Owning the Swim: How Endurance Athletes Can Effectively Manage Cold Water Exposure

I had a great session last night with the Chicago Triathletes Unite! Meetup Group. There was a lot of interest in this topic and a number of really insightful questions from the attendees.

This underscores one of the biggest critiques I have about the endurance sports community. Namely, we don’t do a good enough job at helping triathletes at all levels effectively prepare for the swim part of the race. In fact, we tend to gloss over the swim part as some sort of “necessary evil” that the triathlete just needs to “get through.”

For those of you who couldn’t attend, below is the outline of the presentation. Feel free to scan the site for more details on each topic area, or just contact me directly at srhernan [at] gmail [dot] com.


Owning the Swim: How Endurance Athletes Can Effectively Manage Cold Water Exposure

1. Overview of Human Thermoregulation

– Skin temperature receptors
– Role of the hypothalamus
– Core: head, face, neck, upper torso, abdomen
– Extremities: hands, feet, head (sometimes)

2. What Happens When Things Go Wrong

– Immersion shock: gasp reflex, tachycardia, hyperventilation = anxiety/panic
– Pre-hypothermia
– State dependent memory/learning

3. What You Can Do to Prepare for the Swim – Key Takeaways

Prepare your body

– Sleep: 8+ hours if possible
– Hydration: avoid caffeine & alcohol, increase water intake
– Nutrition: healthy fats, lean source proteins, light carbohydrates
– Supplements: electrolytes
– Physical conditioning: light exercise 24 hours prior

Prime your body

– Progressive cold water exposure: 45 minutes prior to swim
– Mammalian dive reflex: immediately prior to immersion

Preserve heat in your core

– Thermal protection on your core
– Less emphasis on your extremities

Have fun!

2 Replies to “Owning the Swim: How Endurance Athletes Can Effectively Manage Cold Water Exposure

  1. it seems that everyone i know is scared to death of swimming in water below 85 degrees….it seems 90% of all tri athletes i talk to pray that the race organizer will find cold enough water so they can wear a wet suit. also they will spend $$$$ on bikes and shoes but never a penny on lessons on how to swim better, they all feel they will make up the poor swim time on the run and bike… i have often pointed out that the swim is first to help prevent a lot of deaths from drounding. bike is second so you can get moving but it also is not last because if you pass out you can kill your self in the fall. where as with running you can only fall on your face . with 33 plus years swimming in lake michigan i see the pool swimmers scared shitless from the cooler water, waves , cloudy water and no lane markers . i don’t care how fast you are in a pool . you will find this is a whole new game in which you must both train in and plan for. the lake changes its face very very quickly. i have seen and swam in 15 degree water temp change in less then 24 hours during the summer. lake michigans average water temp is 39 degrees year round and so winds can turn it over with the hot top water quickly. this winter we tested our 3mm wetsuits and had fun swimming a mile each time even in the coldest water and air temp. all we are hoping now is that the police allow us to swim .

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