First Open Water Swim of the season

Alright, I lied. This marks my second open water swim this season. But my first swim barely qualifies as a ‘swim’…think polar plunge…ish.

Last Saturday, I went out for a casual 25km ride, in search of Cherry Beach. I’ve heard of it many times, but never actually been there. A quick Google search revealed that I have biked past it many times, and the trail that wraps around the beach was part of last year’s Mid Summer’s Night 30km run. I just never knew that that was the same beach.

The Toronto triathlon club has their weekly OWS (open water swim) meets at Cherry Beach, but I am unable to make their times. So I’m left to swim on my own. For anyone who may be interested in meeting with the Toronto tri club, visit them here.

Cherry Beach is said to be one of, if not, the cleanest beach in Toronto. The beach has a nice wide sandy landing, which would be nice for a relaxing day. When I first went on the weekend, I noticed the water traffic was minimal. There are no boats or jet skis around, just kite surfers and paddle boarders.
I couldn’t easily see where the tri club launched from, and I only saw one buoy out in the water, so I am still not sure which route the club swims.

I rode my bike, so I locked it up sightly off the main part, a bit away from the main beach. I was alone, and while I hadn’t brought anything valuable, my backpack straps were only going to be looped through my bike lock. I didn’t want anyone coming along while I was a kilometer out on the water. Turns out, on that first day, I had nothing to worry about.

I changed into my wetsuit, and tucked my Garmin GPS watch into the back of my swin cap. I learned about swimming with a GPS swim watch from (here). By placing the watch on the back of my head, as I swim with my head down in the water, the GPS has the optimal view of the sky for signal acquisition. Strap the watch to your wrist, and each time you submerge your arm to stroke, you will probably lose connection. Newer watches may have much better GPS receivers, but I’m still using an old school Garmin Forerunner 305.

It was a beautifully hot day, with blue skies and little wind. The water looked refreshing from the shore, but I should have remembered what day it was, let alone which month it was.


My feet were the first to numb, and that took less than 60 seconds. As I waded out farther, my hands felt like they were being picked by a thousand needles. At this point, I wasn’t even up to my chest yet, but I figured what the hell and dove head first below the water. It felt refreshing… for a few moments, then I began feeling the water on my neck, and between my eyes. I had on a latex swim cap, but I should have worn my silicon cap for warmth. The worst areas were the exposed skin between my eyes not covered by my goggles, and the area of my forehead that peaked out from under my cap. Just dunking my head for a few strokes gave me the worst brain freeze. I was in and out in under 8 minutes, barely long enough to swim out and back a mere 300 meters. That’s a wrap! And that was my first swim of the season in Lake Ontario.

Yesterday, I had my first proper swim in the open water. I have a full length Zoot Synergy wetsuit, so all I needed to do was cover my hands and my feet and wear a decent swim cap. I went to Mountain Equipment Coop after my first swim and bought a pair of these [link] neoprene kayaking booties. I already owned a pair of neoprene cycling gloves which had a long cuff, so I hoped they would work to keep my hands warm. I debated buying a full collar and neoprene hood to wear under my cap, figuring I would suffer the little bit to build up my cold water tolerance. I can buy a hood if I keep swimming into the late fall.

I checked out the local surf conditions for Toronto Breakers point, and the Toronto Windsurfing Club. The water temp was a balmy 6.5 degrees Celsius. To read up on what temperatures swimming will agree the water is cold, see this article. (I read this article after my swim.) I often have ice baths after hard training days, and even then the water temp hovers around 10 degrees.

Once fully suited, I donned my winter cycling beanie, and pulled my silicone cap overtop, careful to tuck my Garmin in back. I had gloves, boots and full suit. All that was left exposed was my neck and face. I even pulled my hat and cap as far down as possible to cover my forehead and nose bridge. As I waded in, I quickly realized that the booties were watertight, but the gloves were not. No matter, they insulated my fingers and while full of water, kept my hands “less cold”; ” warm” would be an extreme exaggeration.

