Tri Coach Tuesday: How Cold is Too Cold?

Living in Colorado, we’ve come to learn that spring weather is unpredictable at best.  This can make for less than optimal conditions for swimming and racing outdoors.  Many of us have been disappointed when our anticipated triathlon becomes a duathlon or an OWS gets postponed or cancelled all together.  Although it doesn’t always satisfy our disappointment, the race directors always have athlete safety and well being in mind when these decisions need to be made.


Some venues have strict guidelines they follow.  Often times it comes down to a combination of swim distance, water temp, air temp, wind speed, type of event, etc etc.  In the end, if an event goes on as planned, the decision to participate comes down to the athlete.  Some athletes  can handle 52 degree for 1/2 mile, while others should opt out at 57 degrees.


Without Limits Productions RD, Lance Panigutti, reminds everyone that “RD’s have to make a determination based on all the athletes safety and skill set.  While some elites may be able to handle more extreme circumstances everyone needs to understand that it’s about the collective whole when it comes to moving forward to cancelling/modifying a portion of the event.”  He adds, “Every athlete needs to know and practice what they can handle, prepare for everything and hope for sunny skies”.

Bottom line:  Be educated on the effects of the cold and how they effect you.  In the end, you are responsible for your safety and well being in any type of event.


Other things to considered:


Cold Shock

Cold water zaps your body heat 25 times quicker than cold air. Add to that the physically exhausting nature of swimming, and you’re losing body heat at a rapid pace. Extremely cold water — 50 degrees or below — can lead to cold shock. This occurs when the body is overwhelmed by extreme cold, and it can send your body into a heart attack or unconsciousness, the latter of which can lead to drowning. Your body responds to a sudden plunge into cold water by making you involuntarily gasp, and if you’re under water this can cause you to drown before you get to the surface.


You’re probably well aware of hypothermia, which occurs when the body loses heat at a rapid pace. This can also occur in cold temperatures of 50 or below. While hypothermia takes longer than cold shock, it can be just as serious. Exposure to cold water for long periods of time lower your core body temperature. The lower it gets, the less your body can function. Once your core temperature reaches 93 degrees, you’ll be unable to use your arms and legs, and your mental function begins to deteriorate. At 80 degrees, you can become unconscious and drown.


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One can’t reasonably expect to go from pool swimming to doing an hour in 7C / 45 F without a wetsuit, based on desire to swim alone. Granted, this isn’t likely to occur, but I’m trying to illustrate a point.  Ability to handle COLD is again a matter of a few factors more important than others (all other things like alcohol, food, illness, sleep being equal): namely, experience and weight.

People with plenty of experience of cold can swim in very cold water. I can swim for 20 minutes in 5 C / 40 F water, because I’ve gotten used to it. But I certainly don’t recommend it and I won’t claim it’s fun. And the bigger and heavier you are the more you can handle with less training. Fat is an insulator. Just having plenty of fat alone makes cold easier to deal with. But fat does not lessen the pain of the initial shock for example.

I have done some reading on regular cold water immersion. It seems the evidence says regular immersion in water temperatures of less than 10 Celsius is very beneficial for health, in a few different areas; improved respiration and circulation, lessened chances of infection and heart attack. However once the time goes over 10 minutes some of those benefits tend to reverse, especially hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia.

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