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How To Best Prepare For a Cold Water Triathlon

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Preparing everything you need

While cold water isn’t something we should fear, we should respect and prepare for it. Like any swim or triathlon, preparing yourself for a cold water race is exactly the same. 

For temperatures below 20degrees Celsius I strongly advise a wetsuit. Not only do wetsuits help keep you warm buy they provide buoyancy and help hold your posture in the water. so check your center’s restrictions regarding wetsuits as many have rules about compulsory use below certain temperature points. You can also invest in gloves, socks and hats for cold water swimming. If you have long nails advise in my fabric gloves to get your wetsuit on and don’t dig your nails into the neoprene.

Wear a swimming costume, bikini or tri suit under your wetsuit.

A brightly colored swim hat is a must for visibility in the water and I also strongly advise using a tow float (currently compulsory at many centers). A tow float is a brightly colored inflatable that attaches around your waist and floats behind you in the water. Whilst these are not life saving devices they can help if you experience cramp in the water, need a breather between swimming loops or want to hold on whilst you adjust to the water temperature.

Googles- often polarised ones are best for outdoor swimming to help reduce glare from the sun, but your usual pool ones can suffice. Even if you don’t intend to put your head underwater, use goggles as wind or waves may splash water into your eyes and inhibit your vision.Take a towel and warm clothes which are easy to get on post swim.

Practicep and pre-race warm up

Once you’ve got all the gear, then need to head to the water! Practicing in the cold water makes perfect sense. Ideally you want to get into the water at least 2-3 times before race day. This lets you and your body know what you’re in for. You don’t need to spend hours in the water, 15 minutes at a time is plenty.

How to acclimatise to cold water

The secret to acclimatizing to cold water is just to swim in it, often – at least once a week, and preferably two or three, gradually extending the time you stay in the water. Get out if you are uncomfortable, and don’t set time goals for staying in the water.

When you’re feeling cold, excessively shivering, feeling drowsy, disorientated or tired, you must exit the water. Giving up before hitting the goal of your session is not weak, it is simply part of the learning curve of acclimatizing and getting to know your body’s cues as to when it has had enough.

Going into the icy water (typically less than 10℃) can cause numbness and pain, particularly in the extremities, such as the hands and feet. Neoprene socks and gloves can help protect your hands and feet.

Ensure you feel warm before you swim, keep your layers on for as long as you can (swim robes are great for this). Make sure you have plenty of layers and a towel easily accessible for when you get out. A hot drink and a snack are delightful and often necessary bonuses too!

Getting into cold water is a real shock to the system. Always go in feet first- i.e., don’t dive in. This is because most of us have a natural gasp reflex when immersed in cold water and when you do gasp, you want your head to be out of the water. If you’re entering via shallow incline, wade in feet first, controlling your breathing with each step you take. It is normal to feel your heart rate spike and your breathing become heavy. Take your time, don’t rush, regardless of what others are doing around you. Try splashing some water onto your arms and chest before submerging your torso while you’re in the shallows. If you’re entering the sea, be mindful of waves as you can suddenly have a blast of very cold water and be out of your depth.

If entering from a pontoon into deeper water, use the steps to ease yourself in, our dip your legs over the edge before gently sliding into the water. Float away from the point of entry, so you aren’t in the way of other swimmers and then give yourself however long you need to adjust to the water temperature. This is when a tow float or dry bag comes in really handy as you can float and hold onto it whilst calming your nerves and breathing.

‘ice cream headache’ is something we have all experienced. This occurs when your face is submerged in water – remember it’s important to exhale when swimming – this will reduce the effect and shock of the cold water. Don’t hold your breath when your face is in the water. This ice cream headache effect causes you to hyperventilate and adjusting to this is an important part of your swim session and race day warm up. Take your time pre-race, wear your neoprene socks, skull cap, earplugs and have your wetsuit fitted. Do a good warm up, make sure you get your face and body adjusted to the water temperature and you’ll have a great swim.

You’ll find a lot of people swim freestyle, but lots swim breaststroke too, and if you don’t want to put your head under the water, that is your choice. When the water is colder swimming breaststroke with your head out and a woolly hat on can be really pleasant and means you hopefully won’t have wet hair when you get out. The only stroke I would advise against is backstroke, as you can’t see where you’re going, which can often mimic a swimmer needing assistance.

Sighting is important- every few strokes you should raise your head above the water and look forward, known as a sighting. This helps you navigate where you are going and is even more essential at the moment to help maintain social distancing in the water. Give others space. Not just to follow social distancing guidelines, but many newer open water swimmers may also be nervous.

If you choose to swim outside a designated center, look out for safety signs. Do not swim where signs advise against it (even if others are). Avoid locks, weirs and other aquatic structures, avoid swimming alone where possible given social distancing. Don’t swim in stagnant water and be aware of tides/ currents.

