In this guest blog, MySwimPro Ambassador Michelle Rogalski shares tips for swimming in cold water. An avid open water swimmer based in Michigan, USA, Michelle has been swimming in the chilly lakes in her area while her pool is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic radically transformed how everyone on this planet swims. People have been forced to get creative because of mandatory pool closures. Currently, the only option for most of us is swimming in cold, open water, which has many benefits. It’s a great form of exercise that naturally favors social distancing. Additionally, exposure to cold water can alleviate stress and boost immunity, something we could all benefit from right now.
Before swimming in cold water, it is best to do your research, especially since there are major health risks. Swimming in a lake or ocean is not the same as swimming in a pool. Be sure to take these considerations into account when planning your cold water swim.
1. Have a plan
Look at maps and try to check out the water in a small boat beforehand. Swimming shorter laps parallel to shore ensures you have a safe exit strategy in case of emergencies. Don’t swim too far from shore and try to stay in shallow water. It takes some practice, but tying a kayak to your waist while swimming is a favorable option.
2. Acclimate to cold water with repeated exposure
Learn how to regulate your breathing in the beginning during a brief ice bath or a short dip in cold water. The more frequently you immerse in cold water, the faster you will get used to it. Log swim times and water temperatures for each swim to track your acclimatization. Ideally, this process would work out better over the transition from summer to fall and winter. These times are forcing us to discover our true potential!
3. Check the weather
Make sure the weather is visible on the face of your smartwatch. Check on water temperature, wind, currents, wave height, and any other water conditions.
4. Use the right equipment
Some brave souls can endure cold water without a wetsuit for short periods of time, but for most, neoprene is your best friend. Look into neoprene socks, gloves, and a cap or hood. Don’t be afraid to use layers of it, whether it’s doubling up on your wetsuit (this will make your shoulders stiff), or wearing an extra cap or pair of socks.
Shed layers and increase distance until you acclimate or as the temperature increases. Sometimes all you need are neoprene socks and gloves with no wetsuit. Ear plugs are necessary, too. In general, start with a wetsuit and gradually extend skin-only swimming over time at the end of each swim.
Technology wise, I use the MySwimPro app on my Apple Watch to track my swims. I love that I can see a map of my swim and track my data in the app!
Related: 3 Tips for Cold Open Water Swimming
5. Take it slow in the beginning and listen to your body
You’re more likely to become disoriented in cold water, so remaining calm and alert is imperative. Think safety first. Slowly ease into your first cold water swims and don’t push your body past its limits.
6. Don’t forget a tow float
Tow floats increase visibility for people on shore or in boats. Rest your hands on your tow float out of the water if they get too cold. The tow float is useful for indicating current direction, keeping nutrition for easy access, and floating when tired.
Most tow floats come with a dry bag that can be used to store essentials during a swim. If you’re planning to store your phone, double bag it. You can also attach a safety whistle to the outside of the tow float to ward off a boat, call for help, or attract the attention of a beach/swim buddy. You can also use the tow float to store the pair of shoes that you will need for walking to and from your swim.
7. Swim with a buddy
Always swim with a buddy, kayak companion, or have someone on shore watching for safe measure.
8. When you first enter the water, your body will need some time to adjust
Don’t put your head under water immediately. If the water is too cold to submerge your face, do backstroke. Focus on breathing, slowly exhaling in particular, and just keep moving those arms. In a few minutes, you will feel less panicked, especially after the little bit of water that entered your wetsuit increases to around body temperature. It’s normal for your stroke to be sloppy or choppy at first.
9. Keep moving.
If you stop, you will lose heat and will not get it back. Constantly moving is critical to retaining warmth.
10. Look out for obstacles above and below water
You may discover that where you plan to swim is riddled with weeds or too shallow. Look out for jetties, rocks, tree stumps, and old piers. Pay attention to how the water changes from high to low tide. Research what water creatures may live in local lakes and rivers. If a boat is nearby, including behind you, stop until it passes.
11. Learn how to sight far away objects while breathing
It depends on the person, but it is good to sight around every 20 strokes to ensure you swim straight and that you’re aware of your surroundings.
12. Adjust your stroke to the water conditions
A long, full stroke with a little glide will not work in choppy water with a strong current.
13. Watch time rather than distance
Get out while you still feel ok. If you are numb, you have been in the water for too long.
14. The body does not stop cooling once it’s out of the water
During a cold water swim, warm blood is pooled to your core to keep your organs warm, reducing circulation to the skin. An “afterdrop” is a reversal of this process. Your temperature will drop 5-10 minutes after getting out, returning warm blood to extremities and chilled blood to the core. Remember that your hands will probably be numb and dexterity may be temporarily weakened.
Have some sugary food, hot tea, hand warmers, and layers of clothing ready for after the swim. Wear a hat or keep your cap on to retain heat. Get out of the wind and into shelter to change. Have the car heated and ready if necessary. Wait for the shivers to pass before driving. Wait until you aren’t numb to take a warm shower.
Enjoy the Journey
Each open water swim will be different than the last, so be prepared for a new and exciting adventure every time. Acclimatizing to cold water seems daunting, but it really is exhilarating. The first year is a steep learning curve, and each swim will be a big improvement from the last. Progress is inevitable with consistent training over time. Be prepared to explore nature in a completely different way.
I find that I am using less gear and withstanding lower water temperatures for longer periods of time than this time last year. All this is great training for open water competitions in the near future. I am still trying to get used to cold weather after moving north, so being able to swim in lakes for a longer period of the year is really appealing. I track each of my swims using my Apple Watch and the MySwimPro app. I love that I can see my total distance, heart rate and a map of my swim route!
Mixing it Up During Quarantine
Even with access to open water, changes in weather will make swimming every day difficult. For that reason, make each swim meaningful and find alternatives for the days off such as cycling, running, or dryland. MySwimPro has a dryland training plan for every skill level that is easy to follow in your own home, so there is no excuse for not exercising!
Another alternative is to mimic the motions of swimming on land with resistance bands and weights. Some people have even set up a small pool in their backyard and are swimming stationary while tethered. Stay moving and you will be a better swimmer when the pools reopen.
Life is not going as planned. Be gentle with yourself, make good choices, and look for support in each other. Create new goals and do something you always wanted to learn. If you have always admired open water swimmers, now is the time to develop and improve this skill. Remember: Breathe slow, swim fast. When it comes to cold water, it’s about time and not distance. Emerge from this shut-down proficient in cold open water swimming!