Heighten your resilience to cold water and improve your swimming in triathlon

Open water swimAside from fear of deep-water monsters, if anything’s likely to put you off open-water swimming, it’s the thought of that initial icy plunge. Many of the body’s responses to cold water are physiological and involuntary but you can learn to cope better.

The first set of responses, noticeable to anyone who has trained or swum in cold water, can be bracketed under ‘cold water shock’ (CSR). They include an initial gasp when you enter the water, followed by a quickening of the breath or hyperventilation. Blood flow to the extremities also decreases, to maintain your core temperature.

Professor Mike Tipton, physiologist and cold water immersion specialist says: “Though it’s a common belief that a healthy layer of subcutaneous fat can help protect you against the cold, the cutaneous cold receptors that initiate cold shock are 0.18mm below the surface of the skin and lie above subcutaneous fat. So though the fat offers some protection against further effects, it won’t prevent CSR.

CSR responses peak within 30 seconds and disappear after the first two to three minutes. Remember this, be confident that you’ll soon regain control of your breath and remain much calmer.” Allow time for this process during your warm-up.

Once you start to swim you may notice your stroke is less precise. “This is because muscles and nerves in the arms are superficial and therefore easily affected by the cold, decreasing your efficiency,” says Tipton. “Acclimatisation won’t improve this sort of impairment; it’s a direct effect of temperature on nerves and muscle.” A properly fitting wetsuit will help with this, as will plenty of training to hone stroke technique.

For many, one of the most inhibiting factors is psychological. Fear of cold water adds to disturbed breathing to increase feelings of panic. The obvious response to this is practice. Tipton recommends that as few as five or six five-minute immersions in cold water can halve it and that it stays reduced. You can induce it by having cold showers – start with a warm shower and turn it down cold to begin with.

It’s also possible to think your way into improving your response, using psychological skills such as mental imagery, self-talk and maintaining conscious control of your breathing.

Prepare, allow time to acclimatise and you’ll start your race confidently and maybe even in comfort.

Mike Tipton is Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth. He has over 20 years experience researching psychological and physiological responses to adverse environments. He is also Director of Research for the Department of Sport & Exercise Science.

Make it work: Three tricks to acclimatise to cold water

1. Get in the water before the race starts, warm-up and pre-acclimatise. If it’s a very cold swim this will allow time for your breathing to regulate so you can start the race feeling calm and controlled.

2. Don’t let your first cold water immersion be the event – practise beforehand and become acclimatised. Always make sure you have someone with you for safety.

3. Mentally rehearse entering the water. Knowing what to expect can actually help diminish the effects.