If the water is cooler than you are comfortable with, or even really cold, should you wear a wetsuit?
Well, my short answer to this question is, if the cold will keep you from swimming, but otherwise you are fit, capable and eager to go, then wear a wetsuit! Generally, it is better to wear a wetsuit and go swimming than to not swim at all.
Fitness or Skill Barrier
But what if it’s more than the cold keeping you from trying that swim? What if you are not totally sure of your fitness or skills to handle those conditions but the wetsuit would offer you some security?
In this case, I tend to discourage people from covering up their lack of fitness and skill with a wetsuit. It is not a lifesaving device and it does not protect you from the psycho-somatic reaction of your brain, provoking breathlessness then panic, when it’s hit by cold or rough conditions and knows better than you that you are not prepared for this. Too often bad things happen to people who do not prepare themselves with real fitness and skill yet think they can hack it with a little neoprene coverup. It is not fair to the event director and staff, the other participants, it’s not fair to your loved ones, nor to yourself when you do not train properly for the conditions you are going to swim in.
I say that rather bluntly because I feel it is both a safety and an ethical issue, and I have an obligation as a coach and lifeguard to promote what is safe and honorable for the community.
What if you are fit, and you want to attempt a very challenging (for you) swim but the time in the cold water creates the uncertainty whether you could do it or not?
There is this article in Outdoor Swimmer where the author and an accomplished swimmer he interviewed share different perspectives on that question.
I tend to agree with what the author points out, that there is a big difference between wearing a wetsuit to have a good personal experience and wearing a wetsuit to acquire bragging rights against those who endured without one.
Terms Of The Accomplishment
Once one has the fitness and mindset to stay swimming for hours in rough water, enduring the cold is often the greater part of the challenge for experienced swimmers. Having a body that can hold up relatively safely for hours in cold water takes years of training the body and the mind. There might be some genetic advantages for some to be able to eventually handle extremely cold waters, but generally cool and cold water is accessible to most swimmers if only they invest the time and follow a responsible process of adaptation. Those who pay the price to prepare and then accomplish a great swim should be clearly distinguished from those who have not.
Should people in wetsuits be prevented from trying a epic cold water swim? Of course not. But we should help defend the line between ‘tech assisted’ and unassisted accomplishments like these.
But if your aim is to just get out and enjoy your body, enjoy the water, enjoy the scenery, enjoy the fellowship, then by all means, wear the suit! If anyone gives you flak, ignore the skin snobs in this case.
(And here are some things to think about if you are Thinking About A New Wetsuit.)
Besides enjoyment, having more people so intimately connected to, literally immerse in open water on our planet will only help raise concern for keeping it clean and healthy.
Good Reasons To Go Skins
However, I myself do prefer and encourage other swimmers to try going without their wetsuit (in safe conditions, with companions) in cool water and exploring how that makes your body feel, especially afterward during the rest of the day. Cold water swimmers are not crazy. They know a secret – they know how wonderful it feels in body and mind to have regular dips in cold water. Wetsuits don’t remove all the cold, but they do greatly blunt the body’s adaptive response which triggers all these afterglow effects.
I am motivated to increase adaptation or re-adapt to skins swimming when I lose some. I appreciate the changing sensations inside, the way my physiology adapts over time or grows more comfortable. I appreciate the way my mind improves its interpretation of the strong signals and alarms, and becomes more accepting of stress, which teaches me to release it more easily. I love the flow of water over my body, supplying me with a full array of feedback in the variety of nerve receptors on the skin. I appreciate the sense of belonging in nature all year round, with less barrier from the elements. I appreciate the simplicity of just slipping out of (most of) my clothes and just jumping in. And so much more…
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