How Do You Pee And Poop During An Open Water Swim?
Open water swimmers hydrate and eat before getting in the water. They can continue to hydrate and eat while they are in the water, whether it is in training, during a marathon swim or in the middle of a channel swim.
Physiologically, it is natural to feel the need to relieve yourself in the water for a variety of reasons: your bladder is full, you must do a bowel movement, the water is warm, or merely the excitement of the challenge.
Open Water Source asked dozens of experienced open water swimmers about this urination and defecation that marathon swimmers talk about in the Marathon Swimmers Forum, but tend to discuss only with their close friends:
1. Have you ever felt the need to urinate while swimming in the open water?
2. If so, how often? Every time, frequently, occasionally or rarely?
3. Have you relieved yourself while swimming in the open water?
4. Is it difficult or easy for you to relieve yourself in the open water?
5. How exactly do you relieve yourself?
6. Have you ever NOT relieved yourself even though you felt a need? If so, why?
7. After your swim or race, do you feel the need to relieve yourself?
The answers – from men and women, young or older – were not surprisingly similar whether or not the individual was a marathon swimmer or a short-distance open water swimmer (i.e., under 3 km). It appears that nearly everyone does it – or has most definitely felt the need to urinate and occasionally defacate while swimming.
For most swimmers, a reduction in their kick is all it takes. Some swimmers go from a four- or six-beat kick down to a two-beat kick and are able to urinate without any problems. Other swimmers need to stop kicking and concentrate while they let their legs drag. Others completely drop of their hips or stop altogether and go vertical to urinate. A few cannot urinate at all due to either the water being too cold or the proximity of a support crew or officials of the opposite gender prevent them from psychologically going in front of other people.
Dr. Larry Weisenthal, an avid open water swimmer from Huntington Beach, California, explains that the bladder can hold up to about 500 ml of urine. Generally, humans start to want to urinate after the bladder reaches the 200-250 ml range.
His daughter and a fast 8 hour 33 minute English Channel swimmer Laurin Weisenthal described urinating in cold water can be difficult. “Your whole body is tightening up from the cold, so relaxing the required muscles requires effort. Plus, you are still working to swim forward and to generate heat. The effort of the initial ‘starting to go’ phase requires at least a slowing down of forward propulsion activities, if not outright cessation [in some cases].”
As Dr. Weisenthal explains, “Urine comes from the blood via the kidneys [so] it is nice and warm. Probably warmer than the blood of a swimmer who is fighting hypothermia. Kind of like a nice little hot water bottle, inside your body.”
Marathon swimmers who have experienced the beginning stages of hypothermia have problems urinating because the bladder and kidney start to shut down in the early stages of hypothermia. The experienced open water swimmers agreed that cold water does often require a more focused approach. As one swimmer explained, “In cold water, [urination] is a lot more challenging. I slow my kick and use a combination of pushing, clenching, and relaxing my lower abdominal muscles to start urinating. Once I’ve started, I drag my legs and totally relax my lower body to make sure I don’t “lose it” before I’m fully done. The colder the water and the longer I’ve been in it, the harder it is.”
Conversely, many swimmers find that as their body temperature increases, the ease of being able to urinate also increases. Many have no problem whatsoever in warm-water conditions. “I adjust my leg position a little bit and pause for a brief second [and go].”
Another swimmer explains, “In shorter races, while it’s nothing I plan in advance, if the situation does arise I don’t hesitate and…I always receive a psychological boost from the momentary feeling of warmth in my swimsuit. It’s kind of like swimming through a warm spot.”
Triathletes and multi-sport athletes face other considerations. One Ironman triathlete explains, “…at the Ironman, I hydrated so well that I actually had to ‘go’ twice within 2.4 miles and I knew that it would be easier and neater to take care of it while I was still in the water rather than waiting to do so on the bike (which also occurred anyway). Each time I did, I imagined that my bladder, now empty, had gone from neutral buoyancy while full of fluid to positive buoyancy when empty. I imagined myself gaining a bit of the triathlon wetsuit speed effect and, both times, I tossed-in a small surge that propelled me past several other swimmers in the field. As you can see, psychology (i.e. self-deception) is a consideration.”
Swimming with a full bladder can be uncomfortable and take away from your enjoyment or speed, especially as your swim increases in length. One veteran swimmer frankly explained the general consensus of the community, “Not peeing when you need to is painful. My stomach hurts, I definitely can’t eat or drink anything more, which is really bad when you’re doing a long swim…and it’s distracting.”
Of course, as Dr. Jim Miller, a FINA Sports Medicine committee member and former USA Swimming national open water swimming team physician, says, “No need to practice these techniques during pool workouts.”
While urination can be done without anyone else knowing it, a bowel movement is more problematic for a number of reasons. The first reason is usually embarrassment. The second reason is the physical environment of defecation while treading water.
Because no one wants to watch another person “release the brown trout“, swimmers are usually quite embarrassed about this normal human function while everyone is watching them. To get around this problem, swimmers usually inform their escorts and crew that they must go. The escorts and crew usually politely turn their heads or go to the other side of the boat in order to allow the swimmer a few moments (or minutes) of privacy. Although there are a few isolated cases of curiosity, the crew should create an environment where the swimmer is afforded as much privacy as possible in an open body of water. This privacy is usually not a problem at night, but sometimes a bowel movement comes at the most inopportune times during broad daylight.
Bowel movements (defecation) are usually done as one can in the open water. It is never the most elegant position to find oneself, but the swimsuit is usually pulled either to the side or slipped down the legs in order for nature takes its course. For some, it is a simple matter of floating and letting go. For others, it takes a significant amount of concentration and effort, both of which are required to an even greater degree because of the embarrassment factor and the fact they are treading water.
Some people prefer to keep their head above water when defecating, but others must hold their breath and stick their head under the water as they curl up in the fetal position in order to get rid of the bodily waste. It can take more than a few efforts, and as time passes, the embarrassment quotient is usually elevated. But with an understanding crew and patience, the waste is usually successfully discharged. It is recommended that goggles remain on so the swimmer can quickly swim away when the act of defecation is completed.
It is strongly recommended, especially in a longer swim, to do the bowel movement as necessary instead of waiting and suffering. Trying to hold it in with the hope that the need for defecation will go away usually does not work. Gradually dealing with the initial discomfort and, possibly later, the pain of not defecating is not a wise move. A person on land would not wait and suffer, and neither should an open water swimmer.
So, go if you must [in the open water]. And, go if you can.
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