When preparing for an open-water race, a swimmer must try and control as many factors as possible, everything from their training in the water to nutrition. Unfortunately, there is one aspect of open-water races that cannot really be replicated in a pool: the cold water you get in a lake or in the sea.
Although most open-water races are organised in the summer, the season (including the triathlon season) begins and ends when the outside temperature, particularly the water temperature, is low. So, what should you do in this kind of situation?
First of all, you need to know that as soon as your body enters the cold water, the receptors on your skin trigger off the so-called “cold shock response”: this results in breathlessness and a rise in your heart rate and blood pressure. It takes your body about two minutes to get used to the new conditions.
In this article we will give you a few tips to prepare you for all this.
The first thing to take care of is your physical preparation and clothing.
In FINA open-water races, it is compulsory to wear a wetsuit (Read here to find out more) when the water temperature is below 18°C., making it an essential accessory. It must be both tightfitting and comfortable. It must allow you to swim freely without letting any irksome cold water to seep through.
As well as a wetsuit, a swim cap and goggles are also vitally important.
You lose lots of heat through your head, where your nerve ends are particularly sensitive, so you need to protect your head as much as possible. Neoprene swim caps are now available that provide extra protection, but the “old-fashioned” trick of wearing two silicon swim caps is also an excellent remedy against the cold. Your swim goggles will do the rest, protecting your face and eyes against the cold water.
Lastly, it is advisable to do some warmup exercises before entering cold water.
One very simple exercise is to jump up and down on the spot, moving your arms up and down. This exercise will get your blood circulating better and transfer more oxygen to your muscles, which will then be ready to handle any shock from the cold.
The hardest part is actually entering the water. As I have said, cold water Initially causes cold shock, so it is important to learn some techniques for dealing with that.
The first thing to focus on is control over your breathing. Take deep breaths and breathe out slowly as you enter the water. It will help you relax and continue breathing without gasping. The second aspect is mind control and self-talking. Keep on saying to yourself that “everything is okay” and keep in the moment. Do not think about the cold, just concentrate on other things like your breathing, arm stroke and race tactics.
Right after the race is the crucial moment for enabling your body to return to its ideal temperature. Our first piece of advice is to cover up, particularly your extremities that really suffer when you swim in cold water. Make sure you have some kind of headgear (perhaps a woollen hat) and thick socks. They will help your body to return to its optimum temperature very quickly. A second piece of advice is to have a hot drink, such as tea, coffee or other hot drinks. As well as helping you warm up, they are also a real treat.
Finally, a sauna or hot shower will really help you feel better and recover after swimming in the cold!
John W. Castellani – Prescribing Exercise for cold-weather environments