Unless you are a genetic marvel like Lynne Cox (who swam to Antarctica without a wetsuit), you probably do not enjoy swimming in cold water, let alone doing so for a long period of time. However, there are some situations where you may need to swim in cold water. For example, you may be at a swim meet with cooler air, you may be swimming in open water, or you want some of the health benefits that come with swimming in colder temperatures.
Worry not! While it may take some getting used to (and will almost certainly be a shock to your system), there are some things you can do to stay warm in cold water, and some steps you can take beforehand to ensure that you get the most out of your cold water swim.
[step1][steptitle1] Get the Gear[/steptitle1][stepcontent]
Oftentimes when you swim in cold water, you will be allowed to dress appropriately for the situation. This can include a wetsuit, swimming cap, ear plugs, and even booties and gloves. If you want to take things a step further, you can even wear animal fat to keep warm!
If you are frequently going to swim in cold water, consider a wetsuit. Whether you are a man or a woman, a wetsuit will go a long way in ensuring that your cold-water swim is enjoyable and fulfilling. There are different kinds of wetsuits for different kinds of cold water activities. Get one designed for triathletes—it will minimally restrict your shoulder, hip, and knee movement. But also make sure that you get a full-bodied wetsuit. If you get one without full arms, for instance, your arms will have no protection from the cold!
When it comes to wetsuit material, if you are swimming in cold water, you will want a suit made of neoprene materials. This is an insulating material that works better than other materials, such as silicone, for keeping you warm in cold water.
The added bonus of a wetsuit: it will make you more buoyant. Added buoyancy, by definition, means you will ride higher in the water, experience less drag, and be able to swim faster. And, the faster you get to the end of your swim, the less time you’ll have to spend in that cold water!
Swimming Cap (Or 2!)
Wearing a cap can help your body retain heat. A neoprene cap is the warmest, followed by silicone which is followed by a standard latex caps. Many double the number of caps they wear, making combinations like: two silicone, one latex cap under a silicone one, or two latex caps. Your head is a major source of heat leakage, so wearing a cap (or two!) when you’re headed to swim in cold water will make a huge difference.
Booties and Gloves
Yes, it may sound kind of silly, but you’d be surprised how much heat can leak from exposed hands and feet, especially when you’re in cold water. And if you are trying to stay warm, you cannot overlook any exposed skin. A good neoprene glove and booty will go a long way to helping you stay warm.
Your ears actually affect a lot more than just your hearing, and because of that, wearing an earplug can help you stay warm in cold waters. Like the rest of your head, a lot of heat can escape through the ears. Plus, they can be sensitive to cold water. There’s a reason earmuffs are popular in snowy regions, and earplugs can help in the same way an earmuff would!
If you want to try something a little more extreme, some swimmers like to cover themselves in goose fat to keep their bodies warm. This trend started in the 1800s and while it is not as popular today, some swimmers still swear by it!
[step2][steptitle2] Get Moving[/steptitle2][stepcontent]
You know how when you exercise, you get hot and sweaty? The same principle can be applied to swimming in cold water as a means to keep your body warm. However, while these methods can help, they should be used to replace a good wetsuit.
Pick Up Your Stroke Rate and Kick Faster
Swimming with a higher stroke rate and rapid kick will elevate your heart rate and your metabolism, which should keep you feeling warm. In a somewhat cold pool, it probably will not take much to counteract the chill of the water. Just know that if you stop between sets the cold will creep in faster than you might expect. If you are swimming in open water--don’t overdo it! You want to make sure you have enough energy to finish your swim and that you are swimming with the best possible technique.
There are lots of ways you can prepare for a cold water swim, especially if you know you will have to do it on a specific date. If you take it gradually, letting your body acclimate to the lowered temperatures and cold water, you may find yourself actually enjoying the cold water swim more than you expect!
Practice Swimming in Cold Water
You know the old saying “Practice Makes Perfect”? Well, it applies to swimming in cold water too! If you know you have a big swim meet coming up and expect the water to be chilly, or know you will be doing a cold water swim in the future, practicing in cold water a few weeks before the swim will go a long way toward making the actual swim easier and go more smoothly. If you don’t have access to cold water to swim in, spending time in a cold bathtub can also help. You want to reduce the shock factor of swimming in cold water as much as possible.
If you can do this three to four times a week, you’ll be surprised how quickly your body will get used to chilly water, and how easy it will become.
Mind over matter. If you are mentally prepared for the cold water, you will find it far more manageable than if you let it be a shock to your system. You may even find the water warmer than you expect, if you prepared for even chillier conditions!
Getting your body warmed up before you first step into the water by taking a light job or similar beforehand. This will help get your blood flowing and warm up your muscles, so they will be more prepared for the cold water when you get in.
It is important to stretch even before swimming in general, but it can be even more important when you are going to swim in cold waters. Stretching out your joints, your toes, and your shoulders can help you swim at your best.
[step4][steptitle4] In the Water[/steptitle4][stepcontent]
Moment of truth time. You have the gear, you’ve prepared, and now you’re ready to swim in the cold water! What can do you do while you’re in the water to keep warm? Here’s some tips!
One of the first things you learn to do when you learn to swim is to blow bubbles. Well, it is important to do this both during your swim and before you take off. When the cold water hits your face, the shock can cause your lungs to contract, which can lead to breathing problems. Try to blow bubbles at about waist deep if you can, as this will help with that shock. Plus, it will keep your mind focused on something other than the chill.
Focus on the Exhale
Whether you are swimming freestyle or backstroke, focus on exhaling. Not only does exhaling counteract your body’s inhale reflex, which is part of that shock response to cold water, but also emptying your lungs completely lets you inhale more effectively on next breath. You will get better air exchange, and that will keep you from hyperventilating.
Take a moment on your back to get your breathing under control. By turning on your back, you are getting your ultra-sensitive face out of the water. It should only take a few seconds on your back for your breathing to calm down, even if those seconds can feel much longer.
Switch between Freestyle & Backstroke
If you find that you can swim backstroke but not freestyle, try flipping onto your back to breathe, instead of breathing to the side. Do as much backstroke as you need to return to regular breathing again. As your body adjusts to the cold, you’ll need fewer and fewer strokes on your back. Once you are down to only two strokes of backstroke, try swimming a few strokes of head-up freestyle when you need a breath. After taking a few head-up breaths, you will probably be ready to resume your usual freestyle.
While unlikely, if the water is cold enough and a big shock to your system, you may find yourself going into shock if you dive right in. This could lead to hypothermia if you’re not careful. To avoid any risks, it is best to enter the cold water slowly and gradually.
Keep Warm Water Nearby
Have a bottle of warm water to drink between sets if you are in a pool, or when you are done swimming if in open water. This water will help warm you back up, and if you have more sets to do, get you ready for the next one.
[step5][steptitle5] Warm Up![/steptitle5][stepcontent]
When you’re done with the swim, it can be tempting to run to the showers and turn up the heat all the way! However, this is not a great idea, as it can lead to complications and actually result in a lower body temperature if you are not careful. Instead, put on warmer clothes, have a warm drink, and slowly warm all the way through, until back to normal.
You Can Do It!
Swimming in cold water can be challenging if you are not ready for it, but if you take your time, learn the risks, and learn the ways to counteract them, you will have a truly invigorating swim experience, one you won’t forget! And who knows, you may decide that swimming in cold water is the only way to do it from now on!