I am new to cold water swimming and am on the tail end of my first season struggling through the cold. All it takes is one horrible sensation that the icy cold hands of death are clamping down like a vise grip around your head before you start seeking out preventative measures. Thus I began to scour the internet in hopes to come up with some helpful tips for preparation. This is by no means a complete list, but all the things that are cost effective for a more tolerable time out in that chilly natural fish tank. The list is not in order of importance. (Also, I am not a scientist. This is based on personal experience and basic research)
Eat a warm meal an hour before the swim
I have always been very pro-fueling before exercise, particularly long workouts. But what I found particularly beneficial with cold water swimming was warm carbs! Oatmeal is a great choice for these early morning cold swims as it is quick and easy to make and also packed full of those "healthy carbs" (aka complex carbs) which are apparently essential for maintaining energy. Just think of them as putting fuel in your tank. And for a grain, they are higher in protein. I tend to eat plain oats, but a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar never hurt anyone...right? All of these by-products of a warm, carb complex, protein-packed meal are excellent preparation for taking that dip.
Drink a hot beverage right before entering
Pounding a hot drink right before getting in the water is near the top of the list of my go-to moves. You want it as warm as you can comfortably drink at a rapid rate without burning your mouth. I briefly read that if you keep the beverage at 98.6 or slightly above is the most beneficial, but again, I'm not a scientist. This move will have your body smiling from the tip of your tongue to the bottom of your belly. Popular choices for me are coffee, tea, or simply hot water. There is a hot apple cider seasonal flavor of hydration mix that is a personal favorite of mine. The caffeine from coffee or tea should be taken into consideration as it does have the potential to dehydrate you...and if your gut hasn’t woken up yet and you're stuck in the lake/river with no bathroom in sight, well...
Wear sandals or neoprene socks to enter/exit the water
Neoprene socks are the preferred if they are in your bag, but sandals are an acceptable substitute. Sandals are worn more for safety than for warmth. Depending on where you enter, there could be dangers in the water that you might not feel with your feet once they go numb. Something with a layer of protection and grip between your foot and the rocky, sandy, or muddy bottom could make all the difference to save you from those hidden hazards lurking beneath the surface. Eating it in the shallows due to slippery rocks is an awful way to start or end a swim, only topped by an unknown gash lurking on the bottom of one’s foot. Bruises and bleeding can end a swim quicker than any water temperature.
Pat, do not rub dry
After exiting the water, you want to pat dry off with a towel. Since the feeling has mostly been removed from your skin and you wouldn’t feel a stray piece of debris scraping or cutting you, the pat off is the safest method to dry off and quickest way to get back into clothes.
Post swim warm beverage
Time to start drinking that second hot beverage! Your attack on the cold from all fronts is the mission now. You should be dry and bundled up to start the warming of your exterior. That warm drink is the perfect way to start the heating up process from the inside. Though it may be tempting to add a little celebratory spice to your warm drink, try to refrain from any alcohol until you have completely recovered. Alcohol consumption dilates the blood vessels which causes your body to send blood out to your skin. This can lower the body temperature due to pulling blood away from the core. Plenty of time to throw a couple back and reflect on the glorious experience in the cold, but keep it clean while warming up.
Preparations for success
There are a bunch of things that can be done the day before to set yourself up for success. Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. A good meal for dinner the night before is a great way to ensure your body has plenty of fuel for the swim. A great nights sleep is a must to recharge your batteries and start the day mentally and physically fit. Don’t get hammered the night before. A hangover will put your body in a more sensitive state to the cold. One could say a beer or two could be a good choice (carb loading!) but going solo on a sixer, probably not ideal.
Knowledge going into this new adventure
There are some key things to know going into the swim. Unlike all the pictures posted of smiles, trendy beanies, and perfectly framed backgrounds, getting to that point is quite unpleasant (for me at least).
Upon entering the water initially, it may take your breath away or make you gasp involuntary. These are both reasons why it is always discourage to just plunge into deep cold water and go fully submerged. Going in where you can stand is always the preferred method.
Once you have made it past that first step, know that it is going to be a solid two to five minutes of acclimation which might range from discomfort to misery (remember the icy-cold-hands-of- death-vise grip on your noggin??). The blood in the exposed and cold regions is retreating from your shell and turning your skin and fat into “bio-prene” as many people like to call it. Treading or swimming in the shallows during this time is a preferred method of mine to keep the blood pumping through the muscles. On occasion I have tried to swim after being sedentary in the water and it felt like my arms were asleep as I tried to get started.
The last thing to be aware of is "after drop". This sensation happens after you have gotten out of the water. It is where your body temperature continues to drop after you are out of the water and in dry clothing. Your bio-prene is a chilly thermal mass that will continue cooling your core until it is back to a blood filled and warm layer between your skeleton and clothing. Some articles state that it can be up to 30 min after your swim that your core is at its coldest. That is another reason to listen to your body in cold water and not try to push the limits, especially when starting out. There are cases of people passing out during this period of time when warming up, so don't try driving until you are certain that your body has warmed back up.
The biggest thing to remember is that you chose to do this (or had a friend drag you out). So have fun with it! Never go out alone, always have a friend with you in the water, in a kayak, or on the land with a plan in case of emergency. Be sure to tag us in your adventures @weAREaguaholics or #Aguaholics so we can cheer you on!
Semi-coherent ramblings by Jimmy Hanson