There’s only one thing that people signing up for a winter OCR think about: will there be water? Or rather, do I need to worry about getting hypothermia?
With most winter races whether or not there will be water is an unknown. Last year’s Spartan Winter races had no water at all, though it was snowing in the sub-zero temperatures.
Yet one race here in the UK boasts of its cold water obstacles. After all, the race day is always reserved for the last Sunday in January. Your adrenaline surge is guaranteed to be served with a side of chills, just look at this guy:
However, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your chance of serious injury through hypothermia.
I’ll talk you through my approach to cold water training as I prepare for this race. If you’ve seen the Rise of the Sufferests, you’ve guessed it right – the race I’m talking about is the Tough Guy. Think of it as a colder version of the Tough Mudder. The Arctic Enema x 1000. FFS!
The truth about hypothermia
Firstly, are you terrified of catching hypothermia? Almost everyone gets hypothermic at the Tough Guy – it would be weird if people didn’t, but they experience it at varying degrees. Many people prepare their bodies in the weeks leading up to event using cold thermogenesis (the body’s natural response of heating itself up and sustaining blood flow throughout the body in cold conditions).
The truth is that you should only be afraid if you’re not preparing for the cold water. You must prepare or you should stay at home.
The good news is, we’re here to help you prepare and with the race still 2 months away, you have time.
How to prepare for a cold water OCR
With cold water training you want to target especially your brown adipose fat areas which are responsible for burning white fat and thus regulating body temperature. When exposed to cold water, these tissue areas will condition the body to warm itself faster and more easily.
The reason cold water training is so hard is because these brown fat areas are the ones you least want to expose to the cold. In a cold shower, these are the last areas you’d put under the cold: your head and spine, neck and the collarbone region.
Yet these body parts that are the hardest to expose to cold, are the ones that contribute the most to getting you ready for the cold water. Gritting your teeth now will pay off hugely come January.
My cold water acclimatisation plan
is based on a cold shower routine. In the 1 month (minimum) leading up to the race, all my showers follow this schedule:
- 4th week before race day – Shower starts with 30 seconds of cold water, then I switch to warm for as long as I like, and finish with another 30 seconds of cold water. The exception are post-workout showers: those are for me 100% cold.
- 3rd week before race day – Shower starts with 1 minute of cold water (again making sure to expose all of my brown fat areas for the whole duration of cold water), and then I shower in warm water for as long as I like.
- 2nd week before race day – Shower in cold water and finish with 30 seconds of warm water.
- The week before race day – The whole shower is spent in cold water and I’ll add a 20-minute ice bath on one day (after a longer run). If I’ll have more time, I might increase the time spent in the ice bath, but the full cold showers should be enough to help me prepare for the sub zero temperatures.
If you want to attempt this or a similar plan, please do consult your doctor if you need to. Don’t stay in cold water unsupervised, especially if you’re putting your head under water in the ice bath (I’ll always have someone with me).
Other things to consider adding to your cold water training:
- You can also expose yourself to the cold while running – for example, run through a river or a big puddle of water then continue your run or workout as usual.
- Fire-breathing (a pattern of rapid shallow breaths followed by holding the breath) can also help your reaction to cold water. I’ve found that the cold shower routine alone is already good enough to get me ready for exposure to cold water in the wild.
Bonus: What to wear for a cold water OCR
- Wear a warm hat and merino wool socks. Remember that body heat escapes primarily through the head and feet, so dress accordingly. A hat with a swimming cap underneath and neoprene socks should do you just fine.
- Consider wearing a wetsuit – 1-3mm of neoprene should allow for plenty of movement and keep the body warm.
- Wear compression to avoid retaining water on you. Usually it’s sweat-wicking so you’ll dry quicker which means lower risk of hypothermia. Even if you’re wearing a wetsuit, consider wearing some compression underneath.
Ready to face the cold?