October 16th, 2020Why Winter Swim?
Open water swimming has gone mainstream. In the old days, bystanders would often tell us, “You’re crazy!” as we struggled to pull on some pants after a swim. Now we often hear “I’d like to do that. How do I start?” Seeing another swimmer in the water is no longer a surprise, and I’m always amazed how many fluorescent swim buoys I can count in previously un-swum areas.
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, its temperatures plunge, sometimes reaching a low of 40 degrees. Smaller lakes can register even lower temperatures.
Puget Sound stays warmer in the winter, with temperatures fluctuating 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 will chill you even faster.
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.
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”–sans wetsuit—just your swim buoy, goggles, and a bright cap (plus your suit!) will do. And don’t forget your towel.
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 about that one).