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by Elaine K Howley

April 27, 2020

Your guide to getting out of neoprene for open water swimming

Polly Madding looked out across the Boston Harbor in 2017 and wondered why she couldn’t swim there. A little research later, she learned that she actually could and signed up for her first open water event on June 4, 2017. She purchased a sleeveless wetsuit for the occasion and had a wonderful time, except for the massive chaffing she experienced on the back of her neck.

Since that first open water swim, though, Madding has gradually relied less and less on a wetsuit, and she has set her sights on a few open water swimming events that prohibit the use of wetsuits. She loves the freedom of being in open water without a protective layer of neoprene. “You can feel the water so much better” without a wetsuit, she says.

But getting comfortable in open water without a wetsuit isn’t necessarily a linear progression, and it hasn’t always been easy for her to swim without it. “The first day I decided not to wear one was in early July,” she recalls. She was meeting a group of swimmers at Nahant Beach, north of Boston, and had checked online the temperature reading from a nearby weather buoy. “It was 60-something, so I said, ‘I’ll try it without the wetsuit,’” she recalls.

However, the online temperature reading was way off. “It was actually 52 degrees,” Madding recalls. “Had I known it was going to be 52, I wouldn’t have gone without the wetsuit.” But she went anyway and over time, the swimmer from Massachusetts has gotten better at swimming long distances in cold water without a wetsuit.

Today, Madding is training for the 8-mile Boston Light Swim, an event that features water temps in the upper 50s or low 60s and prohibits the use of wetsuits. She’s also gotten into winter swimming and uses shorter sessions in very cold water that can sometimes hover around the freezing mark to help her feel more confident about not wearing the wetsuit in more moderate but still cold temperatures this coming summer.

If you’re considering ditching the wetsuit in the future, Madding offers a few tips and suggestions that have helped her on her journey and may be useful for you in getting out of neoprene.

  • Start small and take it slow. Get used to the feeling of shorter swimming sessions to learn how your body reacts to cold water. Incrementally lengthen your time in cold water with subsequent swimming sessions over a period of weeks or months to build up your acclimation to the cold and tolerance for its effects.
  • Listen to your judgement. Hypothermia can come on quickly, and it’s important to constantly monitor how you feel during any cold water swim. If you start to feel strange or are having difficulty, “don’t feel embarrassed. Just get out,” Madding says.
  • Do your homework. Do some research into the effects of cold water submersion and find out what physiological changes your body might experience when swimming in cold water and how to counter these effects. This way, you’ll be more likely to recognize what’s happening and how to handle it.
  • Ask for help. Seek out more experienced cold water swimmers and ask for their advice and suggestions for ditching the wetsuit. The more you can learn from someone who’s been through the process, the better prepared you’ll be for your own journey.
  • Listen to your training partners. Sometimes hypothermia can take hold, and you might not even realize you’re in its grips. If a swimming companion notices that you seem out of it or otherwise not totally well, take heed. They may be noticing subtle effects of too much cold that could snowball into a more dangerous situation quickly. Get out and get warm.
  • Come prepared. Bring a big mug of your favorite hot drink to enjoy after a cold water swim. Warming up from the inside is a very effective way of countering the cold. And get bundled up in warm, dry clothing as soon as you exit the water. This will help you rewarm safely and get back to normal quickly.
  • Take the right precautions. If you know you have some anxiety about open water swimming but want to try getting out of the wetsuit anyway, give yourself some options for terminating a swim early and getting back to land. Arrange a multi-loop swim that gives you some options for exit points or another means of ending your session sooner if you need.
  • Chart your progress. Keep a log of how long you swim and at what temperature without a wetsuit to remind yourself that you are making progress. Sometimes simply visualizing the data points can help you understand that every small swim can add up to big improvements over time.


  • Open Water


  • Open Water