Cold Water Acclimatization - Mental or physical adaptation?

"Acclimatization or acclimatisation (also called acclimation or acclimatation) is the process in which an individual organism adjusts to a change in its environment (such as a change in altitude, temperature, humidity, photoperiod, or pH), allowing it to maintain performance across a range of environmental conditions."

I have my views on the subject but very curious to hear what other people's are.

When people talk about marathon swim training for cold water acclimitisation are they generally talking about adapting mentally for the cold challenge or do people believe their body is going through physical changes that over time make them better able to endure lower temperatures?

Just to clarify I am not talking about things like deliberately gaining weight, I am talking about the simple concept of gradually exposing yourself to longer colder conditions as part of training. Swimming, Ice Baths, Long cold walks, cold showers, shopping in Waitrose etc.

What do people believe?



  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember

    I absolutely believe (and have seen it in myself) that there are physical adaptations to repeated cold exposure.

    The mental aspects are important too, as they are in most any stressful situation. But a good attitude towards cold does not make up for lack of physical preparation. Though the reverse can be true. (As I found out for myself ice swimming in Vermont this February.)

    My 2 cents! I'm curious what others opinions are.


    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • phodgeszohophodgeszoho UKSenior Member

    @JSwim "I absolutely believe (and have seen it in myself) that there are physical adaptations to repeated cold exposure."

    Can you elaborate and give some examples? Thanks.

  • evmoevmo San FranciscoAdmin
    edited April 2018

    I believe it is difficult to distinguish physical and psychological adaptations!

    Other cold water-related threads here:

  • gregocgregoc Charter Member

    To add to Evan's comment, you can't separate the mental acclimation from the physiological acclimation. One affects the other. You definitely mentally acclimate to cold water. You get use to the feel and your mind begins to tolerate colder water. This in turn effects your physiology. When talking physical acclimation, there are a lot of factors the can change from day to day (how much sleep you have had, your diet, your "mood", even your gut biome).
    So the short answer is both. You both mentally and physically get accustomed to colder water. That said, you can never prevent hypothermia from eventually creeping in.

  • SpacemanspiffSpacemanspiff Dallas, TexasSenior Member
    edited April 2018

    loneswimmer has authored and aggregated a ton of cold-water information on his blog. He discusses the difference between psychological vs. physical adaptation and between "habituation" and "acclimatization". Habituation, he describes, is more about repeated exposure, even brief exposure, leading to a reduction in the "shock" related symptoms (rapid breathing/heart rate and muscle contraction) whereas acclimatization is more about physical adaptation from prolonged exposure (increase in subcutaneous/"brown" fat, very different from building up fat from weight gain).

    For what it is worth, I find that I can make tremendous strides in habituation in a very short period of time. I can go from barely making it 1 minute in a cold shower to very relaxed 10 minute cold showers in about a week. This translates into submersion for me more directly that what I have heard from others. I don't heat my pool so during the early spring, its 50-60 degrees. So when I'm ready to start habituating early in the swim season, after a few days of cold showers, I start/end each day with a dip in the pool. Within a week, I can watch television fairly comfortably in the water for 20-30 minutes.


    "Lights go out and I can't be saved
    Tides that I tried to swim against
    Have brought be down upon my knees
    Oh I beg, I beg and plead..."

  • I believe in physical adaptation. When I first started swimming in cold water (hovering around 50 deg F), I had a very strong physical reaction where my chest felt constricted and it was hard to catch my breath. I could only stand it for a few minutes and scampered quickly for the shore. Over months of regular exposure (at least 1x/week), and for gradually longer swims, that feeling has gradually dissipated and I don't have any reaction. I'm conscious that the water is cold, for sure, but it feels "normal" now and never shocking. My breath and heart rate stay calm and controlled. Reading comment above though, I'm certain mental adaptation is connected, but to me the physical feeling is what's front and center. And oh... the endorphin rush that keeps me coming back again and again.

