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Swimming in Cold Weather Conditions


Cold water swimming can be an invigorating way to get your exercise. Cold water “plungers” and swimmers will often swear by the exhilarating experience of cold water immersion, which is why the practice has continued throughout the ages. However, it must be done responsibly. It is important to understand that cold water can be very dangerous. There is a significant difference between how air temperature and water temperature affect the core temperature of the body-body heat is lost much faster in the water. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, caution should be taken in any water less than 70 degrees. Here are some tips before beginning a cold water adventure….

  1. Talk to your doctor. Immersion in cold water can be a shock to the cardiovascular system and the risks should be taken seriously.
  2. Always swim with a buddy. Regardless of your swimming ability it is so important to never swim alone!
  3. Invest in proper gear. Heat-retaining swimwear is essential in temperatures lower than 60 degrees but should be seriously considered in temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees as well. A triathlon wetsuit with full arms and legs and insulated swim cap are great options. Ear plugs can be helpful to reduce irritation of the ear from cold water.
  4. Start with a short swim and see how your body tolerates it. Ease yourself into cold water rather than jumping in, to give your body a chance to adjust. Begin your cold water swimming practice in the fall instead of the winter, so that your body can acclimate to the lower temperatures before it’s really freezing out. Something to consider is that body type also makes a difference; those with more adipose or fat tissue are better able to sustain cold water temperatures than those with slimmer physiques.
  5. Monitor yourself and your swim buddy for signs of hypothermia, which occurs at an internal body temperature of 95 degrees. Examples of symptoms include shivering, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and rapid heart rate. If you experience any symptoms of hypothermia cut your swim short and get yourself warmed up. If the symptoms persist or progress seek medical care.

Updated on March 10, 2020

Sarah McLean, physical therapist

Sarah McLean has a Master’s degree in Physical Therapy, is certified by the Aquatic Therapy & Rehab Institute, Inc, and has a Certificate of Clinical Competency in Aquatic Physical Therapy from the American Physical Therapy Association. She is an Advanced Clinician at the James M. Benson Sports Rehabilitation Center and Tisch Sports Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery, where she offers aquatic therapy services.


The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.