October 16th, 2020Why Winter Swim?
Open water swimming has gone mainstream. In the old days, bystanders often informed us “You’re crazy!” as we struggled to pull on our pants. Now we hear “I’d like to do that. How do I start?” It’s not a jaw-dropping surprise to see another swimmer in the water, and etiquette no longer demands that we stop and chat. The number of fluorescent swim buoys I see bobbing in previously un-swum areas astounds me.
But what about the next frontier — swimming into the Fall and Winter? Here’s the lowdown.
In early Fall, Lake Washington remains warmer than Puget Sound, measuring approximately 58-61 degrees Fahrenheit. Starting in November, Lake Washington temperatures plunge. They can reach a low of 40 degrees before April. Smaller lakes often register even lower temperatures.
Puget Sound temperatures fluctuate between 45 and 50 Fahrenheit during the coldest months. Factoring in cold air and wind makes winter swimming an entirely different sport than summer swimming.
How Cold is Too Cold? How Long is Too Long?
Water conducts heat away from the body 25 times faster than air. If you’ve ever seen a miserable swimmer wracked by paroxysmal shudders, unable to focus, walk, or talk, you’ve seen dangerous hypothermia in action.
These 5 guidelines will help you avoid being that person.
- Acclimate with repeated short exposures.
- Accept that everyone is different. There is no universal “right amount of time or distance” to use as a yardstick.
- Know that your acclimatization, body mass, what you ate for breakfast, hormone levels, emotional state, and other factors play a part in your reactions to cold water. What was true yesterday may not be true today.
- If you shiver while in the water, get out immediately. Shivering helps you warm up once you’re dry, but indicates a dangerous level of cold before then.
- Be even more cautious when it’s windy. Wind reduces your temperature amazingly fast, especially when your skin is wet.
For winter swimming, a general, guiding principle is simply “be conservative.” Remember that you’re not trying to prove anything. This is supposed to be fun.
For excellent info about hypothermia, watch this video from the South End Rowing Club in San Fransisco.
Extra neoprene is good: wetsuit, booties, gloves, cap. (Consider doing what the Europeans do and wear a wooly hat over your cap.) If you swim “skin” (wetsuit-free) just your suit, a swim buoy, goggles, and a bright cap will do. Silicone earplugs are a MUST for many. And don’t forget a towel or two.
Warm Up After Your Swim
What to Wear & Eat: Dry yourself ASAP and dress from the top down: put your knit cap on first. Then, layer up with thick socks, warm shoes, and sweaters/jacket/parka. Drink something warm and consider eating something sweet. Doughnuts definitely fit the bill.
What to Do: Stand on something to prevent further heat loss while you dress. Do squats, burpees, or jumping jacks. Then find a warm place to sit. Do not drive until your brain feels normal again-possibly as much as 30-45 minutes after you exit the water. Consider yourself impaired until then.
The rush of feel-good hormones after a swim is highly addictive, to be celebrated and enjoyed. But remember: If open water swimming is inherently risky, doing so in winter is even more so.
Obey your internal voice when it tells you to get out. Warm up fast. You’ll build immunity, reduce your risk of heart disease, and maybe even increase your libido…(but only cold-water swimmers know for sure).