Avoiding Cold Water Shock

This is the time of year when northern hemisphere swimmers and triathletes are returning to open water venues for training and races. At most locations water temperatures are still pretty chilly and the shock of jumping into water this cold can make you short of breath and anxious when you start swimming. It can also cause panic attacks which are deeply unpleasant and can ruin your race. Here's a quick tip to help overcome this:

Before you get in and swim, splash cold water on your face from the lake, river or sea. Doing this for around ten to fifteen seconds allows your face to cool down to the water's temperature so your body adjusts and the shock passes.

Start swimming soon afterwards and you should find things much more comfortable and you can start swimming properly straight away, exhaling smoothly into the water to settle any remaining nerves. Note that this trick only works with your face, not any other part of your body.

Sounds too simple? Try it - it really does work!

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Petroleum jelly works wonders for me here in Sydney early winter. I aapply generous amount of the stuff on my under arms, back of knees, crutch, neck and back.

Anonymous said...

Of course you are right! As a nerd I can only add a scientific explanation:
Wikipedia on Mammalian reflex
and feel sorry for myself because my reflex is much weaker like my swimming.

Anonymous said...

Great tip! Unfortunately when I jump from the boat on Sunday for the Escape from Alcatraz I will have to just suck it up and start swimming!

Anonymous said...

Anyone have any more tips for avoiding panic attacks/ overwhelming race anxiety at the start of the swim? I'm a good swimmer, but find myself overwhelmed by adrenaline at the start of the swim, and the slightest little thing ( getting hit, unusual conditions in the water etc. can tip me over into a muscle seizing, shallow breathing wreck!

RR said...

I just did my first open water swim last weekend in New Jersey and wish I'd've known of this trick then. I started hyperventilating and even though I wasn't mentally freaking out, it took close to a thousand meters before I could get my breathing regulated and some rhythm my stroke. It cost me at least five minutes.

Anonymous said...

Dear Friends,

I have just finished a 11 days training camp including OW swimming in coldish water. It was mostly 13 C (about 55 F). I did not panic but became anxious sometimes after like 50 min in the water when I began to loose the feeling in my right hand. Thought about Paul N. who is preparing for the English Channel - without wet suit... Cheers, Magnus from Finland

Anonymous said...

when i do the alcatraz swim, i bring a water (cold if possible) in the boat and splash it to my face while waiting for my turn to jump. i also put some inside my wetsuit (chest)just to give an idea that i'll get more shock that this water :-)

*and petroleum jelly works too. i put it on my ears, hands and feet.

Good luck on your ESCAPE!

Anonymous said...

Instead of petroleum jelly you can use coconut oil, it's good for your skin and you can eat it if you get the munchies halfway across the bay. I find if I smear it on my (bald) head, face, hands, arms, chest & shoulders it cut's down drag noticeably at the start of a swim.

Anonymous said...

I swam recently in an open air pool where the temp was 17C, I had to get out after less than 10 minutes, because of excrutiating ear pain, dizziness and nausea. Would ear plugs have helped? I've never used them as I usually swim in heated pools I had an ear infection a few months ago, maybe open air swimming is no longer for me.....Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Hi all. I suffer quite badly with this. Prior to getting in I empty 1.5 litres of warm water into my wetsuit. Helps massively. Josh.

Anonymous said...

You've got to be kidding! The guy in the photo is wearing a wetsuit. What's he got to worry about?

We members of San Francisco's Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club wear ordinary swimsuits to swim year round in SF Bay, where water temps range between 48° and 64°F. Why don't you ask one of us about acclimating to cold water?

Anonymous said...

I can testify to this. Yesterday I swam an open water as part of a relay team in New Mexico at the Milkman Triathlon. The water was a mere 72 degrees, but I experienced the anxiety and response to the cold water, which never went away during the .5 swim. Will use petroleum jelly next time! A good learning experience!

Les said...

to the person who wrote in about the cold water & nausea- I had this happen here in Canada one day in a race- I am sensitive to the cold. I always wear foam ear plugs. I did a tri one day & one ear plug fell out - I did not have time to go get another. The race began -I went out about 150 m and got nauseated and threw up- I felt better then started to swim again. I went another 150 m and threw up again- this happened 4 times. by the end I just wanted to die. Quit the sport for 2 years then got back into it. Felt like a real bad hangover with dry heaves. (been there a few times in my younger years). Always wear foam ear plugs even in the pool.

Anonymous said...

To Les, I no longer wear foam or any other ear plugs for training & racing in a pool & ocean swimming. Instead I wear 'blue tac', it keeps the ears dry 100% & stay in place at all times until it gets pulled out by my hand. Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

Mr. Smooth, You are a kind, considerate and wise swimmer. Thanks for the tip

Anonymous said...

I mentioned above that I empty a litre or so of water into my wetsuit before getting in. I thought i'd add another couple of tips. I used to suffer quite badly (and still do to some extent) with cold water shock and have always been claustrophobic. I think the latter is more behind the shocks than the water temperature. I recently swam 3.7k down the river Thames as part of an event and I have to do certain things in order to be able to do this. A few of the things I do are:

1) Keep warm on the way to the lake/river. You wouldn't necessarily think to do this, but given how early events are, I get up and take a shower. The reason for this is that my body feels much warmer than if I don't, and just head out to swim. Strange, but it works for me.

2) On the way to the swim, stay warm, keep the car heater on for instance. Take a jumper/sweater etc.

3) Get some food inside your stomach. You won't want to eat (if you get as scared as I do), but it helps massively, also take a coffee in a flask and sip it on the way.

4) Get a litre in the front and the back of your wetsuit of very warm water about 3-4 mins before getting in. Then perform the main tip listed on this page of getting your face splashed with water first.

5) Spend a while acclimitasing to your surroundings, even if you go there all the time, look for anywhere you can stop and take a breather. If you suffer from dizziness (I don't), i'd recommend looking for points where you will notice the current changing, so that you can prepare for it. Keep a note of where the kayakers are should you need them.

6) At the start you might get put off by people steaming into you. Combat this a little by breathing whilst facing almost up to the sky. Over the first 100 metres this will save your face getting splashed and reduce panic.

7) Prepare to be able to breathe both sides should you need to, in case of choppiness.

Hope the above helps. Good luck.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

SSG US Army here... I'm going gold sniping in a very cold river April 2015. I have a full 7mm wetsuit, gloves, boots, and hood. Any tips on entering the cold water? Just ease myself in, or jump off a big rock and plunge in?

Unknown said...

Hi Wes,

I should think with all that protective gear you're unlikely to feel the cold! Try the tips above- splash your face and exhale smoothly and I'm sure you'll be fine, and of course practicing will help too!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this... You saved my sanity. I've been living without hot water for about three months now, and showing made me crazy, and the cowboy bath was really starting to break me down. I almost cried when the cooling-the-face-first technique worked. Bless your heart.

Unknown said...

Hi Anonymous- You're welcome!

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