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How to use a wetsuit to become a non-wetsuit swimmer

At our H2Open Day recently the water temperature was a little over 12 degrees Centigrade. Some people swam in full wetsuits with neoprene hats, gloves and socks, and still found it cold. Others swam in skimpy Lycra costumes, and having broken the ice to swim over the winter, found the Reading Lake ‘positively balmy’. They would have been offended if we asked them to wear a wetsuit.

For many people, jumping into 12 degree water, with or without a wetsuit, is a challenge. It’s cold enough to stimulate cold water shock, which causes a sharp, involuntary intake of breath, and can result in water inhalation or even loss of consciousness through hyperventilation. Once you’re over the initial shock it you may feel pain on any exposed parts of skin, particularly your face, and some people suffer from ‘ice-cream headaches’. 
Other people, through a combination of genetics, build, acclimatisation and mental preparation, find 12 degrees quite tolerable.
At H2Open we’re not interested in taking sides in the wetsuit/anti-wetsuit debate. However, we do agree there is something uniquely stimulating about the feeling of cool, fresh water on your skin, and a certain delight to be had in the freedom of movement in water unhindered by rubber. We therefore recommend open water swimmers to experiment with non-wetsuit swimming, so long as they can do so safely.
Here’s a trick we think works quite well if you’re normally a wetsuit swimmer. Start by swimming as normal in your wetsuit. Swim for long enough that your hands, feet and face get used to the cold, but not so long that you become chilled. Exit the water, remove your wetsuit and immediately re-enter the water. Keep your hat and goggles on.
Because your hands, feet and face are already used to the water you should find that cold water shock is reduced, and that you don’t feel the pain that you did on first entering the water. Swim a short distance only (perhaps just for a minute the first time), exit and dry off and warm up quickly. If you do this each time you swim you should find you quickly build your tolerance to cold water and can stay in longer.
We’re sure some purists will think this is silly – just bin the wetsuit, toughen up and get on with it, they might say, but we think this is a useful technique to adapt to cold water. Also, at the beginning of the season it may mean you can complete longer training sessions by first doing a distance swim in your wetsuit and following that with an acclimatisation swim without.
Besides, when wetsuits can make you about 5s per 100m faster, they’re useful things to hang on to for racing.