By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, January 18, 2017You stand on the gutter’s edge, staring into the blue abyss. Before you is a pond, a lake, a sea, an ocean of competitive waters. Behind you, a clock ticks down towards the swim practice’s official beginning, and you know, in a few seconds, your momentarily warm and humid environment will transform into a swirling, weightless world of cold water.
You splash as fast as you can, but no matter what you do, for those first few lengths, the pool’s water just feels freezing. You hope you’ll get used to it. You know the cold will feel differently in about 200 yards from now. But still. It’s cold.
“This pool is freezing!” was the most common swimmer complaint I heard when I coached. It was also the most common swimmer complaint I heard when I was a swimmer. Chattering teeth. Shivering muscles. Sitting at the gutter, not wanting to get in.
“I just don’t like how cold the pool is.”
“Why is the pool like ice?”
“Can you make this pool warmer, Coach?”
Why are pools cold? Why aren’t they just a little bit warmer, so when you get in for warm-ups, it’s a pleasant experience? For many years, I wondered exactly that. There was a local YMCA that kept its pool temperature around 84, but sometimes, it felt so hot that it actually increased to 87. This pool felt great for those first few lengths, but after thirty or sixty lengths, you felt overheated and hot. Another time in my competitive swimming life, there was another pool that I swear was in the upper 60s. No matter what you did, you could not swim yourself warm.
Pool temperature is one of those overlooked aspects of the swimmer’s experience that has a direct correlation to training — perhaps more than many other circumstances. Which is probably why pool temperature (in addition to safety concerns) is so regulated and monitored and maintained. And yet, despite regulations, throughout my swimming career, I’ve trained in waters ranging from 55-degrees to 90-degrees. (Both experiences were horrible and extremely unhealthy.) Though FINA has strict pool temperature regulations (Olympic competition must be 79 degrees, plus or minus one degree) and most competitive pools maintain temperatures between 77-82 degrees, it’s been my experience of a much wider range of temperatures across a diverse range of pools. Some of those pools were used primarily for learn-to-swim, which meant their temperatures were higher. Some of those pools were used for collegiate swimming, which meant colder temperatures. But it does seem that pools fluctuate.
Or perhaps that fluctuation was mostly in my imagination. Because we are immersed in water, perhaps no other sport is so affected by a variation of just two degrees. And yet, swimmers can tell the difference between 82-degree water and 84-degree water. Sometimes I’d go to other college’s pools and say, “This water is freezing!” only to discover that “freezingness” was just a two-degree difference.
Indeed, pool temperatures are also safety concerns. Even though a warmer pool might feel better during warm-up, with heavy training, anything greater than 82-degrees can mean dehydration, overheating, or worse. If you’re a serious competitive swimmer, though we all dream of those warm, blue, 85-degree Caribbean waters, in actuality, if you trained in waters that warm, you’d run the risk of overheating to the point of heat exhaustion, cramping, or something much worse. In open water competitions, we’ve seen the drastic and tragic consequences of hot water.
But that doesn’t mean pools should keep their temperatures at 65-degrees, either. I’ve been in pools where no matter how hard you train, no matter how much you swim, you just cannot get warm. (I’ve also been in lakes, rivers, and oceans with the same obvious result.)
In my experience, I’ve found that sweet spot sits somewhere between 79-81 degrees. Just on the warmer edge of competitive pool temperature regulations, but not too warm to warrant some kind of mid-practice overheating scenario.
“Why is this pool so cold?” you may wonder.
Well, cold is relative. After 100 yards, sure, the pool may feel cold, just like running outside in 45-degrees might initially feel cold. But after 45 minutes of cardiovascular training, that pool feels just right. Just as you might start off a run wearing that fleece, but 30 minutes later you’re shedding that fleece down to your t-shirt, pool temperatures feel warmer the farther along in practice and training you get.
All this to say: Sorry, swimmers. The pool temperature is set to that temperature for training, not water-walking. If the pool temperature is so cold as to make your life miserable, try doing some pre-practice exercises to make that initial leap into the pool “feel” warmer: Jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, dryland, a mile of jogging. Or take a colder shower before practice, to avoid that cold pool water shock. In wintertime for morning practices, my swim team used to do polar bear runs across the soccer field: Hop in the pool, hop out, run across the soccer field and back, and then get back in for warm-ups. The pool “felt” 87 degrees, even if it wasn’t.
Good luck, swimmers.
And no. Your coach cannot make the pool warmer.