To neoprene or not to neoprene

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Mick took a lot of flack for posting that pic on a favourite swim forum at the time, but I will say relative to cold water training, advice coming from triathlon forums/blogs at times takes a very different approach from marathon and cold water swimmers. It’s more common to refer to “handling” cold water or “making it more bearable” through the use of neoprene rather than learning to adapt to it without through repetitive habituation and acclimatization. I’m not making a sweeping generalization, some sites find a decent balance between both, but few explore the science or methodology behind physiological adaptation. And there are also lots of other reasons why most triathletes stick to wetsuits, racing advantages specifically, such as additional buoyancy and added glide and speed through reduced surface friction. And well, not everyone cares to work on adaptation, some people simply hate the cold and neoprene is an easy way to stay warm. I say, why swim if you can’t be fully in nature with water, that’s half the joy. But hey, it's totally up to you, of course. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

But even wearing a wetsuit, if you’re planning to swim in cool or cold water, you should still be working on adaptation: don’t let the wetsuit provide you with a false sense of security about your ability to “handle” cold without testing your limits first. They aren’t a guarantee against getting even somewhat cold, especially if you haven’t done any preparation and considering parts of you are still exposed. Suit up, get out there early on to practice being in cold water, don’t wait until your swim to figure it out. You have other options too, apart from a full wetsuit, such as neoprene skulls caps, gloves and booties (although if you're going to be racing, check your event to see if these are permitted, they are not allowed at winter swim or ice events). For some people, wearing these along with a regular swim suit alone provide sufficient protection from the cold. Up to you, of course.

The point I want to make is this: if you’re looking to adapt and become better at swimming in cold water, neoprene or not, you might want to consider taking your advice from experienced cold water swimmers. Even if you’re not planning a channel swim, racing in winter competitions, or an ice mile, you’ll learn a lot from those who have dedicated themselves to the sport of swimming cold au naturel. And, think about your personal goals - are you actually training for something that requires a certain level of adaptation to cold water temps, for which neoprene should probably be avoided, or are you simply looking for a little added warmth or protection so that you can get in there and enjoy the moment?

How do I know if neoprene is right for me?

Chances are if you’re still reading this post, you fall into the category of people looking to adapt to cold water, so here was my approach to figuring out if neoprene was needed when I first started staying past the summer season:

  • My goal = to have fun first, but also adapt as much as possible to train for events later on

  • I embraced that adaptation to cold water takes exposure and repetition, period, there are no quick tricks;

  • The best time to start work on adaptation is at the end of the summer season, so that as the water gradually cools, I continued swimming and safely testing my physiological limits;

  • Note if you regularly swim with a wetsuit during the summer, try ditching it, even if just for a bit (you might actually like it, just maybe). Go as long into the cold season as you can swimming ‘skins’, that is, without any neoprene at all;

  • As soon as I started to notice any physiological or psychological impacts (i.e. chilling or slight numbing of extremities, decrease in amount of time I can comfortably swim, fear or anxiety about cold, etc), I sat myself down, turned inward, and had a good chat;

    • What exactly happened, what impact did the cold have on me? 

    • What are the possible consequences based on what happened, what are the risks to me? Could they be permanent, or am I likely to recuperate within a few hours/days/weeks? Note: careful on how you assess this, take advice first from experts on cold swimming, or a medical doctor or nurse.

    • Should I continue with another swim to see if it happens again?

    • Can I find a way to minimize or mitigate the risk? 

    • Am I willing to accept the consequences, if all else fails?

 

I can’t answer any of these questions for you, every swimmer must decide on their own where their threshold for risk and consequence lies. As I was writing this, a weirdly numb pea-sized spot on my thumb was still working it’s way bad to normal (not really numb, not really pain, just felt ‘weird’), three weeks after an extremely cold swim. I knew this was a possibility going in, as it’s happened before with other similarly cold swims, so I’ve now added the extra step of having my hands dried and covered immediately upon exit from water to help limit nerve damage. With each cold swim my hands are better adapted, but there was always that risk. It’s up to you, of course, only you can decide what level of risk you’re willing to take. The point is this: if you answer ‘no’ to that last question, no risk for you, but you still want to keep swimming in cold a bit longer past the summer season, consider using neoprene if it will assist you in doing so safely. 

