Taking the (Polar Bear) Plunge: Winter swimming 101
With the shortest, coldest and (hopefully) wettest days of the year upon us, many folks are stashing away the caps, goggles and wetsuits along with the rest of their summer wardrobe. But one of the biggest benefits of living in the Bay Area is the ability to swim in the open water year round. Our coaches offer their top tips to stay safe and enjoy the aquatic life this winter.
Layer up & count
Ah, ice-cream headache season! For winter swimming, I like to layer up on the swim caps; silicone on the bottom, thermal in the middle, and latex on top. Getting in can be the hardest part so I try not to waste too much time thinking about it. I focus on counting my strokes. I do eight breast strokes with my head out, then eight more with head bobbing in. After that, I swim freestyle with a breath every stroke until I can control my breathing, then go into a more relaxed breathing pattern. During the initial shock phase, humming underwater helps me a lot.
The web test
Test yourself throughout the swim to make sure you are capable of continuing. I make a web with my hand and then spread open and close my fingers. Even if I am feeling warm, if I can’t complete this basic task, it’s time for me to head in and call it a day. If you push it, you risk hypothermia and endangering yourself.
Get warm quick
Warming your internal body temperature can literally be the difference between life and death. Drink something warm immediately before and after each swim. When you get out of the water, change out of all your wet swimming gear immediately: strip the wetsuit, take off the bathing suit, and pull on a warm hat and your comfy sweats. (A jug of warm water for your feet is also recommended by Coach Rene.) If you have access, a sauna is also a great way to slowly raise your body temperature back to normal. Otherwise, a warm shower when you get home will also help you re-acclimate.
Remember to breathe
Exhale! Swimming in extremely cold water can literally make you feel unable to breathe; especially if you take a plunge from a boat and submerge immediately rather than a gradual entrance from shore. Focus on blowing out all the carbon dioxide in your lungs to enable them to take in fresh oxygen. Count to 5 as you inhale and then count an even slower 5 as you exhale (remember blowing bubbles as a kid? Go back to the basics!) Ridding your body of poisonous CO2 will be critical to getting your breathing under control and preparing your body for the physical exertion needed ahead. Also pay attention to your time in the water. While in summer time I can spend hours on end splashing around, now in the dead of winter, I’m reducing the length of my swims with each degree the temperature drops.
Never swim alone. While this is a general best practice for any time of year, it’s especially important to have someone watching you for signs of hypothermia. You should be able to answer basic questions: what day of the week is it? What is the name of your swim partner? Can you count to 10? Test your dexterity (think sobriety test in the water). If you struggle with these tasks, it’s time to get out and get warm.
About swimming skin
For those swimmers who have been consistently training with no wetsuit and want to continue the practice in the wintertime, it’s critically important to take every precaution. When I did my swim of the Strait of Magellan, which was 36.9 to 39.0 F degree water, I was covered in Lanolin-- a paste from Sheep grease-- mixed with a vaseline base to block the the smell to help provide a thin layer of insulation. There is no shame in putting on a wetsuit or rash guard if you need it; better to be able to swim another day.
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