Warming Up in Cold Water

Fall has arrived for most of us that means lake and ocean temperatures are falling. For most triathletes that means it is time to take the wetsuit out of the closet.  For those of us who are competitive open water swimmers, wetsuits are not legal in races.  I have seen race water temps get into the mid 60’s Fahrenheit, this cold water can be fast for those prepared to deal with the cold.

What I often see at these cold-water races is something that concerns me every time I see it happen. People don’t want to get in and warm up.  It is just too uncomfortable, so they just wait to the race begins and dive in under the pressure of the starters gun. When the water is cold enough and you dive in dry it will cause your chest muscles to constrict, make breathing difficult, and usually painful.  This chest constriction can be painful enough and last longer than you can tolerate, forcing swimmers to drop out of the race in the first one-hundred to two-hundred yards of the race. I’ve seen less confident swimmers not ever want to swim open water again.

You must get into cold water and adjust.  Here is what you should do:

  • Wade in, allowing your body to adjust (which for most of us means get a bit numb)
  • Progress only as quickly as you can do without trouble breathing.
  • Once your chest has had a chance to adapt begin swimming at a moderate pace giving the shoulder muscles the chance to adapt.
  • Do this close enough to race start that you will remain wet and adapted to the cold. If there is longer break between your warm up and race start then is ideal, get wet as soon as you can before the race start.  The second time will be less painful and will happen much quicker.

How long does this process take?  Depends on the air temp, water temp and you.  In general, I would recommend allowing 15 – 20 minutes to “numb” up before cold water races.

Up Next: Kickboards, why I never use one

Leave a Comment