Lap pool temperatures typically range from 78 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you are a regular swimmer, you know that there is a big difference between the upper and lower limits of that four degree range. As temperatures dip below 78 degrees, staying warm becomes more of a challenge. The lower the water temperature, the harder it becomes to generate enough heat through swimming to stay warm.
Unlike ocean dwelling mammals such as dolphins and whales, human do not possess layers of blubber to act as a thermal insulator and body temperature regulator in cold water environments. Add to that the lower than average body fat commonly found among triathletes and it becomes clear that cold water environments present special circumstances for long distance swimming.
As a result, the most common solution for open water swimming is to don a wetsuit. Wetsuits, constructed of neoprene, guard against the cold by providing a layer of insulation that keeps the water next to your skin warm. Wetsuits have become de rigueur at triathlons, especially since the layer of neoprene that guards against cold also provides added buoyancy. Added buoyancy translates into a higher body position and faster swim times. Less experienced swimmers often benefit more from the added buoyancy as their body positions are typically improved the most.
With this in mind, it is important to be aware of the competitive rules and conditions under which wetsuits are allowed for triathlon. For age group triathletes in USA Triathlon sanctioned events, wetsuits are allowed in temperatures up to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. For elite triathletes, wetsuits are allowed in temperatures up to “68 degrees for swim distances less than 3,000 meters and 71.6 degrees for distances of 3,000 meters or greater.” In addition to allowable temperature ranges, the thickness of your wetsuit must not exceed 5 millimeters.
As indicated by the wetsuit rules for elite triathletes, experienced swimmers can typically handle water temperatures into the 60s for about a half hour with little worry of hypothermia. As long as one is swimming fast, the body can generate adequate heat to ward off the cooling effects of the water.
But if you are out for a training swim or plan to spend longer periods of time in cold water, a wetsuit along with other items will make your time in the water much more comfortable. In my opinion, nothing ruins the joy of swimming more than a shivering body and chattering teeth. To ward off hypothermia, here are some essential pieces of gear for colder open water swims.
Choose a wetsuit designed specifically for swimming that is less than 5 millimeters in thickness. For colder water, be sure to choose a full-sleeve wetsuit. There are numerous brands that make wetsuits for triathletes. Check out the special deals from Alp Fitness sponsor, XTERRA Wetsuits.
A great deal of body heat is lost through the head, making a swim cap indispensable for swimming in cold water. As the water temperature decreases (e.g. below 70 degrees), doubling up with two swim caps—one of which is silicone—can provide an extra layer of insulation. Be sure to pull the swim cap over your ears.
Cold water entering the ears can have a chilling effect. This is where silicone ear plugs, such as Mack’s soft silicone ear plugs, come into play. Sometimes it helps to clean your ears with rubbing alcohol before putting in the ear plugs to ensure a good seal.
Neoprene swim cap
For truly cold water (e.g. below mid 60s), a neoprene swim cap can provide extra insulation for the head. These caps typically strap below the chin, ensuring that they cover the ears. Neoprene caps are made of the same material as your wetsuit, and provide much more insulating power than standard latex or silicone swim caps. It is a good idea to wear a standard latex or silicone swim cap under your neoprene cap for maximum insulation.
Gloves and booties that resemble fins are prohibited for racing. But if you have all the gear above, you should be able to handle any water temperature you’ll encounter in a triathlon. Properly attired, even long swims in the coldest of water can be enjoyable.
USA Triathlon Rulebook – 4.4 Wetsuits. Each age group participant shall be permitted to wear a wet suit without penalty in any event sanctioned by USA Triathlon up to and including a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit. When the water temperature is greater than 78 degrees, but less than 84 degrees Fahrenheit, age group participants may wear a wet suit at their own discretion, provided however that participants who wear a wet suit within this temperature range shall not be eligible for prizes or awards. Age group participants shall not wear wet suits in water temperatures equal to or greater than 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The wetsuit policy for elite athletes shall be determined by the USAT Athletes Advisory Council. The AAC has set the wetsuit maximum temperature for elites at 68 degrees for swim distances less than 3,000 meters and 71.6 degrees for distances of 3,000 meters or greater. Effective January 1, 2013, any swimmer wearing a wetsuit with a thickness measured in any part greater than 5 millimeters shall be disqualified.