Safety: How to make a safe swim in really cold water


Sudden death in cold water is caused by conflicting signals to the heart. Here are some tip how to do the first swim in a safe way.
It is time to start the Open Water swim season. My swim club S77 starts early May. I know Copenwater is so too.

Why start swimming this early?

Because it is fun, you feel good and the coffee taste really good afterwards. And of course – you get a huge advantage when the water is 13-15 degrees when the rest of your club member starts swimming. Your body manage the cold water very well then and you may swim really relaxed while they still are fighting the element and the temperature.

Sudden death

I want to really emphasize the risk with diving, jumping or simply dipping too fast when the temperature is below 15 degress Celcius. It puts a tremendous stress on your body and your heart. The hearth signal system might break down since it get conflicting signals.  One signal is "Pump harder - it is cold". The other signal is "Pump slowly - you are drowning. Save your energy and oxygen". These conflicting signals may lead to what's called sudden death. "For some swimmers, there is a risk of drowning when swimming in waters below 15 C. Sudden death can occur with ten seconds of the first breath exhalation. It’s believed that this happens because the heart tries to rebalance blood flow by pumping quickly and slowly at the same time, leading to a system crash. " 
Read more about Sudden death>> 

How to do it right

  • First of all – swim with friends! Do never try really cold water alone.
  • Use your safety swim buoy!
  • Protect yourself as good as possible. Ear plugs are mandatory since it stops the cold water getting inside you. By the same reason a nose clip is worth a try - you feel the difference in the sinus cavities. If you can afford buy neoprene socks, gloves and a cap or use short swim fins, "waterproof" garden gloves (both are creating a insulating layer of water) and double swimcap. A neoprene head bandera over the forehead close to your eyes or neoprene hood covering the whole neck is great too.
  • Bring a bottle of hot water. Pour it inside your wet suit right before going into the water. Just check the temperature first so it isn't too warm ;)
  • Do not jump or dive if the temperature is below 15 degrees Celcius. Take it easy. Let your body adjust to the temperature. Do not dip your head instantly. Wait a few minutes and splash some water in your face before.
  • After 2-10 minutes you can try swimming. If you get very exhausted you still should take it easy - your body has not settled yet and you have to listen to it. Swim short lapses, stop and chat with your friends. Stay together!
  • After about 6-10 lapses of 25 meters I usually can swim pretty well – that is if the water is above 11 degrees. Else I will feel like my body wants to be hovering over the water all the time.


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