Article Text

How cold is too cold? Establishing the minimum water temperature limits for marathon swim racing
  1. Jane Saycell,
  2. Mitch Lomax,
  3. Heather Massey,
  4. Mike Tipton
  1. Department of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK
  1. Correspondence to Professor Mike Tipton, Department of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth PO1 2UP, UK; michael.tipton{at}


Objectives To provide a rationale for minimum water temperature rules for elite and subelite marathon swim racing and highlight factors that make individuals vulnerable to excessive cooling during open water swimming.

Methods 12 lean competitive swimmers swam for up to 2 hours, three times in different water temperatures between 14°C and 20°C, wearing standard swimming costumes and hats. Rectal temperature (Tre), oxygen consumption, perception of cold and performance were measured.

Results In 16°C, half the swimmers did not complete a 2-hour swim; four became (or were predicted to become) hypothermic within 2 hours. In 18°C, three-quarters completed the swim; three became (or were predicted to become) hypothermic. In 20°C, one swimmer was predicted to become hypothermic in under 2 hours. The mean linear rate of fall of Tre was greater in 16°C (−1.57°C/hour) than 18°C (−1.07°C/hour) (p=0.03). There was no change in swimming performance during the swims or between conditions. Most of the cooling rate could be explained by metabolic heat production and morphology for both 16°C (R2=0.94, p<0.01) and 18°C (R2=0.82, p<0.01) conditions. No relationship was observed between Tre and perception of thermal sensation (r=0.25, p=0.13), and there was a weak correlation between Tre and thermal comfort (r=0.32, p=0.04).

Conclusion We recommend that 16°C and 18°C water are too cold for elite marathon swim racing. FédérationInternationale de Natation rules were changed in 2017 to make wetsuits compulsory below 18°C and optional below 20°C.

  • exercise physiology
  • olympics
  • swimming
  • thermoregulation

Statistics from


  • Contributors All coauthors contributed to the study design and data collection. JS processed and analysed the data and wrote the draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to revising the draft of the manuscript.

  • Funding This work was funded by the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the University of Portsmouth Science Faculty Research Ethics Committee (code 2014–075).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement All unpublished data are available on request to the corresponding author.

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Linked Articles