Let’s be very clear – neoprene will help keep your extremities warm, a swim cap in particular will help retain some body heat. But if you are experiencing irregular heart rhythm, difficulties with blood pressure, disorientation, nausea and so forth, or have underlying health issues, diagnosed or otherwise, these symptoms and their consequences will most likely not be mitigated with the use of neoprene. See a doctor, get advice. Simply put, swimming past your threshold for cold might not be for you. No shame in that either, everyone is different.

So if you aren’t keen on risk, are looking to stay in longer than you normally would, or just want to keep your fingies and tippy-toes warm and well protected, here’s a few options:

Neoprene gloves & socks

Gloves come in both fingered and webbed options (on Diane, below). Apparently in some webbed gloves, the web can simply be cut out from between the fingers, although I’m told the webbing creates quite a workout (much like a swim paddle). Socks typically come up to a few inches above the ankle. About 3mm thickness is likely best, anything thicker and the buoyancy will throw off your swim technique. But you can get 5mm and 7mm, and if greater protection makes you happy, then that's what works! Very important: be sure you’re buying swimming-specific gloves and booties, and not those made for paddling, the materials are quite different and the later are much heavier. Diane used to wear both consistently, but the more she became acclimated, she now only uses them as needed in really cold temps.

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Neoprene swim cap

Diane sometimes also wears a special swim cap, quite excellent for limiting heat loss through the head. Find a style that fits you well, especially the strap, but you can also use a little body balm if you find the strap or sides chafe your skin. Again, be sure you’re buying a model that is intended for swimming.

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Neoprene thin booties and thin diving gloves

I had been cold water swimming for 6 years before I actually bought any neoprene to help me out. When I moved from Ontario to New Brunswick, I was now swimming is sea water which doesn't even start to freeze until -2C(28.4F), and, swimming in a small shallow bay that freezes over each night in winter so that the tide rolling in comes up over a sheet of ice most days. Talk about cold, so far the coldest water temp I've recorded is -2.3C(27.8F). The biggest problems I'm facing now are the constant winds on my poor freezing hands, and seashells and rocks under my feet. After cutting my big toe on something coming out of the water one day, I decided to get a pair of thin booties to protect my feet, they do not keep my feet warm but are great protection from injury. Next, I bought thin 1.5mm diving gloves for really windy days, they also don't really keep my hands warm but they do protect against the wind so I can stay in longer. I try to avoid wearing them most of the time, for training purposes, but if the wind is really strong or the water super cold, I can only stay in a few minutes, leaving my body craving a longer swim if I have to get out early because my hands are screaming at me for mercy. Hey, whatever works, right?

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Neoprene Wetsuit

If you’ve never bought a wetsuit before, have one fitted at a professional shop, make sure the advice you’re getting is coming from experts. Or bring along a savvy triathlete friend. Swim shops may sell wetsuits, but the staff aren’t necessarily familiar with best fit or the benefits of various models and features. Fit matters; too loose and cold water will spill in quickly, too tight and the feeling of compression around your torso during cold shock will be amplified. Rent a wetsuit first, if you want to test out sizing in cold water before buying your own. Below left, a pic of the one and only time I donned mine, bought for the sole purpose of extending my swimming season (and I do think it hugs my bum nicely). Who knew back then I wouldn’t be needing it after all. And that's Cary (middle and right), another friend who came along for a swim in near-freezing 0.6C water, suited up in neoprene gear. She’s pouring warm water down her wetsuit before getting in:

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Safe and happy cold swimming!

I don’t wear neoprene. I have a wetsuit, I wore it once to try it on for size, but then I discovered chilly swimming a few weeks later and haven't touched it since. Don’t take it personally, like many open water endurance swimmers, I pride myself on swimming by marathon/channel rules. But who cares, right; if neoprene gets you in the water and helps you stay there, especially cold water, I say go for it. No wetsuit shaming here, though I do get a good chuckle sometimes when we notice differences between marathon/cold and triathlon swimmers. Mick O’Kane agreed to let me re-share this pic of him from a few (lotta) years back, sometimes swimming skins is a strange and lonely place...