All swimmers need to be in touch with their inner-penguin. Sometimes the water temperatures are more artic-like than tropical-like and swimmers need to be prepared.
How to approach a swim on race day when water temperatures are very cold is not something triathletes and swimmers give too much thought to. Cold temperatures definitely impact race strategy, as I learned first hand this past weekend at the Blackfly Triathlon in beautiful Waterville Valley, NH. This was the first ever Blackfly tri put on by Keith Jordan of Endorfun (although it was not the first time Waterville Valley was used as a venue– the first Mooseman tri was held there a few years back). With all the rain and cool, cloudy conditions we’ve had this year in New England combined with the fact that the pond for the swim is mountain stream-fed, water temperatures for the swim were a balmy 53 degrees. That’s a few degrees colder than most folks are used to swimming in this time of year (at least in fresh water– the ocean in New England can remain quite chilly throughout the summer).
So, what should you do when the water temps for the swim are icy cold (besides pray that they cancel or shorten the swim– in the case of the Blackfly this year, the swim was shortened from two loops to one)? Let you inner penguin come out! Namely:
- Don the ‘ol tuxedo– Penguins have built-in insulation and buoyancy. You need the same when the conditions are cold, so slap on the wetsuit (full sleeve preferably). Wet suits are legal in USAT-sanctioned and most other sanctioned triathlons (pure swimming races can vary– check with the rules for the event), so wearing a wet suit should be at the top of the list. Not only will the wetsuit protect you from the cold temps, but also provide you additional buoyancy, which will help you complete the race faster. Also, wear a neoprene cap (your race cap can go over this) to protect your head from the cold. This is especially true for the hair-challenged people (like me). Finally, get a pair of neoprene booties that will protect your feet. Neoprene gloves also exist, but are not legal at USAT races and most other tris and swimming events, so leave them at home. Finally, practice ahead of time swimming with the wetsuit, neoprene cap and booties, especially if you know you will use them in race conditions. You want to be sure you are used to the swimming motion with this gear (especially the wetsuit) and not have any suprises on race day.
- Flap around a bit– When you first enter the water your body is going to go into a bit of shock– your heart is going to try work harder to push blood throughout your core to help warm up your body, which will cause you to feel a bit out of breath initially. It takes a few minutes for this to effect to wear off as your body adapts. In the meantime, it can be a bit uncomfortable to swim. Use this time to gather your bearings– try breaststroking a bit, which will keep your head above the water (freestyle keeps your head under making it a bit harder to breath). You can also try flipping over onto your back, which will expose your face upward. The goal is to keep your face out of the water so you can breath better and get used to your environs. I needed to do this last week at the Blackfly. It not only helped with my breathing, but also helped my face warm up a bit, which was ice cold from the water. After about 30-45 seconds I felt a lot better and swam onward. The few seconds you take to do this will make up for any time you would have lost had you not done it.
- Get your feathers ruffled– Before you even start the swim, it’s a good idea to get your muscles warmed up a bit (pre-race warm-up should be part of your routine in any case). Warm, loose muscles will perform better when you enter the cold water, helping your body avoid any initial shortness of breath when entering and priming it for a full swim race effort. I would recommend warming up outside of the water by running or biking a bit (probably about 10 minutes until you have worked up a slight sweat). Ideally, you’d do this about 10 minutes before you have to enter water so you don’t cool down prior to entering the water. You could also try warming up by swimming in the water itself– not a bad idea, but it probably won’t be as quick as going for a run or bike.
- Don’t waddle, but run- When coming out of the water, don’t waddle like a penguin, but rather run! Do a strong run to transition (T1), which will help keep your body nice and warmed up as you get ready for the bike, especially if it is a cooler day. Some races will provide a warming tent where you can get warmed up coming out of the water and before going to the transition area (they did this at the Blackfly). However, unless you are super-cold and see good reason for it, don’t spend the time getting warmed up in the tent. Rather run hard directly to your gear in transition to generate heat as you go to T1 and onto your bike.
Hopefully it will be rare occasions when you have to swim in water temperatures that are in the low 50s or even lower. If you live in cold weather environments, like anywhere in the northern part of the US or Europe, you need to be prepared. It may not be Antartica, but it is helpful to act like one of the best swimmers from that part of the world, the penguin.