Last year I made the goal to participate it the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival in Newport, Vt. At the festival they cut a 2 lane, 25 meter pool out of the frozen Lake Memphremagog on the Canadian border of Vermont. In it, they hold events like you would see at a swim meet – 100 yard freestyle, 25 yard breaststroke, even relays. No neoprene allowed. It was an amazing event, well run, with terrific volunteers, energy, and camaraderie.
My training plan: just keep swimming outside once or twice a week. As the water got colder, I had two rules. First rule: stay in water where I could stand up. That way if hypothermia set in, I could exit the water quickly. Second rule: When the water got below 40 degrees I only required myself to swim approximately 50 yards out, then back to shore. Since the longest event I was doing was 100 yards, that seemed sufficient to reach my goals. Between wading in time and swimming, this equaled about 5 minutes of submersion.
I had two amazing women who stuck it out with me for the training. We developed our own post swim routines. First was having a changing station on the shore, in order to get out of the wet swimsuit as quick as possible and into warm dry clothes. Second, I was fortunate enough to be swimming somewhere that I felt safe leaving my car running with heat. That way I had a warm environment to swaddle myself in as soon as possible.
They say that when you submerge yourself in cold water that your blood leaves your extremities and surrounds your core to preserve heat to the vital organs. This was true in my experience in that my hands and feet were the most uncomfortable, even slightly painful, during and immediately after swimming. There is also an after cool event. Once you leave the water and the blood starts to return to the extremities, the blood gets cooled down and your core temperature begins to drop.
You might read this and ask yourself “why?” I think the broader question is why do people push themselves to exceed limits, whether it is swimming in freezing water or climbing Mount Everest? Everyone’s answer may be slightly different. For me, the answer was in the satisfaction of accomplishing a challenging goal and the physical thrill that came after the discomfort had subsided. I feel the true mark of an athlete is not measured by skill but the willingness to push through discomfort to do your personal best.
For those who want to try winter swimming this is my advice:
- 1.) Swim regularly, once or twice a week is enough
- 2.) Get use to the idea of being uncomfortable
- 3.) Be safe. Don’t do it alone and stay close to shore to be able exit quickly if in trouble.
- 4.) Learn to recognize the signs of hypothermia and how to treat. Notably, if you feel confused, your stroke becomes slow and sloppy, or you have slurred speech exit the water immediately. Get out of your wet suit and swaddle yourself in thick clothing and blankets. Do not use hot water, especially on the extremities, or extreme heat that can damage the skin and even cause irregular heartbeats. Seek appropriate medical attention.
- 5.) Develop a post swim routine that works for you to get dry and warm as quickly and safely as possible.