As a triathlete, finding a place to swim during the off-season can be a challenge. In Maryland, there are few natatoriums or swim centers available, and none of the gyms or fitness centers I've contacted that have a pool offer a swim-only membership.
Ultimately, I turned to the YMCA to meet my swimming needs. But there is an inherent challenge with a facility that offers only one pool: the constant debate over the proper water temperature. Lap swimmers, like me, complain that the water is too hot, while members participating in aqua aerobics, water walking, or youth swim lessons argue that the water is too cold. There is no happy medium, or so it seems.
One woman, a former collegiate swimmer, cancelled her YMCA membership, on the grounds that the water was too hot for lap swimming. Another woman, who suffers from neuropathy — damage to the peripheral nerves that often causes weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet — immediately left the facility one day upon learning that the water was below 82 degrees. "When I joined I was told the water would be kept at 86 degrees," she said.
I, personally, cannot fathom swimming laps — especially sprint intervals — in water temperatures that high. Combined with an air temperature that often hovers around the mid-eighties, I'd probably pass out.
An article in livestrong.com notes that, "Swimming for long periods of time in high temperatures doesn't allow the body to properly cool itself. When this occurs, side effects can include nausea, light headedness, dehydration or heat stroke. If you're planning on high-intensity swimming, cooler water under 82 degrees is needed."
The American Red Cross concurs, recommending a water temperature of 78 degrees for competitive swimming, while noting that young children and the elderly may require a temperature of 80 degrees or higher.
A staff member at the YMCA where I am a member confirmed that the center strives to keep both the water and air temperatures between 82-84 degrees. However, after swimming at the Y for several years, I have found that it's not uncommon for the temperatures to be in excess of 84 degrees.
Livestrong.com notes that while your body temperature, hydration levels and sweat rate are affected by your exercise intensity and the air temperature, the water temperature you swim in can affect your swimming duration and performance. According to the site, "Swimming in cooler water also helps you swim for a longer duration without the risk of heat-related exhaustion."
A 1993 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness concluded that a cooler temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit is safer for swimming because the body can adjust better to colder temperatures than warm water.
Ultimately, the ideal water temperature for swimming varies depending on the activity. With only one pool available, it is difficult to find a temperature that appeals to everyone. As usaswimming.org surmises, "One pool does not and cannot meet every need of the aquatic community."
Sherri Leimkuhler is the Times' fitness writer. Her column appears every other Sunday. Reach her at 410-857-7896 or email@example.com.