Open-water swimming in the winter takes a lot of willpower and preparation. Entering into cold water can place your body into shock which can massively impact your swimming abilities. The effect of shock can vary depending on how well you have prepared your body and mind for winter swimming.
If you are an avid open-water swimmer and are yet to try your hand at winter swimming you may assume that you would follow the same precautions as you would in summer. While there are some similarities, winter swimming is much harder on your body and you should spend a month at minimum getting yourself ready for it.
Below we explore three ways in which you should prepare for winter swimming in order to have the most comfortable, successful, and enjoyable experience.
Acclimating to a temperature essentially means adjusting and getting comfortable within a colder or hotter environment than what you are used to. In winter, the water temperature drops extremely low and it is important to correctly acclimate before attempting to enter the water in order to stay safe.
One of the easiest ways to acclimate for winter swimming is by having cold showers in the lead-up to your swim. This does not mean you should have 30-minute long cold showers as this could be very dangerous, especially in the winter. Instead, you should try ending your usual showers with brief minute-long bursts of cold water.
Over time this repeated exposure to cold water will get your body used to the shock and numbness that you can experience in the open water. Another way to achieve this is by having brief ice baths like professional athletes. Not only does this help your muscles with recovery but if done often will help you acclimate before cold water swimming.
You can also adjust your body’s reaction to cold water by using cold tap water when washing your hands and face as part of your daily routines. Spending time at home to prepare yourself will get you both mentally and physically ready to brace the water.
Acclimatization can also be done when you arrive at the water but it is advised that you do not rely solely on this and instead use both at-home and on-site acclimatization in conjunction with each other.
Once you arrive at the water, there are three acclimatization tips. The first two are very simple and just involve splashing your face with the cold open water and also placing a small amount inside of your wetsuit. This will let your body and mind know what to prepare for. Adding the water inside the wetsuit will later aid your body to regulate heat and stay warm.
The third acclimatization tip for when you have arrived at the open water is to slowly get into the water by perhaps only getting your feet or thighs wet. Stand in the same position for 30 seconds before getting out of the water. Keep repeating this process until your entire body is able to enter the water without a major reaction to the cold temperature.
Acclimating your body to the water temperature is a non-negotiable practice for winter swimming. If you have followed all the correct steps but still feel your body freezing up then leave the water, warm up and try again another day. Do not push yourself too far and risk hypothermia or drowning.
Aside from acclimatization, the next most important thing you must do is ensure you have all the correct equipment. The equipment provides you with protection from the harsh elements of cold water and keeps you safe.
Essential equipment for winter swimming includes:
- Thermal wetsuit
- Rash vest
- Swimming cap
- Neoprene hat
- Neoprene gloves
- Neoprene socks
- Neoprene shoes
- Tow float
- Emergency whistle
When purchasing your equipment, make sure to buy bright colors as this will allow you to easily be seen in case of an emergency. Most items aside from wetsuits especially come in bright neon colors which makes it much easier for you.
You do not need to buy the same equipment that professionals use or the most expensive gear out there. Take your time and find things that are comfortable, reliable, and fit within your budget. The most important thing to get right is deciding on a tow float. Choose a tow float that has plenty of reliable reviews. Many tow floats will even come with an attached emergency whistle and dry bag as a plus.
Buying your clothing in neoprene material will provide you with greater protection against cold water. While all these layers will be frustrating to take off, they are needed in order for you to stay warm.
The third way in which you will need to prepare for winter swimming is by finding a suitable and safe location. A safe location is somewhere you are legally allowed to swim, somewhere where the water is not toxic, and somewhere there isn’t a strong wildlife feature or underwater current.
These requirements may feel ungoogleable but it is super simple. The best way to find a safe location is to search your chosen city alongside open water swimming. This should list a range of options displayed across youtube videos, personal blogs, and even within local newspaper articles.
Search through all these sources and make notes on what each location requires from you. Once you have narrowed down a handful of locations, you should then individually research them to find out as much information as you can before venturing there to swim.
Other ways to find safe locations include speaking to friends, family, and colleagues about whether they have any suggestions. You can even contact local swimming groups and ask to tag along or ask for safety recommendations. Regardless of your research, when you arrive at a location, always look for signs and follow them. If a lake’s website tells you it is open but the sign in front of the water says ‘do not swim’ then do not swim. Signs should always be followed especially during winter as difficulty in the water is more prominent.
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