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Getting in Touch with Your Inner Penguin- How to Race in Cold Water Temperatures

July 18th, 2009

refridge-not-freze1 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.
Finish line at the Blackfly Triathlon

Finish line at the Blackfly Triathlon

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.

Overcoming adversity like a moose!

June 8th, 2009
Mooseman Half Ironman race finish

Mooseman Half Ironman race finish

One of my favorite races was this past weekend– the Mooseman Half Ironman on Newfound Lake, NH. This was my third time doing the Mooseman Half Ironman (I’ve done the international distance a couple of times before as well, when it was known as Granite Ledges), and this race always seems to pose a major challenge for me. Last year it was the intense heat (90+ degrees and high humidity) and this year it was a flat tire on the bike. The race got me thinking about adversity during the race and how to deal with it (like a moose!).

I love doing the Mooseman for multiple reasons, one of the main ones being that the race organizer, Keith Jordan, does an absolutely fantastic job organizing the race– it’s a ‘must do’ for any triathlete (and worth traveling to if you’re from out of state). Keith really focuses on the little details, which make a huge difference. From entertainment along the course to well-laid out aid stations to a fantastic post-race spread, his events are the best (check out his other events at

However, none of Keith’s attention to detail changes the fact that it is a very challenging course. With it’s rolling hills-dominated bike and a not-so-flat run, the Mooseman will provide you a good test for you to overcome. The swim is in beautiful Lake Newfound, which is one of the cleanest lakes in North America, but can be a bit on the cool side (yesterday was about 59 degrees) in early June. From the onset, you have to be ready to deal with the challenges of the course.

In my case, my main challenge came when I flatted at mile 40 and had some difficulties getting the tire on and off (new tires tend to be less flexible), which added a bunch of time to my bike and overall results. In the scheme of things, I can’t complain as it’s my first flat ever in a race. Considering how many races I’ve done, one flat is pretty good. Nonetheless, it is frustrating when you’ve trained so hard for the event to have a flat throw a big monkey wrench into your plans.

Bike in Transition Area- Before the Flat Tire

Bike in Transition Area- Before the Flat Tire

Adversity is part of the sport and it’s important to have a game plan for dealing with it. Some things to think about if you find yourself facing an unplanned for adverse situation, such as a flat tire, lost goggles, or even a crash on the bike:

  • assess the situation & put safety first– Before anything else, your health and safety come first. Forget about trying to achieve a specific time or beating your main competitor– none of that means anything if you risk serious injury or worse. If you’re injured or risk further injury that will prevent you from additional training or racing, drop out and seek medical attention.
  • remain mentally focused– When you’ve got a race goal in mind and are cranking along, nothing can be more deflating than an unforseen adverse situation (mechanical failure, etc.). However, it’s not the end of the race. It’s important that you remind yourself that it’s a temporary setback and that you need to deal with it. Keep a positive mindset & reinforce it with positive visualization of you dealing with the adverse situation and continuing on with the race. That’s precisely what I did when I got my flat yesterday– I just said to myself, “I’ll just deal with this and be back on the bike in no time. I’ll be happy with whatever time I get.”. Of course I was frustrated, but I quickly dealt with that and moved forward. Hopefully you have a race strategy for every big race and part of it should be having realistic goals and dealing with adversity.
  • conduct a post-race evaluation– Once the race is over, take some time to think about what happened so that you can pull some lessons from the situation and be better prepared next time. Are there things you could have done differently? (Maybe inspected your bike more closely, swim more defensively, worn blister-prevention socks on the run, etc.). Could you have reacted differently? If you maintain a journal, write down your evaluation and key lessons learned. Apply the lessons learned for future events and try to avoid the situation again in the future!

What has worked for you in overcoming adversity in a race?