Swimming in Cold Water

Swimming in Cold Water

Practice Your Game Plan

Last night, I helped coach the last of Lifetime Fitness’ free open water swim clinics for the Chicago Triathlon coming up this weekend.  The water temperature in the lake, in the 70s last week, has dropped into the low 60s.  Many of the swimmers I led into a sprint distance rehearsal had trouble with the swim because of the cold water.  Because I don’t see the lake temperature rising much by this weekend, I thought I would write a post that gives swimmers advice in how to tolerate the cold water and get onto your bike.

  1.  Wear a Full Length Wet Suit — When the water is this cold, you’ll want to have coverage to your wrists and ankles.  Yes, a sleeveless wet suit, or “Farmer John,” gives you more range of motion in the shoulders.  Unfortunately, a sleeveless suit leaves your arms and shoulders exposed and your muscles will get cold.  Better to sacrifice a little bit of mobility and keep warm.
  2. Consider Double Capping or a Neoprene Cap— You learned from Grandma to wear a hat in the winter time because you lose most of the heat through your head.  Swimming is no different.  You’ll get  a colored cap from the triathlon to identify your wave.  Consider wearing a cap under it to conserve even more heat — silicone is better because it’s thicker.  The best is a neoprene cap with ear coverage.  The material is just like your wet suit, so it will hold the heat in and keep cold water from getting into your ears
  3. Consider Ear Plugs — Ear plugs will also keep cold water out of the ears.  I would suggest you hit the lake before Sunday and try them out.  I personally find them annoying, but that’s because I’ve swum for 40+ years without them.  Other swimmers swear by them.
  4. Get Some Water in your Wet Suit — At the racing start or from your water bottle, get some water on the inside of your suit.  Your body will heat the water and the wet suit will contain it.  It won’t make the lake feel like a hot tub, but it will add a little thermos factor in there for you.
  5. Blow Bubbles at the Start — This tip helps you in two areas — (1) it gets you over the shock of putting your face in the water and (2) it helps expand your rib cage that cold water tends to contract.  When you are at the start, take Marilyn Monroe’s advice and “put your lips together and blow.”  You’ll get your face used to the water and will start the process of getting your breathing back to normal.
  6. Make Bubbles Your Primary Focal Point Early in the Swim — Focus on getting rid of the air when your face is in the water.  Many swimmers will hold their breath or keep too much in, so they gasp when the breathe.  Combine the gasping with your rib cage contracting in the cold water, and you get a feeling of breathlessness.  If you have a favorite breathing side, consider just breathing to that side every two strokes until you get into a rhythm.  Say to your self, “bubbles, breathe, bubbles, breathe…”  Getting air more frequently and keeping this cadence simple usually helps.  As your heart rate gets up and you get into a rhythm, you can go to an every 3rd, every 4th, or other pattern.  My swimmers and I have had great success with this strategy over the years.
  7. Keep Elementary Backstroke, Backstroke, and Side Stroke in your Back Pocket — All three of these strokes will keep your face out of the water so you can get lots of air.  I like these strokes over kicking on the back because you maintain forward motion and are less likely to get splashed or kicked.  If you don’t know Backstroke or Side Stroke, consider a simple version of Elementary Backstroke.  I teach Elementary Backstroke with a freestyle flutter kick to my triathletes because it’s so simple to do — thumbs to the armpits, arms in a “Y”, and pull the arms to the suit.  You can see a demonstration of Elementary Backstroke at the bottom of the post.
  8. Get out into the Lake in the Next Few Days — At the risk of sounding obvious, the best way of getting used to swimming in cold water is…swimming in cold water.  Get out in the lake again in the next few days and try out some of these times.  You don’t have to swim the full race distance.  Just get some practice in.


Good luck this weekend!


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