Argument for Swimming Naked

I bet the title on this essay is going to get me in trouble on some search engines, but there is nothing inappropriate in the content, I assure you. The title just fits…

I was swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in Antalya yesterday. April 8! The water was 18 C. I got fed up of the cloudy and hot (30 C) water at the university pool and headed back to the open-water. The last 2 weeks I have swam with my quickjohn (sleeveless, short leg) wetsuit and neoprene cap so I could stay in the sea as long as I could, since I am not acclimated to cooler water (yet). I just wanted to stretch out and swim long, with un-interrupted strokes again. Each day that I have jumped in I have notice the temperature to feel less biting in the beginning, less numbing on the fingers and toes toward the end of my hour.

I have no complaints because I am back in the sea. By far, most of my swimmer friends around the world are constrained to indoor pools. Of course, to my northern European friends, 18 C is the hottest your sea will ever get on a lucky day. (I was told one of my Swedish friends plunged into his 3 C lake just this last week- and made it just a minute!) The coldest the sea will get here in Antalya is 16 C in February. My goal this coming year is to become a year round sea swimmer- without a wetsuit.

The wetsuit lifts my body up much higher in this already extraordinarily salty part of the Mediterranean Sea. In that higher position the waves slap me around like a cork bobber and I have to use even greater concentration to hold balance and steady catch. I may slip through the water slightly faster due to the reduced surface friction of the water flowing over the slick neoprene shell. But the bouyancy and exposure to surface waves and drag change the way I must use musculature and leverage to keep a steady catch. This gets exhausting. The tightness of the suit resists full body extension and the transfer of forces through my rotation. The neoprene shell deprives me of vital skin sensory information that would normally help me hold better balance and steamline in turbulent water conditions.

At the end of yesterday’s swim- 45 minutes of steady waves from the side and a decent wind-driven current at my head- I slipped off the suit in the shallow water, tossed it on shore, then slipped back into the water to feel the difference. I felt amazingly more smooth and powerful, with less effort. It did not feel threateningly cold on my core either. Without the restriction of the tight neoprene I could now transfer forces from toe to finger tips through my body rotation much easier. My body lay deeper in the water and was therefore less exposed to the surface waves and wind. I was not tossed around, my balance was untouched. I could extend fully without resistance. My body was ever so slightly longer and leaner, even if by less than a couple centimeters, and that little improvement in length/width ratio improved my acceleration on each stroke. Thus liberated I could finally feel water pressure and flow over the entire surface of my skin, assuring me I was sliding through the water with best position.

“Ahhh!” I savored each naked stroke like I was slowly melting a chunk of dark chocolate (with sea salt, of course) on my tongue.

Side note: I should mention the after-effects of swimming in cool water! It made me feel fresh, toasty and alert all day.

This superior sensation, the enhanced quality in the experience, the liberation- these are huge motivations for me to be free of the wetsuit and to adapt to my local sea conditions year-round.

By all means, for the love of swimming open-water, let’s use a wetsuit if needed to handle the cold, and have fun. Being able to access open-water (enjoyably) is more important than worrying about being a ‘purist’ or not. And, to me, quality is even more important than that. I don’t need to simply get in the distance or get my workouts done. I am not looking for an achievement, or something to brag about. I want liberation to swim when and where I am drawn to, even if it means shorter swims when it gets colder. Year-round ‘naked’ swimming is totally within reach and it would allow me to swim with much more ease, enjoyment and freedom. So it is worth the pursuit to me. For you too, perhaps?


2 responses to “Argument for Swimming Naked

  1. Hello Mat and what a timely article! Last Friday I began my open water swimming career here in the UK. The lake is 9 degrees and it feels COLD!! I am wearing a wetsuit as I am totally unaccustomed to swimming in cold water, but my observation is so similar to yours – I have no sensory clues as to how my body is responding or working. I also find it quite difficult to relax my recovery arm (although my wetsuit is only 2mm thick) and I feel as if I cannot extend my arm well in front of my body. On Friday I only managed about 400m, but yesterday and today I did a mile and my other observation was that it took me a long while to hit a good rhythm, but I think that this is because I am so aware of being cold. I hope to be able to swim without the wetsuit as the weather warms things up a little here. I have signed up for a 1500m race in the English Channel in a months time and will certainly be wearing the suit for that!
    Any more hints, tips and observations would be so much appreciated!
    Warm regards,

    • What I love about wetsuits is that it allows us to safely, incrementally explore colder water in a controlled way, at our own pace. I am so excited to hear of your ‘burly’ pursuit. You spur me on to cooler water yet!

      I began my first cooler water experiments a couple autumns ago in an outdoor pool as temperatures went steadily down week to week. I made it into 17 C without a suit (then they closed the pool on me!) but saw the dramatic difference in how my body experienced 17 from 19. I had my wetsuit on the deck just in case. But I had a hot shower nearby and safe conditions to explore the phases my body would go through as it first ‘sealed the hatches’ to pool blood in the boiling core, then gradually cooled down, the cold seeping into my skin, then bones like icy fingers.

      I would recommend doing a little internet search to read up on the different stages the body goes through as it is trying to deal with cold water, and what the signs are as you pass from stage to stage toward hypothermia. Just experiencing these stages, in as controlled and safe of a setting as possible, will offer great education, skill and confidence to facing a bit more.

      Frequency of exposure will be a factor in how quickly we acclimate. So going out 2 days a week versus 5 days a week will make the process slower of course, but we have real lives and must work with and enjoy what opportunities we have.

      Cold water on bare skin will drive our nervous system into survival mode. This is where the value of TI mental training, the habit of maintaining focus points in every stroke will be obvious. The cold water will drive us to move the arms faster to generate more heat, but we’ve got to maintain best form despite. So high tempo work in the pool can get our stroke prepared to handle high tempo in cooler water, when we won’t be able to swim long without it.

      But on the other hand, I am learning to restrain myself in that initial plunge, to not give in to rapid arms strokes but hold a bit longer, slower stroke to keep my muscles from locking up from sprint-like effort. I find that the first 1 minute is a shock, but very quickly after that the furnace in my chest kicks in and I feel great. I need to control the stroke rate during that first 5 minutes to prevent un-necessarily early muscle fatigue.

      There are some thoughts, but I hope we’ll talk some more. Keep me posted!

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