Lots of swim talk recently in “Beginner’s Luck” (Part I and Part II here), I know. Although the swim is usually the “shortest” distance, it seems to be often the most troublesome, especially when the water is cold.
While we don’t always have the cold water concerns in the summer, cold water is often the enemy of the swim, and especially the new swimmer. Here are some of the best cold tips from my frigid swim resume, which includes that long, cold dip in Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2013 and 53 degrees in Lake Lanier. Brrrrrr!
The Importance of a Good Wetsuit
Often the first line of defense to the cold water, I present the wetsuit. Terrifying, I get it, but thet wetsuit is a good friend once you get used to it.
If you can, get fitted, in person, for a wetsuit. Find a local triathlon store and make an appointment. They’ll put you in a decent entry-level wetsuit, tell you how to put it on, and more. I recognize that not everyone lives near a tri store, so the next thing I would do is to call a wetsuit company and talk to their sales department; discuss the types of suits, racing you will do (it’s an investment!), and what will fit you the best. Most companies have very generous return policies, so try them out.
Whether to purchase a full-sleeve or sleeveless depends on your race goals, your comfort level and the water temps. If you will be swimming long distances in cold water (below 65 degrees) over long-run, go ahead and get the full-sleeved one. If the pressure from the suit scares you or your water temps are warmer (over 65 degrees), a sleeveless option will relieve some of the claustrophobic feelings and keep you warm enough. [If you are rich and money is no object, buy one of each.] If you are thinking of renting/borrower a wetsuit for race day, just make sure that you find a similar one to practice in.
The number one tip to putting on wetsuit is this: be sure that you pull the wetsuit up as high as you can before putting your arms in (think: panty hose… get it up high in the crotch!). It will make the pressure on your shoulders and chest much less, and ensure that you have enough suit for your shoulders and arms to move comfortably.
Dealing with the Frigid Water
Okay, now that you have the wetsuit, how do we still deal with the cold water?
First, ease into the cold water. Don’t jump in like a crazy person and try to swim right away for your first time—that will shock your system. Instead, wade in up to your knees, and take a few minutes to acclimate. Think about warm things: coffee, sunshine, puppies (I am not kidding). Then wade up to your hips, acclimate and so on. Take some time with your chest, as that is also a shocker—add some cold water into the wetsuit and adjust.
I think the toughest part about cold water is the face. Still standing in the water, take your time putting your face into the water. No need to throw your whole body forward to swim yet. Just ease into this as well. (There will come a time in your triathlon “career” where you can do this—but if it’s a fear, take your time!). Start by placing your face in the water for a second, and then out a few times. Next, put your face in the water and blow out all the air in your lungs, and then raise your face out of the water. Back into the water, blow out all of the air, repeat 5-7 times. Once you have your face nice and warmed up, you are ready take a few strokes parallel to the shore.
With regard to the wetsuit in the cold water for the first time—simply be prepared for a strange pressure on your shoulders and chest. Mentally acknowledge that it will feel different, and appreciate the wetsuit for: keeping you warm and being a lovely added bit of floatation.
Practical, Quick Tips for Suiting up at the Ocean, Lake or River
– Put your wetsuit on at your car and have your buddy help zip you up. Yes, that’s right—a buddy. (Don’t swim alone.) Also, do not try and put the wetsuit on while you are on sand or dirt. It’s a mess.
– Don’t worry about what you look like in the wetsuit. Seriously. Very few people actually look cool in a wetsuit.
– Wear your flip-flops down to the water’s edge—don’t risk a foot injury of the broken glass, rock or animal sort.
– Hide your car key in a towel or baggie, or have someone watch your stuff. Better yet, have a swim safety device, like a New Wave Swim Buoy, which serves as safety, flotation and a key-phone holder.
– Add water into your wetsuit. I know, I know—that seems crazy, but the suit is designed to work with the water to warm it up and keep you warm.
– As you get acclimated to the cold, continue to ensure that you exhale all your air out under the water; this will keep your breathing regulated, especially in the cold water. Failing to breathe out can start a cycle of panic, so keep your breathing as calmly and normally as you can.
– Keep your safety in mind at all times. If you are freaked out, then stop. Regroup. Safety first, always.
P.S. – You got this, fishy.
Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is the host of the new podcast, “The Same 24 Hours,” a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith has teamed up with amazing experts to bring programs from peak performance to nutrition to her own sobriety group to her social following. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com.