Acclimating to Cold Water Swimming

Being born and raised in Miami, I don’t do too well with the cold. Don’t get me wrong- I absolutely love the “Florida winters” and being able to wear sweaters, sweatpants, and the occasional skully. I just need to bundle up a bit...which for me means that in sub-60 degree weather, my go-to outfit consists of a long sleeve thermal for the base, a long sleeve shirt for keeping my thermal warm, and a sweater/jacket for final protection against the FloLow (Florida-Low) temps. 

Now, cold WATER?! No thanks! When I visited the Philippines a few years back, I stayed at a place where they only had cold water in the showers. I remember standing beside the running water for a good 10 minutes, half scared of jumping in and half hoping it would magically turn warm. That was me a few years ago. However, thanks to completing a few triathlons with sub-78 degree swims, I’ve gotten used to cold-ish water, just a bit. But not sub-60 degree cold water. BURRR!

This June, I'll be racing in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco Bay, where I'll jump off a boat next to Alcatraz Island with 1,999 other triathletes and embark on a 1.5-mile swim to land. At that time of the year, the average bay temperature is around 55 degrees. I've been to SF a few times during summers (shout out to my fam in the Bay Area!), and always remember it being cold and windy, especially by the bay.

Not to undermine the bike and run portions of the race, which are difficult themselves and take place through the notoriously hilly streets of San Francisco, but if I can complete the swim, the hardest part (mentally for me, at least) will be done. 

Cold water swim training: day 1

It doesn't stay cold for too long in Florida, so I have to take advantage of the weather while it lasts. Although not San Francisco Bay temps, the 64-60 degree water was a start. I put on my sleeveless 3/4th length wetsuit and decided to take the plunge. And yes, there were people in the gym behind the camera looking at me like I was crazy. 

Getting used to cold water for your swim

Here are a few tips that I briefly mention in the video above. These help me when I go into cold water, and hopefully they can help you too.

Ease into the water

Some people prefer jumping into the water and starting to swim (this is what I'll have to do in the race). While this does work, for those who have a bit more trepidation towards cold water (like me), it's a good idea to walk into the water slowly so that your body doesn't get too shocked all at one time. More importantly...

Prepare your mind

Your mentality is one of the biggest factors of braving cold water. Be prepared for the shock, and once it hits, know and believe that your body will get used to the water. Don't forget to...

Control your breathing

Stay calm and don't panic! Yes, the cold water shock will hit you and you may start breathing heavily/frequently...but this is when you keep yourself in check and control your breathing. Deep and controlled breaths help immensely. That and...

Blowing bubbles

To get used to the temperature of the water, this works for me in every triathlon I've done. Once you're in, put your head in the water, face down, and blow bubbles. Then take your face out of the water and inhale. Repeat this a few times at controlled intervals and you'll be acclimated to the water in no time. It also helps to...

Wear a wetsuit

Wetsuits are awesome! They really help with keeping you warm. When water seeps between the wetsuit and your skin, your body warms this water which then creates warmth for you in return. It's like a seat warmer in a car, but au natural...and all over your body.

Areas to work on

Aside from my overall swimming endurance and technique, here are some important areas that I'll need to work on in the coming months:

  • Swim sighting: My swim sighting (the integration of looking up to see where the heck you're going with your actual swim strokes) can always use improvement. It's gonna have to be on-point with the strong currents of the bay. Many people get swept towards the Golden Gate bridge and end up swimming more than needed.
  • Dizziness coming out of cold water: This happened to me in the video above and I also remember experiencing it after I swam in the cold water in Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe last summer (see banner image above)- when I got out of the cold water, I felt a bit dizzy. I've heard this is because of cold water getting in the ears and messing up your orientation...but that earplugs solve this issue. I need earplugs. BRB, Amazon is calling my name...
  • Getting more exposure to cold water: With the cool weather dwindling here in Florida, it's gonna be key for me to get as much exposure to cold water here while I can, and arrive early in SF before the race to get in some practice in the bay.

I've neither swam 1.5-miles before nor swam in that cold of water with strong currents pushing you towards the Golden Gate; however, I'm gonna do all that I can to be ready for it both physically and mentally, come this June.


Banner Image Credit: Tony Rojas, Jr. (My Dad!)

Banner Image Story: My family visited Lake Tahoe last summer for my cousin's wedding (Congrats, Cheryl and Trey!) and swimming in the lake was at the top of my to-do list. That's my brother and I after we jumped in the water at Emerald Bay. Water temperatures were in the 50s!

Any thoughts on this post? How do you deal with cold water? Any tips for me? Let me know in the comments below!