Getting used to low temperatures when swimming in open water is an essential skill for triathletes – follow our tips to acclimatise before diving in.

If your triathlon has an open water swim, getting some open water experience before your race is vital – both for fitness and mental reassurance. Taking the open-water plunge for the first time – or even the first time in a new season – can be a nervy experience with not just the temperature to contend with, but equipment issues too. Here’s how to avoid the cold shock and get the most from your first open water session.

Plan your session

Triathletes new to open water swimming are often understandably keen to get their new wetsuit on and dive into the lake for the first time, but you won’t benefit much from a freezing-cold, five-minute dip – especially if the experience puts you off wanting to try again. Check with your swim venue to find out when the lake usually starts to warm up a little to give yourself the best chance of a session that will be both physically and mentally positive.

Make sure your wetsuit’s on properly

Yes, this sounds simple, but your first open water swim is perhaps one of the most important training sessions you’ll do as a triathlete – and one that’s repeated at the start of each open water swimming season. Many beginners have only worn their wetsuits in the shop before getting to the water’s edge and the last thing you want is cold water washing around gaps in your suit, making it even harder to swim. Check out our guide to getting your wetsuit on properly to make sure it’s fitting as closely as possible.

Use extra protection

Especially if you’re doing an early season open water event and want to experience swimming outdoors before toeing the start line, wearing a neoprene hat, gloves, booties and even a thermal vest can help stop your extremities feeling like lumps of ice after a couple of minutes. They might not be allowed in your race, but if they help make your first few swim sessions a success, then they’re worth it. You can also try wearing two trisuits underneath your wetsuit.

Take it slow

There’s a real chance that the cold water could cause a breathless, panicky feeling once you take the plunge and the speed with which you get into the water has a big effect on this. It’s a common tale for athletes to do a running jump into the water to ‘get it over with’ only to have an instant panic attack and have to be rescued – putting the fear of open water into them for years to come – so don’t rush it!

How To Acclimatise To Cold Open Water Swimming - Splash Water
Splashing your face with water can help get you past that initial shock of the cold temperature. (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

Wade slowly into the water and with cupped hands, splash water onto your face and the back of your neck for a few minutes to get used to the chilly feeling of the water on your skin. Then wade a little deeper so that water begins to creep inside your suit at the bottom of the zip.

Next, bend over and pull open the neck of your suit, allowing a small amount of water inside. Then get back onto dry land and press your suit snugly against your skin all over to create a seal with the water, pushing excess water out the bottoms of your wetsuit legs. Follow this up with some warm-up exercises to generate a little body heat and kick-start the insulating effect.

How To Acclimatise To Cold Open Water Swimming - Water Down Neckline
Carefully managing the flow of water into the suit, then creating a seal gives maximum insulation. (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

Wade back into the water and do a few squats to get the water up to your neckline and down the length of your zip. Then quickly dunk your face a few times, focusing on deep, steady breathing between each headfirst splash. Finally, take a breath and place your face in the water, calmly blowing out bubbles in a controlled exhalation for a count of ten.

Central heating

Some wetsuit manufacturers warn against peeing inside your wetsuit, but virtually every triathlete does it! It’s a great way to kick-start the insulating, warming properties of your wetsuit’s material. Plus, if you start getting used to the sensation now, you’ll be ready for raceday, where that last-minute in-the-water nature break can save you from having to waste time be stopping to go later in the race.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, then don’t; it’s not a mandatory step in the acclimatisation process. But be aware, it’s probably what everyone else around you is doing!

Head up swimming

Once you’re at this point, there’s not much to do but get swimming. Use either freestyle or breaststroke, but keep your head lifted to avoid ‘ice-cream headache’ numbness on your forehead. Use a strong leg kick to get the blood pumping and get the whole body warmed-up as quickly as possible.

How To Acclimatise To Cold Open Water Swimming - Head Up
Swim with your head up, then occasionally dip your face in the water until you get used to the cold. (Photo: Triathlon Vibe)

Continue to focus on remaining calm and breathe as deeply and naturally as possible. Swim close to the shoreline in case you need to exit the water quickly. After a few minutes, you should start to warm up, breathe more easily and become more comfortable in the water.

Transition to your full stroke

Once you feel more at ease, you can start dipping your head into the water every few strokes to get your head used to the inescapable chill. Make the intervals between dips shorter until you feel comfortable to swim with your head down, adopting your usual stroke technique.

Stay in control

Once you’re swimming, you still need to be aware of the cold. Stop swimming and you’ll soon be shivering while just spending too long in the water can mean a gradual creeping cold. If you start to feel dizzy, the key is not to panic – you’re wearing a buoyant wetsuit and you will float! Roll onto your back and breathe calmly until the dizziness fades before heading back to shore.

Acclimatise to land

Exit the water slowly as more dizziness is likely to be caused by an abrupt change from horizontal to vertical positions. Especially if your hands and feet are bare, give it a bit of time before jumping in a hot shower or you may experience the pins-and-needles itchiness of heat rash. Get your wetsuit off and give it a good rinse and you will have successfully navigated your first open water session.

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