One of the challenges of living in the Northeast is that we have seasons. With these seasons comes shorter days colder nights, and inevitably freezing fricken pools. Yeah yeah, you can go to the Y or some other club to swim indoors, but that takes time and isn’t as cool when you have your own pool or lake.
For some points of reference, I have raced in pretty cold water. Both Rotterdam and Greece were close to 60 degrees. I have also raced in really warm water, I think Miamiman last year was around 80 degrees. I might say I prefer the colder water overall, but warming up in 60 degree fluid can be rough. It can also be hard to train in, so here are a few things I have found to help at various times.
First up, my limit for swimming is water around 55 degrees. I know there doesn’t seem like alot of difference between 55 and 60, but let me tell you there is. In the Spring we normally open the pool towards the end of April and once the water shows 55 I dive in. Granted most of my swims at this point are still shorter there are times when I am putting in an hour at a clip. The first level of defense for me is a wetsuit. I will use this from about 55-68 degrees in my pool in the Spring. Later in the year I am more acclimated and can tolerate lower temps, but up front I get soft. It happens. If I am swimming open water I will were a wetsuit until mid 70’s, except for if the air temp is also high. Cooler water with a high air temp is very pleasant.
The next layer of warmth comes from a swim cap. For some reason cold water and my ears just don’t get along. I will have splitting headaches almost like brain freeze until I am used to the temps. For colder swims I use a neoprene cap which works a bit better than a standard cap. I have also tried ear plugs in the past, but have found them to be annoying and if anything I would rather put waterproof earbuds in.
My final piece of gear is thermal swim socks. Man do I love these. I came across the Blueseventy model on Amazon last Fall while preparing for a November race. While my core and head were fine, I found my feet were completely numb. The swim socks made a huge difference, I was able to comfortably use them with fins on as well.
Another thing I try to be cognizant of is hypothermia. There is no sense in training to be fit but risking your health or life in the process. There are a number of signs of hypothermia such as confusion, slurred speach, shivering, clumsiness etc. I like to test my dexterity by touching my thumb to each finger on the same hand. If I am not able to do that, it is time to warm up. Most of the things I have seen say an hour in 50-60 degree water is ok, and with the proper gear you should be ok, but it is very important not to swim outside of your ability or without supervision if you are unsure. Luckily my wife can look out the window from the couch and see me flopping around. If I was in open water, I would not go it alone.
There are a few more levels such as jelly for your face and other products to keep you warm that can be applied to the skin. For a really cold Lake Placid 70.3 race I put on embrocation cream under my wetsuit to keep warm. More so for the bike but I figured it wouldn’t hurt on the swim. There is also the old pee-in-the-wetsuit move. Can’t say I know anyone who does that, none at all.
As for recovery afterwards, there are two paths you can take. After an annual January polar plunge a friend of mine will take out a propane heater and some bourbon which does a great job of warming you up. The other more athletic method is to jump in a hot shower, sauna, or spa. You shouldn’t be too cold or you were in too long, but either way, get some heat back in the system and get ready for the next one.