Neptune Steps swimming action
© Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool

7 pro hacks to prepare for cold water swimming

Ahead of Red Bull Neptune Steps, triathlete Con Doherty tells us how to survive the cold.
Written by Ellie Ross
5 min readPublished on
Red Bull Neptune Steps competitors will face plenty of challenges when they dive off the startline on Saturday – including swimming upstream and climbing over locks, cargo nets, ladders and ropes in the process. But by far the toughest challenge of this aquatic assault course will be the freezing temperatures of Glasgow’s Maryhill Locks.
As Red Bull triathlete Con Doherty explains, this will be an added test for contestants on the day. “If the layout of the race isn't enough to make the butterflies in your belly flutter, the water temperature sure will. Neptune Steps is going to be cold, really cold, a predicted 6℃ in fact! It will push the athletes' ability to keep a clear and focused mind while their body is screaming to get the hell out of there!”
Climbing will be harder in the cold

Climbing will be harder in the cold

© Richie Hopson / Red Bull Content Pool

Your body cools four to five times faster in water compared to air at the same temperature. When you first jump in, the cooling of the skin is known as “cold shock”. Mike Tipton, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, says: "This can lead to uncontrollable breathing and gasping.” Cold shock is followed by the cooling of the superficial nerves and muscles. “This will make climbing ropes and obstacles more difficult, especially if you have wet hands.”
So, how can you prepare for the cold water? Here are Con’s seven cold water hacks.
1. Get fat
OK, maybe not fat exactly – but you’ll be grateful for any extra insulation on the day, so ensure you carb-load ahead of the race. And this isn’t the only type of blubber we’re talking about. When Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the Channel unaided in 1875, he was slathered in porpoise fat to keep warm and avoid chafing. It’s a tradition that still continues, although porpoise has been replaced by goose.
Con says: “Common swear-bys for athletes include applying goose fat and Vaseline to their bodies for an extra layer of insulation.”
2. Get fit
Unlike with other land-based sports, with open water swimming there’s no freewheeling downhill or walking uphill – in other words, there’s nowhere to rest if you get tired. And the fitter you are, the less you’ll feel the effects of cold water.
Prof. Tipton says: “Higher levels of physical fitness are associated with a smaller cold shock response and delayed fatigue so it’s important to be as fit as possible before attempting this race.”
3. Get freezing
Hats off to this man for braving icy waters

Hats off to this man for braving icy waters

© Visit Skelleftea

Your body, mind and muscles perform differently in the cold so get used to it before the day. As few as five, three-minute immersions in cold water can reduce the cold shock response by 50 percent, according to Prof. Tipton.
4. Get focused
Practice cold water immersions

Practice cold water immersions

© Richie Hopson / Red Bull Content Pool

If you can’t get cold, think cold.
Prof. Tipton says: “Psychological skills training can have a positive effect on your response to being in cold water. If you're unable to do cold water immersions before the race, think about going into the cold water, mentally playing out what effects it will have on your body, your breathing and how you can deal with this."
5. Get a good wetsuit
One of the biggest tips for competitors is to get a wetsuit that fits properly. Neoprene gloves, boots and caps will provide extra warmth.
Con says: “Preparation is key and a well-fitting wetsuit is vital. If a wetsuit has holes or is even slightly big or stretched, that cold water will get inside. As that water fills where your joints are, swimming becomes a lot more work, and a lot slower.”
6. Get a bottle
Get yourself a water bottle filled with warm water

Get yourself a water bottle filled with warm water

© Olaf Pignataro / Red Bull Content Pool

If you have a spare plastic bottle hanging around, fill it with warm water. When your heat is over, open your wetsuit neck and pour the warm water inside.
7. After the race...get warm
It’s the last thing you’re likely to want to do after Neptune Steps, but it’s a good idea to warm yourself up afterwards with some light exercise. If you’re going to race again after your heat do keep your wetsuit on.
Con says: “The most important factor is ensuring that you get yourself wrapped up as soon as you emerge at the last of the steps, pumping with adrenalin and endorphins. Having warm clothes ready at the finish line and before the race begins is a simple but priceless exercise that your body will definitely be thankful for. A hot drink won't go astray either.”
Neptune Steps checklist
Don’t forget to pack these in your kit bag to stave off as much cold as possible:
1. Wetsuit
2. Neoprene gloves / boots / cap
3. Goggles
4. Vaseline / goose fat
5. Flip flops (if you don’t take neoprene boots)
6. Towel
7. Dry clothes (including wooly hat, thick socks, warm jacket...)
8. Flask containing a hot drink
9. Snacks
10. Last but not least… A sense of adventure and lots of warm thoughts!
For more Red Bull Neptune Steps inspiration, check out: