Swimmers: Avoid hypothermia by knowing the signs

Wearing a westuit can protect you against hypothermia, but not all races allow wetsuits  Credit: Jamie Squire/Allsport
With summer just around the bend, many triathletes and swimmers may be tempted to go for a swim in open water, in preparation for upcoming races.

While open-water experience is a necessary and vital component to a well-rounded triathlete or swimmers regimen, the prospect of hypothermia is a distinct possibility. Medically defined as the point at which your body temperature falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia can result in mental disorientation, physical fatigue and even drowning in extreme cases.

Nevertheless, competing in cold water temperatures is unavoidable for those of us who yearn for the challenges of a triathlon or ocean swim. What follows are a few suggestions as to how you can identify the early signs of hypothermia, and how best to avoid its effects before they take their more serious toll.

Swimmers tend to lose body heat a lot faster than their athletic counterparts in other sports. Because water conducts heat more efficiently than air, a person immersed in 65-degree water will get colder a lot faster than a runner jogging in 65-degree weather. In addition, swimmers do not have the advantage of wearing clothing during activity (as runners or cyclists do), thus losing an additional opportunity to stay warm.

(Wetsuits, if permitted, are a great solution to this problem and can result in a much more pleasant and long-lasting swim, but certain competitions dont allow them because the buoyancy they provide is considered an unfair advantage).

As anyone who has ever jumped into a freezing lake or ocean at the start of a race knows, the initial shock of cold water results in a tightening of the chest muscles and hyperventilation. This reflex gasp response is a natural reaction, and should be taken in stride.

Eventually your chest will relax as you become accustomed to the temperature during strenuous activity. Novice athletes often panic at the onset of this alarming involuntary reaction to the cold, and tend to magnify their problems by inhaling in short, fast breaths and tensing up their entire body.

The most important thing to remember when starting a race in cold water is to stay calm and prepare yourself for the shock. If you can get in the cold water a few minutes before the start, you can stand still and slowly control your breathing and relax your arms, shoulders and back muscles. When you stop feeling shocked, do a few strokes with your face in the water and exit.

When you return to the water for your race, you will know what to expect and your body will have already dropped in temperature slightly as a result of your recent dip. You will be better prepared to avoid hypothermia.

Most hypothermia occurs in waters cooler than 60 degrees, but it can plague more sensitive swimmers or those competitors who do longer races in 70-degree water as well.

Contrary to popular belief, increased strenuous activity (like sprinting) does not warm up your body temperature and help deter the onset of hypothermia. Rather, the more you exert yourself the more energy, or heat, you burn up at a faster rate, resulting in hypothermia a lot sooner.

There is actually a way to condition yourself to tolerate cold waters for longer periods of time. Like any training, the more you do it, the more endurance you develop. Thus, if you accustom yourself to swimming in colder waters regularly, your body will make the necessary metabolic and hormonal adjustments to accommodate its surroundings.

Two years ago, I was pulled out of a 10-mile ocean swim for hypothermia. I had been training long distances in preparation, but all my workouts were in a warm pool. Last year, I swam the same race after training and racing in the ocean more frequently, and I completed the 10 miles with no problems (the temperature was the same both years).

Here are a few ways you can tell if you, or anyone you know, is suffering from hypothermia.

  • Mild hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering and numbness, loss of simple coordination.

  • Moderate hypothermia: confusion and strange inebriated-like behavior, slurred speech.

  • Severe hypothermia: blue-gray skin, slow or halted breathing, loss of consciousness.

    During an ocean swim, if you begin to feel the effects of mild hypothermia, one trick is to count to 10 and then back to one, over and over again. If you lose your train of thought or lose count, it is definitely time to exit the water and get help because you are slowly losing your mental capacity.

    It all sounds scary, but the onset actually occurs more slowly than you would think, and you have plenty of rational time to realize what is going on and take steps to prevent it from getting worse.

    Once you exit the water, immediately dry off and swaddle yourself in towels, sweats and a hat if possible. A severely hypothermic swimmer may need medical attention, but should be dried and warmed up as quickly as possible, concentrating on the extremities. Make sure the victim stays conscious and communicative, at least until medical attention arrives.

    An important side-note is that once you exit the water (or in my aforementioned case, once you are yanked from it with little realization that it is in your best interest), you may experience what is known as afterdrop, a further drop in body temperature. Because your extremities are colder than the middle of your body, the circulating blood from your hands and feet ends up cooling the warmer parts of your body.

    Continued activity after a mild hypothermic experience can also result in afterdrop (triathletes take note as you exit the water and continue racing onto the bike portion of your event). Be conscious of how you are feeling and if any of the symptoms above persist or increase, seek attention!

    Remember, as frightening as hypothermia sounds, it is not sudden and you will know it when you begin to feel it. There will be plenty of time to make a rational decision as to what your next move should be if you begin to feel cold. In many instances, slight hypothermia has been known to pass during a race and disappear without further hindering an athletes performance.

    Find and register online for a swim event in your area!

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