Cold water swims boost open water performance

Reap rewards in the summer by cold water swimming in winter

During the winter months, many open water swimmers retreat to the indoor pools to work on aerobic fitness and technique, but there is nothing that replicates the reality of the open water. Occasional pockets of cold water occur in many swims, sometimes they are significant and can take your breath away. You need to prepare to swim in water that is at least a few degrees colder than the average expected water temperature of your swim. Prepare for the unexpected and get comfortable being uncomfortable!

A water temperature difference of even half a degree can make a considerable difference to your swimming performance and comfort, so spending time over the cooler months to prepare yourself will reap rewards during the ‘season’ on those cloudy, inclement days.

“Many fit swimmers can swim for long distances or overcome rough conditions, but cold water is often the largest single obstacle to success” Stephen Munatones. WOWSA

One of the benefits of living on the North Devon coast is that generally, we are a little more robust thanks to our changeable weather! Healthy, active swimmers often find their tolerance for cold water is typically pretty good, which helps with the cold water acclimation (CWA) journey.

Be willing to get in cold water!

Cold water acclimatisation is a process of gradually increasing your resistance to cold water through regular exposure…CWA is not an easy road for anyone. There is no fixed timetable.

How do I acclimate for cold water swimming?

The simple answer is, you need to be willing to get in cold water and be patient! Gradually building up your exposure until you can tolerate it for long enough periods to complete your desired distance.

CWA will happen when you frequently and constantly expose yourself to the cold water. After the initial shock of your first few dips, you will gradually increase from a few minutes to several kilometres in cold water.

How to prepare and what to expect

Acclimation begins before you strip off and get in the water and it continues long after you have exited the water.

During cold water swims your muscles will require more energy at a faster rate. So, it’s important to be well-nourished and hydrated before you get in.

Being prepared is the key! You will need to get out of your swimsuit and dry off as soon as possible after you exit. Prepare your exit zone before you get in. Have your towels, clothes and warm-up liquids laid out ready for easy access. Consider protecting them from the weather and elements too – we do live in the UK!

When you do enter the water I teach all my swimmers to float for the first 60-90 seconds on their back. This allows the body time to adjust to the shock, and the swimmer an opportunity to focus on their breathing, taking deep inhalations and controlled exhalations. This helps minimise the risk of hyperventilation and reduces the risk of cold water shock. At this point, it is a mental battle rather than a physical one as you need to fight your natural response to gasp for air and thrash around trying to keep moving. Think about being CALM and CONTROLLED!

Do I need to gain weight?

To swim well in cold water it is not necessary to gain weight.

The fastest marathon swimmers generally have the same body fat percentages as those of a competitive pool swimmer.

Some of the fastest swimmers in the history of English Channel swimming focused on acclimating themselves to cold water rather than gaining weight. For example, Petar Stoychev from Bulgaria who swam the channel in 6 hours and 57 minutes in 2007.

Safety first…

“Cold water swimming requires a fine balance that you must determine for yourself.”

S. Munatones, President WOWSA

The golden rules of open water swimming are of paramount importance during CWA:

  • Never attempt to swim alone
  • Formulate your plan before you get in the water, based on current water temperatures, weather conditions, air temperatures and tidal position. There’s no point formulating a plan 3 weeks ago, you need to swim to the conditions you are presented with at the time.
  • Know when it is time to get out. You need to finish your cold water swims while they are still fun. If you have stopped shivering and things are starting to get hazy with random thoughts and incoherency your support team need to act quickly.
  • Have access to the emergency services within easy reach. If you are in a sea pool or lido have a mobile phone on the side in a waterproof pack. If you are in the sea have a mobile phone inside your tow float or tucked inside your swimsuit.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and be prepared to act for yourself and fellow swimmers. Check by asking very direct questions, e.g. How old are you?, Where do you live? What is my name? If the swimmer cannot answer quickly they need to immediately exit the water and you need to act.
The Surf Swim School based in Westward Ho, North Devon. Specialist open water swimming coaching for all swimmers.

Interested in cold water acclimation?

The Surf Swim School based in Westward Ho! offer weekly CWA classes on a Saturday 4pm-5pm at the Sea Pool. The sessions are FREE and run by qualified Open Water Coach, Claire Richardson. Full safety cover is provided by our qualified Surf Lifeguards. If you would like to join us, please contact us to register for your place.

To learn more about WOWSA please click here

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