Where restrictions allow and you feel safe to do so swimming (albeit at a distance) with a more experienced swimmer can help put you at ease, let you learn your limits and help keep you safe in the water.

Coldwater exposure plan

Gradual and regular exposure to cold water will allow your body to acclimate over time. This means you’ll be able to stay in the water for longer. If you’ve spent the winter on land, out of the water, you can follow this acclimation guide over the next two weeks to get used to the low temperatures little by little.

Control your breathing: Try box breathing. Breathe in for 4 seconds and then breathe out for 4 seconds.
Day 1-3: Take a cold shower for 30 seconds.
Day 4-5: Take a cold shower for 45 seconds.
Day 6: Put your head underwater in a cold bath and sit in the bath for 1 minute.
Day 7-8: Take a shower for 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Day 9: Sit in a cold bath for 2 minutes, making sure to put your head underwater.
Day 10-11: Take a cold shower for 2 minutes and 30 seconds, making sure to put your head under the water.
Day 12-14: Alternate between cold baths and cold 3-minute showers.

Remember that it is extremely important to practice controlling your breathing before and during immersion to avoid moving too fast.

It’s crucial to warm up immediately after swimming in cold water

Of all the measures that you have to consider when swimming in cold waters, do not neglect post-exercise. Experts point out that once you get out of the water, your body continues to cool for about 20-30 minutes. This means that your body temperature will be lower 20-30 minutes after swimming than it was when you finished your open water swimming session.
The safest way to rewarm is to:
-Dry off and remove your wet clothes as soon as possible
-Dress in dry warm clothes, including hat gloves and thick socks – ideally lay these out in advance so you can do this quickly
-Have a warm drink
-Shiver (shivering is good – as you rewarm you will shiver less)

Essential to have some knowledge about hypothermia

So that you can keep an eye out for the symptoms, be able to spot others who may be suffering and know how to mitigate against it. Whilst hypothermia may be more commonly associated with winter or spring season swimming, you can get it in summer so it shouldn’t be overlooked. Hypothermia is when your body’s core drops below 35degrees Celsius. It creeps up very gradually on you and is often difficult to spot yourself so always get out before you feel ready to. The main symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, numbness, loss of co-ordination, slurred words and clenched jaw/hands. If you have mild symptoms, gentle movement, hot sugary drinks and wrapping up after swimming can help. For those with more severe symptoms lying them down and seeking medical help may be advisable.

Some tips and tricks

-The best way to start swimming in cold water is to build it up slowly. Keep swimming in the fall and let your body acclimatize to the colder temperatures. Want to start in the spring? Start with short distances and build up to longer swims when the water gets warmer.
-Be safe. Always swim with a buddy and use a swim buoy so you will be visible in the water.
-Pour some (luke) warm water in your wetsuit before you go into the water. The shock of the cold water will be less.
-Swim with two swim caps or start wearing a neoprene cap, a hoodie, gloves and socks when the water temperature drops.
-Wear earplugs to keep the cold water out of your ears.
-Some people like to swim without a wetsuit, but if the water gets colder and you want to swim longer than five to 10 minutes, a wetsuit is a must. Some brands have cold water wetsuits in their collections. You can also wear a neoprene vest under your wetsuit.
-Change into warm clothes after your swim and drink a hot chocolate or (ginger) tea to warm up your core temperature from the inside.
-Be aware of the after drop when cold blood from your limbs and skin returns to your core, causing your core temperature to drop, even if you’re warmly dressed.
-Don’t jump under a hot shower too quickly, this can increase the rate at which cold blood returns to your core and might cause dizziness or fainting.

About some benefits of cold water swimming

  1. It jump-starts your metabolism. Brown fat, or brown adipose tissue, is activated with cold water and helps to maintain body temperature. It also burns calories.
  2. It provides pain relief. Coldwater narrows the arteries, reducing potential inflammation and soothing sore muscles.
  3. It boosts the immune system. Regular exposure to cold water increases your antioxidant glutathione levels, regulating the antioxidant process.
  4. It increases libido. Studies on the benefits of cold water have shown that it increases testosterone production, improving libido and sexual desire in men.
  5. It helps you stay in shape. Exposing yourself to the elements and too difficult conditions means that you are working hard which is a good exercise on a physical level.
  6. It improves your lymphatic circulation. Coldwater forces the lymphatic vessels to contract, pumping lymphatic fluids throughout the body.
  7. Mental clarity. Getting your system up and running gives you clarity and improves concentration.
  8. It reduces stress. Entering cold water causes an explosion of endorphins, as the body uses them to compensate as its own “pain reliever.”
  9. It helps you rest. Cold water stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in the sense of well-being and satisfaction.