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How to Stay Warm in Cold Water

Unless you are a genetic marvel like Lynne Cox (who swam to Antarctica without a wetsuit), you are probably going to have to be proactive if you want to stay warm while swimming in cold water. Here are three things you can do to stay warm when you’re swimming in the open ocean, a lake, or your local pool when the heater goes out in the middle of winter.

Hot Tip: Hypothermia is Dangerous

Hypothermia, or having a below-normal body temperature, can be life-threatening. If you are planning to swim in very cold open water, make sure to have a friend in a boat nearby and know the warning signs of hypothermia.

Get the Gear

While plenty of people espouse the benefits of swimming without a wetsuit, some of us are just not designed to stay warm without a little help from our gear.

Wear a Wetsuit

If you are frequently going swim in cold water, buy a wetsuit. There are different kinds of wetsuits for different kinds of cold water activities. Some are made for surfing, some for diving, and some for triathlons. Get one designed for triathletes—they will minimally restrict your shoulder, hip, and knee movement.

The added bonus of a wetsuit: it will make you more buoyant. Added buoyancy, by definition, means you will ride higher in the water, experience less drag, and be able to swim faster. And, the faster you get to the end of your swim, the less time you’ll have to spend in that cold water!

Hot Tip: Rent or Buy a Wetsuit

 Wetsuits can be expensive! Luckily, swimming in a surf or dive wetsuit is entirely possible. Find a local dive shop, and you can rent a wetsuit. Keep in mind that the thicker the suit, the more it will restrict your shoulder movement and the more likely you are to chafe.  If you will be using your wetsuit regularly, the expense is definitely worth it. Rental fees can quickly add up.

Cover Your Head

Wearing a cap can help your body retain heat. A neoprene cap is the warmest. (Neoprene is wetsuit material.) And silicone, thanks to its thickness, is warmer than standard latex caps. Many, many people wear “double” caps: two silicone, one latex cap under a silicone one, or two latex caps. Wear a cap (or two!) when you’re headed to swim in cold water, and you will never have to roll your eyes at the sound of your mother saying, “If you think you are going to swim across the English Channel dressed like that….”

Consider Wearing Booties and Gloves

We’ve covered (pun intended) probably the biggest heat sink on your body: your head. But what about your hands and feet? Well, you can buy neoprene booties and gloves to keep those extremities warm. If you’ve ever jumped into a pool with shoes on, you know that at first it will feel weird to have your hands and feet covered. Then again, if the water is cold enough, you probably won’t care.

Hot Tip: Two Old-School Strategies

Some open water swimming enthusiasts swear that ear plugs not only help them stay warm, but also improve their perception of balance. And, for decades, open water swimmers have insulated themselves from the cold by smearing a layer of petroleum jelly on any exposed skin.

Get Moving

Pick Up Your Stroke Rate & Kick Faster

Swimming with a higher stroke rate and rapid kick will elevate your heart rate and your metabolism, which should keep you feeling warm. In a somewhat cold pool, it probably will not take much to counteract the chill of the water. Just know that if you stop between sets the cold will creep in faster than you might expect. Especially if you are swimming in open water, don’t overdo it! You want to make sure you have enough energy to finish your swim and that you are swimming with the best possible technique.

Get on Your Back & Breathe

Most of the time your body just needs a couple of minutes to adjust to the cold water. All those nerves in your face are extremely sensitive. Swimming head-down freestyle in super-cold water may be making you feel colder than you actually are. Plus, cold water on your face can stimulate your body’s automatic “cold water shock” response, which is the source of those shallow, almost-panicky breaths you feel like you have no choice but to take.

Take control of your breathing with one or all of these tricks.

Do Backstroke

Take a moment on your back to get your breathing under control. By turning on your back, you are getting your ultra-sensitive face out of the water. It should only take a few seconds on your back for your breathing to calm down. (Although, true, those few seconds may feel more like minutes.)

Switch between Freestyle & Backstroke

Hot Tip: Sighting

How can you sight when swimming backstroke in open water? Get your look on the transition between freestyle and backstroke. It fits into the stroke a little more seamlessly on the free-to-back transition than the other way around.

If you find that you can swim backstroke but not freestyle, try flipping onto your back to breathe, instead of breathing to the side. Do as much backstroke as you need to return to regular breathing again. As your body adjusts to the cold, you’ll need fewer and fewer strokes on your back. Once you are down to only two strokes of backstroke, try swimming a few strokes of head-up freestyle when you need a breath. After taking a few head-up breaths, you will probably be ready to resume your usual freestyle.

Focus on Exhaling

Whether you are swimming freestyle or backstroke, focus on exhaling. Not only does exhaling counteract your body’s inhale reflex, which is part of that shock response to cold water, but also emptying your lungs completely lets you inhale more effectively on next breath. You will get better air exchange, and that will keep you from hyperventilating.

Blow Bubbles

It sounds silly, but bubbles work. When you finally put your face in the water, focus on blowing bubbles. In doing so, you will be thinking about something other than the cold. But more importantly, blowing bubbles forces you to exhale.

Remember the Basics

Swimming in cold water does not have to be torturous. Get some gear to help you stay warm, always keep moving, and try to take control of your breathing. Do those three things, and you’ll be a warmer, happier cold-water swimmer!

Here are three things you can do to stay warm when you're swimming in the open ocean, a lake, or your local pool when the heater goes out in the middle of winter.
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