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Cold Water Acclimatization and Training

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Training for a cold water swim requires specific preparation to acclimate your body to the lower temperatures and ensure your safety. Here are some tips to help you train for a cold water swim.

  1. Safety first: if possible, swim with a buddy or pod, and have a watcher on shore. If something happens, have a rescue plan with your pod. Common plans/group rules are:

    1. Anyone can call the swim at any time. If one swimmer is cold and needs to get out, everyone swims back and gets out together. No one is left behind, no one pushes for "just around that next buoy" on their own.

    2. Stay close to one another and check in with each other. This isn't a distance swimming event, so sticking close to one another allows you to assess how each of your swim mates is doing and respond quickly if there's an emergency.

    3. Stay close to the point of entry/exit. Why swim really far away from the exit point when you can do loops close to it instead? The goal is to be able to get out early if needed. Your on-shore watcher will be able to better observe you and your pod, or provide support, if you're closer to shore.

  2. Train down the water temp: use the falling water temps from summer into fall to increase the length of your outdoor swim season. Some swimmers add the air temp to the water temp to gauge the risk factors for the swim. For instance, the water could be a balmy 62 degrees, but the air temp fell to 38 degrees for your early morning swim, so although the water will feel very warm, getting out and staying warm afterwards will be more difficult. You get both the cold water and colder air training by continuing to swim past Sept/October.

  3. Be patient: you'll likely need 2-3 winters to get comfortable with feeling so uncomfortable. The sensation of getting into cold water takes a lot of mental training. You first feel the biting cold, then the fire. Each step you take to descend into the water pushes the icy burn toward your torso and spine, then your head. It's not pleasant, and the sharp temp change can cause your heart to race, breath to quicken, and muscles to contract. Seasoned cold and ice swimmers are able to keep their panic under control and breathe through the discomfort, which takes months/years of practice.

  4. Balance frequency with duration: as the temps drop, so will the duration of your swim time. Know your limits (and the signs of hypothermia) so you know how long to spend each time the temp changes. For instance, I can swim for an hour at 51-52, but my tolerance drops at 50 degrees, so my max is 30-35 minutes. When starting cold water acclimation, try to go more frequently, with a shorter duration, to train yourself.

  5. Be prepared for after-drop: you may feel just fine getting out of the water, but once you start getting changed or driving home, you might get the "I'm freezing from the inside out" brain fog and shivers. Although it's completely normal, after-drop can be really dangerous if you're not prepared for it. Rewarming from the inside out, like doing party squats, dancing, or running around (once you're all clothed, of course) will help your muscles start to rewarm you. Similarly, sipping warm water or tea can help as well. If it's your first season cold training, as you start to get into lower water and air temps, bring shore support to help you change and make sure you get home safely in case you have a severe after-drop.

This past weekend, Selkie Sam and I went to the Willamette for a short cold water swim. I stayed on shore while Sam swam. The air temp was a relatively warm 50 degrees, but very windy. The water temp was 42-43 degrees, and the river was moving FAST. I walked along shore taking some videos and photos, but primarily watching Sam for signs of distress. She swam for about 11 minutes, and got out once her hands and feet were too painful. As shore support, I made sure she stepped into her shoes as she walked up the boat ramp, and got her changing towel onto her to help with windbreak. I had the car unlocked and trunk open, and helped get swim suit knots untied so she could get dry as quickly as possible. As a support person, I have a tendency to just try to force clothing into my swimmers, which may earn some looks of disapproval. I've found that asking Sam to ball up her fists helps gets shirts on, and balling up toes helps get pants as on as possible. We don't usually bother with underwear. Instead, I shove a hat on her head, make sure her pants are covering her red and frozen butt cheeks, and get her hoodie and socks on so she can start running up and down the small hill by the parking area.

Sellwood Bridge on the Willamette River

Sam gets in very quickly (usually under 1 minute) compared to my 10+ minute faffing. She sang the whole way in, and then just started swimming.

After I stripped Sam, it was really convenient to just throw all her wet items (cap, ear plugs, goggles, suit) into Michael Quackson (her Quackpacker mini) so the *essence of river* smell was contained to the waterproof duck, and not the car. It's easy to bring inside and rinse afterwards as well.

Let us know if you have any questions about cold water swimming, Selkie Sam's experiences, or if you'd like to join us!

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