A few things I've picked up along the way...
I’ve been struggling to find an online article that divulges my little go-to ‘pearls’ of open-water wisdom so I thought I would experiment and write my own. Please excuse my poor writing skills (there is a reason I wasn't an English major) and note that I am by no means an expert in this area… I just really (really, really) enjoy it!
... swimming specific!
Invest in a good one that fits properly. Measure yourself accurately and try it on, if possible. Note that proper swimming wetsuits aren’t classified in “mm”; this is because they should be different thicknesses throughout the wetsuit and this should suit your specific swimming style (see below). I found one that suits me best (Zone 3) through a lengthy chat with an online retailer; I ended up ordering online from them and it fits great. Locally, Brainsport (and I think the Dive Shop on 51st St.) in Saskatoon carries a selection of Aquasphere suits. From my experience Aquasphere has a nice entry-level suit that you will have the luxury of trying on in Saskatchewan (something the internet doesn’t offer). In Regina, Western Cycle has a small selection of Blue Seventy wetsuits.
Pelvis/Thigh thickness: More proficient swimmers (and women) generally have a higher body position in the water and therefore don’t require as much buoyancy in the pelvic and thigh region; newer swimmers and those who have ‘leg sinking’ problems should invest in a wetsuit with a bit more buoyancy in this area. It puts the swimmer at a higher position in the water, which leads to a faster swim.
Shoulder thickness: thinner is better… to a point. Thinner neoprene allows more shoulder flexibility, but it comes at a cost of durability and warmth!
...a welcomed surprise
A few years ago I found I was a lot warmer when I swam with music and earbuds. I initially chalked it up to a mental crutch, but it turns out by keeping the water out of the ear canal you actually stay warmer!
I’m a fan of a silicone kind I found at the Giant Tiger in La Ronge, but your own anatomy will dictate what is best for you. They’re relatively cheap so I suggest purchasing 3-4 pairs and experimenting a bit.
... or triple!
There is a reason your mother wouldn’t let you go out in the cold without a toque: It pays to keep your noggin’ warm! Further, traditional marathon swimming rules limit the swimmer to one cap. This is because adding that additional cap helps… a lot! Don’t be scared to double or triple cap, just make sure to stretch them out first or you’ll end up with a headache.
To stretch a swim cap: Stuff it with a beach towel and leave it overnight.
... and relax!
We all probably recognize that gasp we take when feeling the cold; it’s called the mammalian diving reflex and it’s our body's natural reaction to the cold. It’s a good thing; designed to enable mammals to preferentially distribute oxygen in preparation for prolonged submersion. But it’s not a good thing if you inhale underwater! Two things with this:
Expect this response and learn how to override it. Consciously exhale when you put your face in the water and remain calm. I will often do a few back-crawl or head-up strokes before I put my face in to help with this.
This feeling of discomfort is normal and it’s a good thing… it means you’re alive! Calm down, slow your breathing and know that the feeling will decrease in time (roughly 60 seconds). In saying that, I recognize that this takes (a lot of) practice, but it’s now one of the reasons I love those chilly spring swims!
...the folks in England call it 'tea-bagging'
For early spring swims (when the water hurts) I find that a brief reprieve from the cold will enable me to squeeze in a few more meters. My April swims generally consist of 2-3 minutes of swimming, followed by a rather comedic ‘cold dance’ on land for 1-2 minutes, and repeating this a minimum of three times. I will still do this in May or June if I’m pushing the length of my swims; that small break from the cold seems to allow the body a bit of a re-set.
7. Be Patient
... more patient than you think you should be!
Rome wasn’t built in a day… and neither was a good swimmer! I find that people tend to be impatient and underestimate this (we’re talking years of consistent swimming). Swimming, and especially open-water swimming, takes time; you have to develop technique and learn to feel the water, all the while depriving yourself of a constant supply of oxygen. If you didn’t grow up swimming and developing those motor patterns it can be quite the task! Take your time, be patient, and spend as much time as you can in the water. It will come, I promise…. just be patient and enjoy the process. No other sport allows such an amazing full-body kinesthetic experience!