What is Cold Water Distance Swimming?
If I had a buck for every time I have been asked WHY anyone would want to spend time in ‘cold water’, I would be a rich man. Cold open water distance swimming is not a sport for everybody. It is roughly defined to take place in water temperatures that are between 18C down to 12C (53F - 64F) and to be considered a ‘distance’ swim, the minimum of 7km applies. To date, I have completed over 50 official cold water distance swims (ranging between 7km and 36km), including an English Channel crossing in 2008 and way too many shorter cold water swims for me to remember.
I now participate in “Extreme Cold Water” swims, in temperatures between 11C and 6C (52F - 43F). - a whole new challenge. See Extreme Cold Water Swimming and Ice Swimming. These ‘extreme cold’ undertakings have seen me travel to some of the world’s most inhospitable and remote places, including a World First swim around the southern most tip of South America – Cape Horn in 2011. To take it a step further, I am now a founding member of the International Ice Swimming Association and have a number of “Ice Swims” under my belt. An ‘ice swim’ is once again an entirely new discipline and is defined as a ‘minimum of 1 mile (1.6km) in water that is 5C (41F) or less’. All the above naturally undertaken in strict accordance to FINA rules – one silicon cap, a Speedo-type costume and goggles.
How to Build Tolerance for a ‘Cold Water’ Swim
So how does one prepare for and build tolerance for a ‘cold water’ swim, an ‘extreme cold swim’ or even an ‘ice swim’?
At the outset I must note that I have no distance triathlon experience. The donning of a wetsuit for the swim leg will make a massive difference to, inter alia, cold tolerance and will dramatically reduce (but not eliminate) the need to for cold preparation. I have never worn a wetsuit for any swim, strictly following FINA’s dress code rules as mentioned above. So the tips that follows are geared towards those with an interest in cold water distance swimming in its ‘naked’ form and who are possibly going to be preparing for their first real distance swim challenge.
The Cold: The starting point is to know that one can not will away hypothermia – when in water colder than your core body temperature, there can be only two outcomes – either your body will warm the entire ocean / dam / river up to match its core temperature, or the water will bring your core temperature down to its level. The former scenario is of course highly unlikely, so prepare to get cold. The trick is to know how to prolong your time in this environment and how to perform at your best in cold conditions. From years of personal experience, it is most certainly possible to increase your tolerance and thereby dramatically extend the length of time you can safely endure in the water as well as to improve swim times in these conditions.
So what helps?
Get fat! Have you ever seen a cold water distance swimmer with a tri-athlete's body? Clearly, getting fat is not the answer, but the point is that even a little bit of extra body weight makes a world of difference to how long you will be able to withstand cold temperatures. It acts as an insulator to the core and buys you considerable time. Generally I don’t advocate putting on weight, but if you are of lean build and are planning a distance swim in cooler temperatures, putting on even 1-2kg (2 -4lbs) in a healthy way, will make a significant difference. I was advised to put on 8kg (17lbs)for my English Channel swim (13hrs in 16C water) for this purpose.
Get fit! Unlike any land-based endurance sport, cold water distance swims generally do not allow you any rest at all. There is no ‘walk up the hill’, or ‘freewheel down the hill’. You will need to stop for feeds, but these are thrown to you from a support crew alongside in a boat and you will need to tread water while feeding to stay afloat (you may not hang on the boat or anything else that aids floatation). When the water is cold, the second you stop working, you will feel the cold creeping in and every second spent treading water makes it that much harder to get going again (your muscles cool very quickly) ultimately reducing your chances of finishing. So, the fitter you are, the better you will be prepared for a cold water distance swim as you will be able to swim harder and faster thereby generating more body heat and reducing your time in the cold water.
The best swimming fitness comes from pool squad training (25m or 50m) doing a variety of drills. I do most of my training in a 22C pool, together with a squad. Rule of thumb is to make sure your minimum weekly pool swim distance is equivalent to the race distance (if you are planning a 7km swim, make sure you are doing 7km per week in the pool – but I would recommend a minimum of 10km / week). Your drills should mix sprints and slower distance sets – but I am sure you all know how to get fit!
Get freezing! It is vital to complete at least 20% of your training in cold water - if your race or challenge is in 15C water, then do your best to get into these temperatures as often as possible. You will be in for a big shock if all of your training takes place in a warm swimming pool and then you jump into the cold water to race. Your body, muscles and mind perform differently in the cold and you need to know what to expect before race or challenge day. You need to work out your own compensation techniques, be comfortable with the changes in your body and learn your limits! Living in Cape Town, South Africa, we are lucky to have lots of ice cold water on our door step and I will typically try to get into the ocean twice per week (or minimum once). You will be amazed at how your body will adapt to the cold after a period of time, but in my humble opinion, the following paragraph is where the real adaptation takes place – in the mind!
Get focussed and familiar! Adaption to the cold is (mostly) in the mind. At first, the pain of getting into cold water, the discomfort of numbness, the screaming ice-cream headache, the awkwardness of uncontrollable separating fingers, of a clenched, chattering jaw and that indescribable feeling of cold creeping beyond the outer layers of the skin and into the core, are without a doubt extremely disconcerting when one is trying to physically perform in a race or distance swim. All the above combines quickly to convince that you are in serious distress – and the mind is one seriously powerful tool to overrule once convinced.
But if you are able to train regularly in these conditions, you should focus your mind on the cold and the changes in your body – become familiar with it. Work on your mind to convince yourself that you CAN tolerate this WHILE YOU ARE IN THE COLD WATER (rather than when you are in the comfort of home or a warmer swimming pool). Start to build a MENTAL WALL that does not allow the cold through. You need to find what works for you as everyone has their own psychological technique. Remember, the reality is that the body does not want to be in the cold, it is programmed to make you feel the need to abort and it will never be comfortable in the true sense of the word. But a well conditioned mind can make you tough, so train it and control it.
(Please note that hypothermia is a killer – make sure you have the appropriate medical support and do not push it too far. Find your limits).
Of course if you do not have the convenience of a cold ocean / river on your doorstep, it is slightly trickier to build tolerance. I am often asked if the ‘ice bath’ method (see below) is advised for those wishing to swim a distance in mild 15/16C temps . The answer is yes – it will help you understand how your body changes while trying to perform in cold water and it will create an environment where you can work on toughening the mind. All in all, if you have nothing else, I would recommend a few sessions in an ice bath scenario where the temp is a few degrees lower than the likely temperature of what you may be swimming in.
In summary, swimming in the cold is invigorating and highly challenging. I love the required combination of fitness and a mind that needs to keep you strong while convincing you that the cold is just wonderful (and I also enjoy a greasy burger, so not having to watch my waistline is an added bonus ;)
Keep swimming, be safe. Ryan
Ryan Stramrood has completed some of the world's toughest cold water and distance swims. After his first Robben Island to Blouberg crossing in 2003, Ryan has quickly stamped his mark on the sport by successfully completing the notorious English Channel swim in 2008 on his first attempt! Ryan holds 39 Robben Island crossings, including two tough two-way island crossings. He is one of a handful of people to have swum from Dassen Island to Uysterfontein on the west coast of South Africa, completed two Gibraltar Straits crossings from Spain to Morocco, the icy Pennock Island race in Alaska, from Perth to Rottnest Island in Australia and many more. Ryan has also completed two fresh water mile swims in 4°C. In February 2011, Ryan successfully completed three of the world’s most extreme swims in Patagonia, South America, including a world first rounding of Cape Horn. Ryan lives in Cape Town, South Africa.