacteria (especially E. Coli)
– Mold spores
– Sewage effluent
– Heavy metals
– Runoff from agriculture and urbanization
– Air pollution particulates
These water contaminants – whether naturally occurring or artificially created – unfortunately wreak havoc on our bodies if they’re allowed to remain in our systems for extended periods of time. When left unchecked, they can cause allergies, mild to severe ear infections (i.e. swimmer’s ear), sinus infections, and flu-like illnesses due to water-borne contaminants.
So while many of us do what we can to keep our beaches and swim areas clean and contaminant-free, we have to accept the reality that it’s impossible to completely eliminate these health risks whenever we swim in the lake.
But what we can do is mitigate their impact on our personal health.
Here are a few tips and techniques I use to stave off the effects of swimming in any outdoor body of water where any of the above contaminants might be present:
Prior to entering the lake, I irrigate my ear canals with a solution containing 50% white vinegar and 50% isopropyl alcohol:
As soon as I get out of the water, I once again irrigate my ear canals with the vinegar/alcohol solution. When I return home, I immediately get in the shower and clean myself with an antibacterial soap. I also irrigate my nasal passages with a warm water solution containing 1/4 teaspoon of sodium chloride (salt) and 1/4 teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda):
To administer the vinegar/alcohol solution, I use a small pump spray bottle. For the nasal irrigation, I use a neti pot:
I used to get swimmer’s ear and have sinus problems all the time post-swim. However, I’ve never had any problems since I started with this pre/post swim “maintenance” program. So feel free to try this out if you think it can help you!
Check out this video of Terry Laughlin demonstrating the TI freestyle stroke:
The key thing to note is that he “spears” the water ahead of him and sustains this position for a few more moments while relaxing his hand. Also notice that he’s not really using his legs that much at all.
A lot of his forward momentum is actually coming from him driving his hips down. In other words, there’s very little emphasis on “grabbing and pulling” the water – which flies directly in the face of most swim instruction these days.
I recently adjusted my swim stroke accordingly, and I’ve noticed about a substantial improvement in being able to go faster and longer while using much less energy. Try it out!