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by Scott Bay

April 24, 2020

Steps to ensure you have your best experience in challenging conditions

The initial gasp, hyperventilation, and hypertension of muscles—it’s a real thing. At best you’re having a bad day and at worst, a medical issue or emergency. This is what it can be like to warm up in cold water.

No competent event director should knowingly put athletes in an environment that would compromise their health. But when conditions are within acceptable temperature ranges for an event, it falls on you to make sure you’re ready for the swim.

What to Do When You Know It’ll Be Cold

When you know that the venue is going to be cold, you can do a certain amount of preparation in the weeks leading up to the event. Here are a few things you can try.

  • Cold showers and swims: Gradually getting colder gets your nervous system used to the cold water.
  • Ice baths: People use these for a variety of reasons. For open water swimmers, it’s to prevent the cold-water shock response.
  • Warm up: If it’s cold, no one wants to get into the water, but this is exactly what you should do. If that first cold splash to exposed body parts is at the race start, the chances of cold-water shock are much higher.

What to Do When You Don’t Know It’ll Be Cold

If you show up to your race and learn that the water is cold, you have no way to turn back time and do a proper acclimatization. In this situation, understand the conditions as best you can and judge for yourself.

  • Get in the water more than once: Getting in the first time might make you want to pull out of the race. Get in a second time, and see if your response and comfort level are improved. You know your own tolerance.
  • Move: After the first two tries, move around. Do some arm swings or run in place. Any activity to raise your body temperature.

Getting Ready for Your Swim

It’s best to also remind your muscles that they have a job to do on race day. Practice air swimming—a few strokes done on land to mimic the movements you’ll do in the water—and do some arm and leg swings. It’ll be a mental and physical prep for what’s about to come, and it’ll warm your muscles and help with kinesthetic awareness.

Important: Warm up after your warm-up. Staying warm before the race will save energy and keep your muscles ready to go.

It Comes Down to You

Competition is supposed to be invigorating and fun. If you get to race day and are uncomfortable or just don’t feel right about the conditions or your ability to handle them, it’s better to abandon the race than put yourself in a bad situation. Consider it a donation to the race host. We’re not canceling Masters swimming, so it’s much better to give it a go on a better day than to have a miserable or even dangerous experience.

All of these suggestions are techniques that swimmers have used over the years. That by no means qualifies them as medical advice or something that might be right for you. Our sport is about challenging yourself, but you need to know what you’re capable of and comfortable with before you get in the water on race day.


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