Archive for January 27th, 2010

After doing my first Alcatraz swim in a wetsuit, but noticing the many swimmers that did not, I felt a wet towel had been thrown down, a challenge to do it without a wetsuit.

For the rest of the fall and winter I just decided to hang up my wetsuit and do every swim without a wetsuit. This made adjusting to the temperature change a little easier as it might only drop a degree or two each week. It culminated with my swim on New Year’s Day in 1997 without a wetsuit at the balmy temperature of 53 degrees F.

Now some of you may not have the luxury of slowly acclimating to lower temperatures, but there are some techniques, or a process, that works well for me and may work well for you.

Unless you are going for the “total shock to the system” jump in and jump out. You really need to get your body used to the water temperature and have your muscles not be tensed up and have your breathing under control. So here are the steps I take (weather permitting a brief video will later be added to this post).

Starting Out

  1. Wade into the water about top-of-the-thigh deep, you can do this in as many smaller steps as you like, though I find a certain deliberateness helps you to commit to the task at hand.
  2. Once you feel a certain level of adjustment I will wade in to about hip deep.
  3. At this point, I start scooping water up with my hands and rubbing first my arms, my chest, my shoulders and back, then my neck and face. I repeat this a few times, the goal is to knock down your skin temperature a bit to minimize the difference between it and the water, this will reduce shock you go through when you become totally immersed in the water.
  4. I then bend at the knees and immerse myself chest deep, then shoulder deep, then over my head, usually I do this in three brief plunges, again this spreads out the shock to the system.
  5. I make a note of my breathing at this point, I either repeat the last few steps, if I am still wanting to hyperventilate, or if my breathing is controllable, I will start my swim.
  6. When I start my swim, I start out deliberately slow, you want you heart rate to slowly come up and you muscles to loosen up.
  7. After two to three minutes, the perception of the water being uncomfortably cold, will fade and you can continue your swim in relative comfort.

During the Swim

  1. Depending on water temperature, your particular physiology and how you feel that day, your endurance in the water will vary It is initially helpful to either swim with someone with a pace you are familiar with, or to swim in the lane area. You will start out close to your normal pace, but I found, as the water dipped into the 50’s my pace would slow down, from a two minute lap time to three minutes.
  2. Cold limbs, my legs and feet would start to go numb after 30 minutes and I could slowly feel it work its way up into my calves. My goal, when swimming in the lane lines was to complete the equivalent distance of to the rock pile and back (1600 yards).
  3. Since most of my swimming that winter was solo and in the lane lines, I never pushed myself to the point of actual hypothermia. When starting out, it is advisable to not push youself too hard, but to develop a feel for you body and its limits.

After the Swim

  1. Twenty of thirty minutes in 58 degree water is going to lower your core body temperature, period. It will take a surprising amount of time to get your core temperature back up. There are two ways to get heat back into you, internally and externally.
  2. Externally, hot shower, sauna, steam room, hot tub, warm bath, etc. By the way, non of these are available at Shadow Cliffs, so you will need to plan accordingly, warm clothes and the car heater set to full blast are your immediate solution.
  3. Internally, warm drinks, more warm drinks, muscle activity, shivering come to mind, but biking or running also work, but hey, I’m a swimmer legs are for walking into an out of the lake. Seriously though, some jogging, running or biking do help quite bit.
  4. How long until I feel warm? For me it is about 2:1, so half and hour swimming means warming back up with a combination of the items listed above, for an hour. Even then, I can easily get a chill several hours later in the day. Again, it might be different for you.

Is it worth it? Having had a Quintana Roo wetsuit I truly loved using, I can still say, not needing a wetsuit is even better. I have enjoyed swimming in lakes in the Sierra’s that I came across unexpectedly, I enjoy the Pacific Ocean at the beach as much as I enjoyed the Jersey Shore as a kid (a solid 15 degree difference). I am liberated from the need for a wetsuit. I no longer have the psychological need for its body-armor like feel. It is just the water and me.

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