Almost all triathlon coaches agree that the thing holding their athletes’ swimming back is lack of time in the open water. But, you might argue, the water’s too cold—especially in the early spring. While there is definitely a lower end where no one should go out swimming in (sub-50 degrees F is when things can get sketchy), it’s also tough to argue that swimming in the pool for months on end, then jumping into icy water for your early-season tune up is a good strategy. No matter how fast of a swimmer you are in the pool, if you’re not adapted to chilly water—or prepared with the right gear—you’ll probably struggle more than the slower swimmer that’s been icing it out for the last month in the open water. Trust me, I’ve been the bad swimmer who prepared in the cold water, only to beat my poorly adapted fishy competition. But you’ll also need some cold-water swim gear to help you through.
So if you’ve got a body of water near you that’s just starting to touch the 50-degree F mark and you don’t have any health issues (it’s always best to check with your doctor first), now is the time to dip in your toes. Even if it’s just for a short 20–30-minute swim once per week, it’s time well spent if you’re racing anywhere with temperatures under about 65 degrees F. Learning how to breathe properly, building up tolerance, and even just realizing that even though it’s cold, it’ll get better after a few minutes, are all things you don’t want to wing on race morning. With that in mind, there are some essentials that will help you deal with the temps, regardless of your prep work (or the lack thereof). First we’ll talk about some strategies for coping with chilly water, how to wear the right gear and when, then look at some cold-water swim gear:
To Feel Better In The Cold Water, Be In The Cold Water More
Though we touched on this above, it’s so important, it bears repeating. I know people who have tried to acclimatize to cold water by submerging themselves in ice baths: It sounds crazy, but it actually helps! Not everyone lives by a chilly body of clean and accessible water, so if that’s you, ask around to see if there are any local pools with a reputation for being on the chilly side. Pro tip: High-level competition pools are generally colder than your local YMCA. Bear in mind we’re talking about swimming pools that are likely in the 72–80-degree F range, but you can also probably find unheated outdoor pools (they’ll be the empty ones) that are much colder. If you do have that super cold body of water nearby, be sure you’re properly equipped (we’ll get to that soon), as a few simple and inexpensive accessories can make a huge difference. Spend some time in these bodies of water, and your own body will thank you on race day.
Make A Splash
Whether you can acclimatize or not, there are a few things you can do on the spot to help reduce cold-water anxiety. If possible, don’t let the first time your face hits the water be when the gun goes off. Yes, being in the cold water sucks, but it’s going to happen, so it’s better to get some on you—whether it’s in the form of a warmup or simply by splashing water on your head and face repeatedly. The last thing you want to do is go from super warm in your cozy wetsuit to super cold suddenly. This can cause your lungs to contract and make you breathe in sharply, whether you want to or not. You also might get the dreaded ice-cream headache that’ll likely go away after a few minutes, but can make for a very uncomfortable start. The more water you can get on your body—your head in particular—before the race or the swim starts, the better.
Just like when you’re going out for a ride or run, it’s important to layer on your gear. Even if you don’t have any of the cold-water specific stuff we’ll talk about below, you can still fashion some DIY thermal gear with what you already have. For the coldest swims, veteran triathletes recommend the “cap sandwich”: First, a latex cap on top of your bare head—covering as much as you can, particularly the front—then, a neoprene cap if you have it, or a thicker silicone cap if that’s all you’ve got, finally put your race cap or another thin latex cap on top. The idea here is that you’ll have a nearly dry head with a layer of warm, relatively dry, air between you and the icy depths. Same thing for your body—if you have a long race suit, be sure to wear that underneath your wetsuit, even if you’re not racing. Better yet, throw your most maximum coverage swimsuit (jammers for guys, one-piece for ladies) underneath that race suit as well.
After You’re Cold, Get Warm Fast
Anyone who swims in cold water regularly knows that even the slowest swim can wipe you out for hours if you’re not careful. Your body uses a TON of energy just to keep you warm—more so if you’re a typically fit and svelte triathlete—so you may have that “long-ride-tired” feeling. The best way to combat a day of lethargy (unless that’s what you’re going for!) is to make sure you get full-body warm right after you hop out of the water. Cold acclimatization is important, but staying cold for too long after the swim is just a recipe for unnecessary fatigue. Right when you’re finished, be sure to get out of your wet gear immediately, put on as much dry stuff as you have—heavy shirt, jacket, socks, and a thick hat—and move around. Grab a hot coffee, tea, or even just a mug of hot water to help reheat your core as fast as you can. The quicker you do this, the quicker you’ll be ready for your next workout.
