Open Water Swimming

Surviving Late-Season Open Water Swimming

BY Patrick Smith

For many athletes, indoor swimming isn't a viable option right now, so for those striving to maintain their training, staying warm in open water is a must.

There is nothing quite like an open water swim. Yes, the pool is convenient, efficient and may even be heated, but gliding through glass flat water in the outdoors has a particular serenity. On top of that, right now, your local pool is most likely a) closed, or b) requiring advanced scheduling for short time slots that don’t work for your training schedule. But the days are getting short and the temps are dropping. Carefree open water season is ending. Not to worry! With these tips, you can extend your open water season safely and train without grappling with the pool waitlist.

1. Prepare Ahead

Shoulder season open water swimming significantly increases the risk of hypothermia. To mitigate this, pack a bag with more than just swim gear. Pack extra towels, dry warm clothing, calorically rich food (gels, blocks, fruit, etc), warm drink (tea, coffee, etc), and a warm blanket. Before you leave, check the water and air temperature. Sites like this list data for many bodies of water. Beware, windchill and high humidity amplify cold effects. Exercise caution. 

2. Wear Appropriate Swim Layers

Your swimsuit is not enough. Water temperature plummets through the Fall. For reference, a pool will range from the high 60s to low 80s Fahrenheit (16-27 Celcius). Open water may never reach the high 60s. Your temperature tolerance depends on what you normally swim in. Invest in a decently thick wetsuit. If you live in a cooler environment, add in booties, gloves, and a neoprene hood.

3. Get in Slowly

Cold shock is the fastest way to a bad day. Get in feet first where you can keep a hand on a flotation aid. Tread water while your wetsuit warms up. Get entirely underwater to allow your head to adapt. If you are unsure, swim with a flotation device. After this normalizing period, if brain freeze or runaway breathing persist (symptoms of worsening chill), get out. Hypothermia, much like hypoxia, makes us dumb. If a chill is setting in, get out before your brain starts lying to you.

4. Keep Moving

Once normalized to the water temperature, get to swimming. As long as you have the calories in you, the movement will generate heat and fight the chill. If, mid-workout, you notice that you are getting chilled again, get out. Once you do get out, keep moving until you are dry. Walk around as you towel off. Airflow over your body will pull moisture away and the motion will generate heat.

5. Use the Buddy System (And/Or Be Visible)

The best open water is the glass-calm times early in the morning and late in the evening. This also means twilight, or blinding, low-angle sun for other water users. Swimmers are hard to see in the best lighting conditions. You don’t want to be hit by a boat, and boaters don’t want to hit a swimmer. If a protected swim area is not available, take extra steps for safety. The simplest buddy system is telling your buddy where you will be and when you will check-in via text/call/email to let them know you are safely out of the water. The next-level buddy system is having them alongside you, as a spotter, in a more visible watercraft. If you are swimming without a spotter, increase your visibility to others with a hi-vis, open water swim buoy. 

6. Get Dry ASAP

Done swimming? Being wet is now your enemy. Dry quickly. Have your towels and a dry change of clothes accessible. If conditions are colder, prep your vehicle so you can get in right away and run the heater. Dry off and change quickly so you aren’t spending what calories you have left in your body battling cold clammy conditions.

7. Eat & Drink

Swimming in cold water burns more calories. Once out, get calories back in. Preferably in a quickly digestible form (e.g. simple sugars) for fast action. Warm, not hot, drinks heat the core and can feel like a treat. Emphasis on warm. Piping hot liquids are a recipe for burns.

Final Note: Swim Safely

Hypothermia kills. Voluntarily getting completely wet, outside, in the Fall raises that risk. While these tips extend access to open water, practice an abundance of caution. Unsure? Don’t go. Or at least don’t go alone. Open water is fun. Keep it fun, by staying safe.

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About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach licensed through USA Cycling. He offers consultations, fully customized training plans, and prewritten training plans you can purchase through the TrainingPeaks plans store. You can learn more at his TrainingPeaks coaching page, his website, or by reaching out.