Why swimrunners should embrace cold water swimming

Training for an endurance sport that combines the two tough disciplines of outdoor swimming and trail running is already hard enough, and can take up large chunks of your time. On the face of it, sacrificing part of your precious training time for cold water swimming – and I’m talking about swimming in water of less than 10 degrees Celsius (50oF) here – might seem to offer little benefit. However, there are good reasons for swimrunners to do so.

But before exploring the benefits of cold water swimming to swimrunners, let’s look three reasons people choose to avoid it.

  1. For the inexperienced, cold water is daunting and potentially dangerous. It triggers cold water shock (an automatic response that provokes a gasp response – not good if your face is underwater), it feels uncomfortable and, especially as the water gets colder, causes pain. Prolonged exposure leads to swim failure and hypothermia, two scenarios you definitely want to avoid.
  2. Cold water swimming seems to require an inordinate amount of faff relative to the amount of swimming done. This is due to the pre-swim preparation (getting your clothes and hot drink ready), the large number of layers you need to put on afterwards and the time you spend rewarming.
  3. It’s hard to do any serious swimming training distance, although it can be done. I know of some swimrunners who put on full-length wetsuits, neoprene gloves, socks and head coverings, and thereby manage to train in cold water.

It’s not about the training

However, I’m not suggesting here that you find a way to do your regular training despite the cold, but to embrace cold water swimming for its own sake and benefits. Many of my cold water swims are less than 10 minutes long. The cardiovascular benefits are minimal and I mostly swim head up breaststroke so there is no technique work done either. The reasons for cold water swimming lie elsewhere.

Top of the list: cold water swimming is good for your mental and physical health and your general wellbeing. While most of the evidence for this is anecdotal, there are plausible physiological mechanisms through which cold water immersion can generate these benefits. At Outdoor Swimmer magazine, we hear time and again from people who say a cold early morning dip gives them a high that carries them through the whole day. And the great thing is, you don’t need to do very much to get these benefits. Simply getting in the water for a few minutes is enough. Thousands of outdoor swimmers have already discovered this. Swimrunners can benefit too. Also remember that cold water can assist with recovery after a gruelling run too.

On a more practical note for swimrunners, some swimrun events take place in cool conditions. Unlike triathlon, there is no minimum water temperature for a swimrun. And while you wear a wetsuit in swimrun, this will not protect you from cold water shock or prevent pain in your face and hands. On the other hand, five or six cold water dips over the space of a few weeks will significantly reduce cold water shock, meaning you’ll be able to enter the water faster and start swimming at race pace sooner. You’ll also get used to feeling of cold water on your extremities and that reduces the discomfort.

In addition, being prepared for cold water and knowing you can deal with it is a huge confidence booster when faced with cold conditions in an event. The experience will also help you calibrate your kit. Swimrun involves trade-offs. Wearing a thicker or full-length wetsuit may help you on a cold swim but then cause distress, discomfort and over-heating on the run sections. Experience in cold water will improve your judgement and help you choose the right kit for the conditions.

Finally, cold water swimming is fun and sociable, and it’s worth doing just for that. However, please remember that cold water swimming involves additional risks including cold water shock, swim failure and hypothermia. These risks are relatively easy to manage provided you prepare properly, read up on outdoor swimming safety, keep your swims short and always swim with other people.