Now that we’ve gone through some basic cold water coping strategies, let’s look at some gear that’ll make the whole ordeal even easier:
Cold-Water Swim Gear: Earplugs
Mack’s Pillow Soft Silicone Putty Ear Plugs
Starting at $3.50 for two pairs, Amazon.com
These are at the top of the list for a reason: Veteran cold water swimmers swear by these inexpensive silicone ear plugs because they mold to your ears, keep water out, and increase coverage in an area where cold water can enter and cause problems. While good ear plugs will never replace a wetsuit and good head covering, they can prevent issues related to the inner ear and cold water. Wearers report less disorientation both in and while exiting the water, and a more comfortable cold-water swimming experience altogether.
Cold-Water Swim Gear: Cap
Orca Thermal Neoprene Swim Cap
Nothing too fancy here, but a good neoprene swim cap can oftentimes be even more important than a thermal wetsuit. Orca’s version has an adjustable chin piece to help keep the cap on (neoprene doesn’t stay put as well as latex or silicone), and 3mm of thickness to help create some great “meat” for your cap sandwich.
Cold-Water Swim Gear: Wetsuits
HUUB Aegis III Thermal Wetsuit
Combining HUUB’s Aegis III wetsuit with a thermal liner makes this a great choice for someone looking for a cold-water wetsuit without breaking the bank. All of the standard features of the Aegis III—an “exoskeleton” to help with alignment, varied neoprene thickness from 5mm down, and a breakaway zipper for speedy transitions—combine with a soft, smooth jersey to help keep warm when temperatures drop.
BlueSeventy Thermal Reaction Wetsuit
This super warm version of BlueSeventy’s popular Reaction wetsuit has a “zirconium” liner built in that’s thicker and less water absorbent than their regular jersey liner. Boasting a softer, almost wool-like feel, this wetsuit combines a thicker liner with 4/5mm neoprene around the core for warmth and floation with thinner 2mm neoprene in places that require more flexibility—like the legs, back, and shoulder. BlueSeventy says this suit will work down to 48 degrees F (that’s really cold!).
Roka Maverick Pro Thermal Wetsuit
For those looking for an even higher-end experience with a thermal suit patterned after Roka’s Maverick Pro, check out the Maverick Pro Thermal. Available in both men’s and women’s versions, Roka couples a soft and warm thermal liner with a 5mm max neoprene and their unique “arms up” design to reduce resistance while going through your stroke.
Deboer Flōh 1.0
No, that price is not a typo—if you want to go all in on flexibility and warmth, this is about as high end as you can get with a wetsuit. Born in South Africa, where they know cold water, this deluxe wetsuit has a unique hydrophobic lining to help with buoyancy while retaining warmth and a soft feel. Combined with Deboer’s limestone neoprene that’s more buoyant and better for the environment than standard neoprene, this hand-glued wetsuit has a very specific neck design that will help cold water stay outside where it belongs.
Cold-Water Swim Gear: Socks
BlueSeventy Thermal Swim Socks
Though socks and gloves should probably be at the bottom of your cold-water gear list, well behind earplugs, neoprene cap, and thermal wetsuit, for those super cold and long swims—think Norseman or Alaskaman—they’re good to have. These socks have a “zirconium” liner to help with warmth and an increased length to prevent water from coming in.
Cold-Water Swim Gear: Gloves
XTERRA Lava Swim Thermal Gloves
While these are good for very cold swim training, be sure gloves are legal in any tris you might want them for. Some race directors do not allow anything on your hands because they could contain webbing that could act as paddles. Either way, these 2mm neoprene gloves should be worn under your wetsuit sleeves for best use.
Chris Foster is a former member of the U.S. National Elite Triathlon Team and spent a decade traveling the world as an ITU and short-course pro. He’s made more mistakes in ten years of being a young and reckless triathlete than most people make in a lifetime, so he knows a thing or two about what works and (more importantly) what doesn’t. He is also the author of The Triathlete Guide to Sprint and Olympic Triathlon Racing.