How to improve your performance in cold water

Does your performance suffer when you're swimming in cold water? Professor Mike Tipton explains what you can do to improve it

Preparing to swim in cold water

The most common problem we have with elite triathletes is that they become dysfunctional in the swim because, in short, they’re mostly designed for running, not cold water.


They tend to be thin with long limbs – which is almost the perfect anthropometric and morphological make-up to cool in water. Sometimes the only advice you can give is to ‘go and put some weight on’, which isn’t great for them. So what can we do based on what we know about cold-water swimming?

Tips for performing better in cold water

Number one is we know that you can habituate to the cold shock response. So it’s smart to get used to the first couple of minutes of an immersion so that when you go charging down or dive into the water on race day, you’re not starting with uncontrollable hyperventilation or increased workload of your heart.

Secondly – and this is less commonly known – anything you can do to increase the insulation on the arms and particularly the upper part of the arms will help.

When swimmers fail in cold water, we know that that’s pretty much related to dysfunction in the tricep region of the arm. As the arms are cylinders with low mass and large surface area, they’re the perfect shape to cool.

Also, some studies we have done show that once the water temperature drops below 25°C [so pretty much all our swimming! Ed] exercise actually makes you cool more quickly in water than if you stayed still, as blood is circulating to perfused muscles (like the arms, which are working hard) from the rest of the body. So insulation in the arms is an important factor.

Working with elite triathletes, we’re finding they have a problem because they get into the water, they cool – as in their tissue cools as well as superficial nerves and muscles before deep body cooling – and it affects their bike handling in transition by causing loss of dexterity, loss of grip, strength and loss of coordination.

So keeping your arms warm is important if you want to have a speedy T1 and get out with the lead bike pack!


Top image credit: Remy Whiting