It’s that time of year again. The weather on the occasional day is starting to get gorgeous and it’s time for an early season tri, but the local lakes and ocean are still a few degrees below comfortable. Below is our list of tips for handling a colder water swim. Also, take a minute and review our previous article on making your first swim of the season a successful one.
Warm up prior
Take a warm-up jog prior to getting in your wetsuit. Besides relaxing you, this will also raise your core temperature and get the engine running. We recommend ten to fifteen minutes with a few faster striders at the end.
Stay warm prior
At most races you end up getting there early and standing around a lot prior to your event. If the air temperature is also colder, either stay in your dry clothes as long as possible or get into your wetsuit, cap, and zip up. Lying around in your black, sun-absorbing wetsuit can be a very energy conserving start to your race day. Standing around in just your trisuit using your energy to stay warm can impact your race later in the day.
Get in slowly
You should be very cautious about the initial shock cold water can be to your system. Take your time and get in slowly, especially if you’re already anxious. The human body will slowly start shutting down blood flow to the extremities and pool heat in your core. As it does this, the water will seem warmer and warmer. You may actually have to get in and out a few times, incrementally going deeper before it seems tolerable, particularly when it’s time to get your head under. Most cold water races are now organized to give you time to get in slowly. Even if you’re facing time constraints with your wave start, do what you need to do to get comfortable on your time scale. Once you’re in, go.
It’s never as bad as it initially seems
See above. As the blood shunts to your core, the ice cream headache, aching hands, and aching feet will fade. Just like those days you step out the door to ride and run and wonder if you put enough clothing on, it’s better once you get moving. As you start exercising, you’ll begin generating heat to keep your core warm. If you’re nervous in open water, the cold can make you even more tense. If it’s an early morning start to your swim, most likely it’ll be dark with the sun just rising which also can increase your tension because the water is darker. Keep rolling your shoulders and neck. Stay loose.
Cover your heat sinks
There are three main areas from which humans leak heat when in cold water: their head, their armpits, and their groin area. You should have two, if not all three of these areas insulated if you’re swimming in colder water. A properly fitting wetsuit is a must. Many the experienced triathlete cringes at the thought of getting a fresh blast of cold water in their ears every time they roll your head to breathe. If you’re swimming in a sleeveless wetsuit, add a neoprene cap. If you’re in a full wetsuit, consider two swim caps, or earplugs. If neoprene caps make you claustrophobic (the chin strap bugs some people), try putting the strap right on your chin instead of under it. You don’t have any muscles in your feet or hands, so covering those doesn’t really provide that much protection and can cause chaffing and ruin your water feel. As always, try all new equipment during training prior to trying it in a race.
Mind your hydration and electrolytes before and after
Because your body will limit the amount of blood to your extremities when you’re in colder water, it can throw off your hydration and electrolyte balance. As the blood pools in your core, your kidneys start to pump off the extra fluid hence needing to pee more frequently (another great way to warm up your wetsuit ;-)). Some people also have trouble with foot cramping in colder water. Make sure you’re hydrated (with the right proportion of electrolytes) when you get in and pay extra attention afterwards to get rehydrated (with the right proportion of electrolytes). Drinking warmer liquids before and after can also help raise your core temperature.
Add optional toe covers and dry clothes on the bike
If it’s not just the water that’s cold, adding layers on the bike can help as well. Adding toe covers to prevent additional heat loss in the wind can help get your feet to not feel like two tiny blocks of ice in your cleats. Reheating your extremities may take the first few miles of the bike ride. Dry clothes (such as a wind breaker vest or arm warmers) can help alleviate the wind chill on the bike. Be prepared to either lose these items or wear them the whole ride. Your hands and feet may not quite work correctly in T1 after being frozen into their swimming position so remember to be cautious over uneven ground and that slow is smooth, smooth is fast. At some races, by the time the end of the hot bike ride rolls around, you’re fondly looking back on your cold water swim that morning.
Have fun and be safe out there!