After diving in, I could feel the water enter down through the collar as my chest contracted and a small gap formed around my neck. It was still just as cold on my face, but I was suffering less with my extremities covered. I did a 10 minute breaststroke warmup, simply to keep my head out of the water. I say that it was a ‘warmup’, but actually that was all I planned to do, just swim breastroke; anything to keep my head out of the water. But after ten minutes, I started to freestyle, and found that my face was sufficiently warm not to feel uncomfortable when submerged in the water. Let’s be clear though, it was far from comfortable, it was still brain numbing cold, slurpie brain freeze cold!

Here are a few pointers that I tried to work on. I swam straight out into the water from the shore, and then picked a point among the trees on the other side of the bay. For me, it was just a pinhole of light breaking through the foliage. The bright spot was easier to pick out as I popped my head up to sight. I breath on every third stroke to start, but as I get sufficiently winded, I switch to every second stroke. This means once I’m winded, I breathe on the same side of my body each time. In the pool, this isn’t so bad because I just alternate with each kick off the wall. But in the open water, I had to remember to alternate at one point to the other side, or else my neck cramps up.

I swam down the length of the bay, and then sighted the floating dock for my return. I did this a few times and my Garmin registered 856m [link], though I’m not sure how accurate that is. Even with the proper placement on the back of my head, I’ve never swum with the Forerunner 305 before; but I do know it has one of the weakest GPS receivers. Time for an upgrade?

I started practicing sighting as I swam lengths of the bay. On every third or fourth stroke, I would bring my head up above water as I rotated my head to the other side of my body. For example, if I just breathed on my right side, I would normally put my head back in the water, and rotate it to my left as I stroked with my right arm, then I would come back to my right to breathe again. But instead, I would breathe on my right, and then lift my head higher up out of the water and swing it (above water) to my left. This gives me an opportunity to sight my landmark. It works fine for the most part. I am also starting to realize how difficult it is to swim in a straight line when there are no lane markings on the bottom of the pool to look at. I tore my rotator cuff in a snowboarding accident last year, and it has taken over a year to fully rehab. I can’t even remember which shoulder it was anymore, but I seem to be stronger with my right arm when swimming, so I tend to always veer right when swimming in the open water. I need to focus and maintain the same pulling force with both arms. In the pool, I’ve started to keep my mouth open when I swim. I used to keep it closed until I took a breathe, but now I notice that I don’t close it anymore. I inhale through my mouth, and exhale slowly through my nose while underwater. So long as I don’t breathe in while underwater, I don’t choke on any water. I can only imagine how that looks as I swim. I noticed my mouth open more so on this day, because the cold water on my teeth was making them ache.

Even though my gloves are not water tight, the collars were still tucked into the sleeves of my suit, so they didn’t completely fill with water. But as I was nearing the end of my swim, one glove came undone and completely filled with water. As did one boot, which inflated like a balloon as I kicked forward. I had to keep my one foot flexed at a right angle for fear that it would slip off if I pointed my toes as I kicked.

After I exited the water, there were a few elderly couples out walking their dogs, who gave me weird looks for swimming at this time of year. If anything, the instant brain freeze on my forehead is probably the only thing that would keep me from swimming in the absolute cold. But if I do a proper warmup, it isn’t actually that bad.

It felt really good to get out on the water again. Swimming in a wetsuit is much different than without. For one, my legs have more buoyancy, and therefore my body position is much higher in the water. This is good for me, but I also need to get comfortable with the restricted motion around my shoulders. The constant resistance of the suit can easy drain your energy during a long swim. in the pool, I’m averaging about 33min-37min for a 1.95km swim. Once I figure out how many laps of the bay that is, I hope to give that distance a full go out on the water.

Lastly, here is my final 2 piece design for my custom triathlon suit. Can’t wait to get the final product!



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