  • SoloSolo B.C. CanadaMember

    For me the hardest part was mental. Go get in the water was harder than the swim. That being said, I have noticed many adaptations over the last 2 years of winter swimming. I generally take a minimum of 10 minutes to get into the water and get submerged. When I was first starting out, the brain freeze would last up to half an hour, now it goes away quickly and seems like an inconvenience, and not a painful experience. Also, the colder the water, and longer the swim, the less mobility I would have: my hands and wrists would claw, elbow and knee tendons retract, and feet refuse to straighten. With more exposure, I can now swim longer and colder with less immobilization. Early on, the shock of cold water on my head would cause me to hyperventilate for up to 20 minutes, resulting in a very uncomfortable feeling while trying to swim.
    When I began swimming, I was afraid of cold water. Terrified, and for no real reason as I had never been in cold water before. Now as I contemplate a swim, or approach the water, I know what is going to happen, how it is going to feel, and what my reactions are going to be. The fear is gone completely now, and I feel better for having conquered it. Acclimating for a long cold swim took 2 years for me, and now I am comfortable and happy at lower temps.

  • SamSam Member

    Solo said:
    When I was first starting out, the brain freeze would last up to half an hour

    I'm glad you raised the brain freeze issue. My training lake opens in a couple of weeks time when it finally hits 54. I have only done pool swimming over the winter so my first dip is always a painful experience...but its the headaches that get me the most. I tend to find that my second swim (which is usually a week later) is so much better at almost an exponential level (i.e. I may last 20 minutes in my first swim but 40 - 60 minutes in my second swim)

  • JSwimJSwim western Maryland, USMember
    edited April 2018

    phodgeszoho said: Can you elaborate and give some examples? Thanks.


    @phodgeszoho Until 2 years ago I was an average pool swimmer and middle aged women, with regards to what I thought were comfortable temperatures. (And I've lost maybe 10 lbs, so it's not extra insulation.)

    Then I purposefully cool water adapted using Cool Fat Burner vests (both styles) and cold showers, so I could swim in the Chesapeake Bay in May (water 60+/- F, air 45 – 55 F, cloudy, rainy). It worked, and I was hooked. I loved feeling the cold on my skin but warm in my core. And I swim faster too, down into the 60s F.

    But now I am teased (in good fun) at the pool for disliking the “good” temperatures (above 82 F) and “how can I love it so cold” (below 80 F). And at home in the winter, when my husband sleeps with 2 blankets and a heavy comforter, I'm happy with a light blanket. And I used to be the cold one.

    Mentally, I didn't have a problem with “cool” water (55 F +). I naively thought that if others could do it I could too, once I trained. (There is discomfort initially, but it's manageable.) Ice swimming (short stuff, 50m, 100m, 200m not an ice mile)? Not the same for me. I trained for it, so physically I was as good as to be expected. I had no trouble breathing, no headache, "normal" numbness. But it was so very hard mentally. But I plan to do it again. The community is awesome (lots of Marathon Swimmers, how could it not?) and the experience was very excellent mental training.

    Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. --Neale Donald Walsch

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WAMember

    Solo said:
    ...Now as I contemplate a swim, or approach the water, I know what is going to happen, how it is going to feel, and what my reactions are going to be...

    To me, this seems like most of the battle. The anticipation, the dread etc. Once you've taken the plunge enough, it's not such a big deal. I used to have that feeling on the starting blocks. Now I'm working on not letting that thermometer scare me. (I'm so tempted to say something about it being a matter of degrees, but I'm not going to.)

  • ToadToad Member

    I found that the water entry is the worst part. I started back into the OW about 1.5 months ago. Water temp was 52 the first weekend and I was able to knock out a good hour long swim. The shock made it hard to breathe at first but I got over it quickly, I discovered I really enjoyed the challenge of the cold water and maybe even enjoy the strange looks from all the wet-suit wearing swimmers every week.

    I guess my take is that there is more mental adaptation than physical (for me).

  • Not sure it helps me physically, but certainly as mental preparation, I bundle up a bit less in the winter so my hands and face are cold. I also go ice skating at an indoor rink in just t-shirt and shorts - kind of like being in a giant cold fridge. I sometimes come out of it shivering, and get a few funny looks. "90% of it is mental and the other half is physical"? (Yogi Berra)

  • BridgetBridget New York StateMember

    I feel like a bit of an oddball, but while I can adjust to the cold water while swimming (ok, 55F, make of it what you will), it has no impact on my tolerance for cold after. When I leave the lake after a cold swim, I dry off, dress, and try to jog for at least 10 minutes before getting in my car. I bundle up for hours after, even in my office if I swim before work- and keep a leather jacket in my office in case everyone else needs air conditioning. Being surface chilled while swimming gives me an igloo effect, and I'm ok inside. Being cold and not moving stinks. Same with shoveling snow- fine in mittens, jeans, and a sweatshirt, but if I stop moving, I'm bone-chilled.

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