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Cold Water Adaption

Years ago as a youngster I was a member of an outdoor swimming club, I still have not so pleasant memories of the early spring and the autumn; turning blue as I attempted my laps in the not so warm water. These memories put me off cold water swimming for many years. It was my interest in surfing that got me back into cold water and then an English Channel swim relay that finally brought me back to face those bad memories of childhood. Sure I am heavier now than I was as a youngster. Extra insulation certainly helps in the cold water. But I also like to think I am a little smarter, this time around  my exposure to cold water was gradual, allowing my body to slowly adapt to the environment.

This is not a scientific article; it is based on personal experience and my own logic. However if you do research you will find my comments will marry up with most of the literature out there on the subject. The human body, as I have written before, is a clever invention. It will work extremely hard to adapt to each environment we choose to place ourselves in. For those who have taken a ski holiday in summer or a summer holiday in winter you will recall that the first few days in the environment can be uncomfortable. We are not used to it. Then over the period of 2-5 days our body slowly adapts and the holiday climate becomes the norm before we have to readjust to normal climate again at the end of the holiday.

Cold water provides us with a similar adaption experience and challenge, although the move from warm to cold doesn’t provide the same pleasure experience as the move from cold to warm. Regular cold water swimmers report feelings of invigoration, feeling energised and ‘alive’.

The worst you can possibly do is move from one water temperature extreme to the other. Your feelings of ‘cold’ and your physiological reactions will be far more pronounced. Take time over at least a few weeks but ideally a couple of months to move slowly toward colder water. 2-3 degrees temperature change at a time. Funnily enough swimming in an outdoor pool during late summer you will naturally experience this steady reduction in temperature in the pool. Avoid heated indoor pools. Take cooler showers. You will be surprised but you will slowly adapt and become more comfortable in these cooler temperatures.

A word of caution, each of us is physiologically unique; therefore the levels of cold that we can comfortably and safely endure will differ. You can experience discomfort during cold water adaption, indeed this process helps provide later feelings of invigoration. Also actively swimming in cold water will not only increase the bodies heat production, it will increase your heat loss as you move through the water you will continually have heat ‘washed’ off the surface of the skin as well as exposing heat loss areas to the water such as armpits. Wear a swim cap, don’t push on and stay in too long, hypothermia is a risk. Swim with a partner. Take your time and adapt properly.

Follow my advice above, allow for adaption and don’t go open water swimming in 15 degree Celsius water after a holiday to Egypt! Cold(er) water swimming can open up new swimming environments and allows you to swim outdoors for longer each year. Swimming in cooler waters can be fun, safe and invigorating.

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