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Cold Weather Training Tips: Swimming & Wetsuits

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By Jim P.

swimming-in-cold-water-by-armcurl.jpg If you are a triathlete in Southern California or Florida, you are perhaps not as affected by the cold weather temperatures the rest of the U.S. has already begun experiencing.

It’s October and the cold weather months are quickly approaching.

What follows are some guidelines for choosing cold weather swim gear, plus tips for cold water swim training.


Indoor Training

When cold weather comes, many triathletes are tempted to take all of their triathlon training indoors.

I’m a member of the local YMCA. If I wanted to, I could swim in the pool, bike in a spin class, and run on a treadmill, and never get cold.

I’m not a pool/spin/treadmill-snob, but my suggestion is not to do all of your cold weather triathlon training indoors. No matter how you slice it, a pool is not a lake, a spin class is not the equivalent of a road ride, and a treadmill is not the same as running outdoors. The pool, spin class, and treadmill all have their place in triathlon training — even in the warm weather months — but I still wouldn’t do ALL your cold-weather training indoors. By continuing some of your training outdoors, you will maintain some of that triathlon-specific fitness and mental edge.

Though there are certainly days when the weather conditions prevent you from training outdoors, if you have the right gear you can continue some or most of your outdoor triathlon training during cold-weather months.

Let’s break it down into swimming, biking, and running. Swimming first…

Water Temperature vs Body Temperature

How cold is too cold?

There isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all answer. In general, water needs to be 50+ in temperature for outdoor open water swimming. I know many triathletes who would not do open water swimming unless the water temperature was 60+.

You can check lake temperatures at NOAA. The problem with cold water is its potential to cause hypothermia, which is a condition in which the body’s temperature drops below what’s required for necessary bodily functions.

When the body’s temperature drops below 95 degrees, the loss of body heat can result in the loss of dexterity, loss of consciousness, and eventually loss of life. For example, if you fell off a boat in the middle of a lake that is 32 degrees, your estimated time of survival would be between 15 and 45 minutes before drowning.

I’m not intending to incite fear; just trying to keep you from doing something unwise. On the other hand, if you fell into that same lake at a temperature between 50 and 60 degrees, you could survive between 1-6 hours.


Wetsuits For Cold Water Swimming

cold-water-triathlon-swimming-in-wetsuits-by-klaus.jpg Cold water swimming requires wearing a neoprene swim cap and wetsuit.

Wetsuits trap a thin layer of water in between you and the neoprene. Your body quickly warms up this water which keeps you warm when immersed in cold water.

Some triathletes with a body fat percentage under 5% wear 2 wetsuits.

A fitted wetsuit should be tight like a new skin and must never have loose or baggy areas, because this will negate the warm layer of water around your body by constantly letting in cold water.

The main areas for bad fit are the neck and hip area. Some triathletes purchase a tailor-made custom wetsuit, seeking the perfect fit.

Make sure you investigate the pros and cons of different wetsuits and what water temperatures the wetsuit is capable of handling. Buying a wetsuit is a significant investment, so do your research. Each year, new and improved wetsuits are presented to the triathlon community.

Other Cold Water Swim Gear

In addition to your goggles, other cold water swim gear to consider includes:

    • Earplugs – Many triathletes say that cold water washing in and out of their ear canals causes dizziness, and may be one way the body loses heat.
    • Webbed swim  gloves – The neoprene protects you from the cold water, plus you get the benefits of resistance training while preserving hand dexterity.
    • Neoprene swim socks – They fit snugly to minimize water entry while swimming.
    • Neoprene swim hood – A necessity if you really want to stay warm.


Cold Water Swim Training Tips

A few final suggestions as it relates to cold water swim training are:

1. Don’t swim alone. Find a partner or two. Or better yet, find or start a local triathlon club and plan periodic cold water swims together.

2. Practice with your cold water gear inside first. Admittedly, you may feel a little strange wearing the stuff in an indoor pool, but it will help you get comfortable with the gear. Otherwise, you have to deal with the cold water and get comfortable with new gear all at once. Why add that stress to the cold water temps?

3. Do a warm-up. First, do any stretches you normally would do at the pool. Warm up your muscles with forward, backward and cross-over arm swings. You should spend a couple minutes on these exercises before you enter the water. Elevate your pulse by jumping up and down for a minute or so, maybe even take a jog down the beach.

Check out this video of a triathlon swim clinic preparing triathletes for the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. The water was 54 degrees. If they can do it, so can you.


By doing some cold water swims in the off-season you will be ahead of the game when the race season returns.