Swimmers never know when we are going to be faced with a swim in some frigid water: early spring, fall, ocean swims. Cold water can be a surprise to the body but we can get ourselves ready for the swim at hand even without having been practicing in cold water. Also, every swimmer has a different perception of what is “cold” water.
If you want to be getting “out of the box” (the pool) early spring and seeing it through into the fall, some cold weather swim gear is great. A swim wetsuit (one that is soft, snug fitting and slick) and/ or insulated cap are great and my favorite, ear plugs, can make for a longer swim as well as a longer swim season. As a plan of safety, with or without a wetsuit, pay attention to the time you are in the water and above all find a swim buddy. You want to be aware of how long you are in the water to reduce your chance of getting hypothermic from the cold. You want a swim buddy because you may not know you are getting hypothermic! A buddy can help you recognize the signs: slowed speech, difficulty moving extremities, slow movements, disoriented, problems thinking or talking.
Start by getting into the water slowly. Once you are in the water, start to slowly and incrementally put your face in the water while blowing some gentle bubbles. If possible, start with some breastroke and ease your face into the water before getting into the freestyle stroke. If you are racing, while waiting at the start of a race, start with some “bobbing”, that is going up and down by squatting then standing. Exhale under the water as you squat down and stand up to inhale. This relaxes the throat and breathing to prepare the body for the ensuing effort. This will help prevent that “gripped throat” feeling or the “I can’t catch my breath” thought (hyperventilating) at the start of a cold water swim.
Celeste St.Pierre is a triathlete (sprint, Olympic, off-road, half and Ironman), Total Immersion Teaching Professional, USA Triathlon coach, USA Swimming Level 1 Coach, certified Pilates instructor and owner of TriathlonSkills.com.