I did my first open water swim about five years ago. A local venue had opened up early in the season. In fact, way early, like May 7. To say that the water was cold is to understate the facts. It was officially listed at 55* but it may have been even colder.
If you swim in a place where the lakes freeze in the winter, then you probably have or will deal with very cold water early in the season. Despite the incredible benefits of a neoprene wetsuit, the cold still seeps in.
Based on my own hard lessons as well as confirmation from my coach here are the steps I suggest you take to get yourself used to swimming in open water.
1) Step in easily at first. Your bare foot going into the water will be enough of a shock. Fortunately, feet are usually tough and the adjustment will be quick.
2) Once you are in to about chest height, slowly put your face in the water. I think it helps to blow bubbles (kind of like you’re back in your first childhood swim lesson). You’re going to have to breath that way once you actually start swimming so why not. This will be the most shocking part of all. Your face is full of both blood flow and nerves and as it is exposed to water that is forty to forty-five degrees colder than your body, the reaction will be to gasp. That’s okay.
3) Continue to repeat the process until you are able to do so without the gasping reaction. Be warned, this sounds easier than it is. Your natural instincts are going to scream at you to pull your face out and go back to the warm, dry land. Bear down and keep going. It might take a few or even several minutes but clearing this shock from your system will make swimming easier.
4) Once the gasping is gone or at least reasonable well controlled, throw yourself all the way in. Bob, jump, slide, whatever but completely immerse yourself. This will allow a layer of water to seep between your skin and your suit. Initially that layer will be cold but your body will quickly heat it and your suit will hold that heat.
5) Still with me? Good. Now do some strokes. Nothing like 4X100 or what you might consider a warm-up in the pool. Just enough to get the feeling of moving through the water, breathing and also warming up your body.
Ideally, you’ll be able to do this both in practice sessions at open water venues as well as in the time leading up to a race start. Unfortunately, life is often not ideal. Not every locality has much to offer in the way of safe and legal open water swimming and some races either can’t or won’t offer pre-race warmups. In the absolute worst case, you can use the beginning part of the swim as your warm-up. This will cost you some time but it’s better to be prepared. Should that happen, I recommend that you move as far to the outside of the pack as possible. You’ll save yourself the chaos of the swim start.
Needless to say, anyone who wants to partake in the sport of triathlon, let alone open water swimming should be absolutely certain they are healthy enough to do so. The deaths and near-death incidents reported from races are often the result of a previous cardiac condition. The cold and stress of the swim can and has brought on cardiac arrest and subsequent drowning. No matter how bad you want to do a race, it’s never worth risking life and health. If you’re not sure if you’re healthy enough, go so a physician and find out.
Best of luck to everyone training and racing this weekend and thanks for reading!