What's The Best Way To Get Into The Chilly Waters Of Barton Springs?

Oct 3, 2019

With unseasonably hot temperatures in Austin this fall, it’s a great time to take a swim in the city’s premier swimming hole.

Barton Springs Pool is a constant 70 degrees, more than cool enough to help you chill out no matter how hot it is outside. But that’s also chilly enough to make it kind of uncomfortable to get into at first. That led Susan Somers-Willett to ask our ATXplained project this question:

What’s the best way to enter the icy waters of Barton Springs?

If you think this is a silly question, let me tell you, every person I spoke to at the pool had strong feelings about their method.

“Your personal preference definitely influences your experience of getting into the pool,” Somers-Willett says. "You know, there’s the science and then there’s the psychology.”

She points to two main methods for getting into the pool.

"One is the jump-in-and-die-for-30-seconds method, because you feel like you’re dying," she says. "And the other method is what my friend Austin calls the 'Slow March Toward Frigid Truth.'”

So which one is better? Sure, people have their own preferences, but can medical science offer any guidance on making the experience easier?

'Jump In And Die For 30 Seconds'

Susan prefers to just jump in, so we head down to the deep end of the pool. She steps to the edge and just kind of stands there. What’s she thinking about?

"I look at all the people in the pool, and I think about all the fun they’re having. And I’m like, ‘I want to be like them.'”

She stands there another minute, contemplating what it's going to feel like when she hits the water.

Finally, she jumps. She comes back to the surface letting out a little shriek. She’s clearly uncomfortable – at least for now.

Susan Somers-Willett jumps into the deep end at Barton Springs Pool.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

What’s happening to her body when she hits that water?

We needed a professional opinion on this, so I called Dr. Christopher Ziebell, the medical director for the Emergency Department at Dell Seton Medical Center.

“When you get down into the water, your body heat will float through the water away from your body much better than it will through the air,” he says. "So your body being 98 degrees, the water being 70 degrees, that’s a very steep gradient through which the heat will leave your body very quickly.”

When you hit the cold water, your body reacts in a few different ways: The blood vessels in your skin constrict, your blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows and your muscles tighten up. Your body works to move heat to your core to keep your body temperature from dropping. You get stiff to minimize movement so you don’t create little currents in the water around you that will carry heat away from your body. 

“We have extraordinary mechanisms that are built in to help regulate our body temperature pretty well,” Ziebell says. 

'Slow March Toward Frigid Truth'

Then there’s the other way of getting in the pool: You can take the stairs or the ramp. It’s slower, and it’s arguably more uncomfortable.

But there are plenty of people who prefer to get in that way. Children and people who aren’t strong swimmers might have no choice but to go slowly. 

It’s a journey. Perhaps one of self-discovery.

Everything Else

Then there’s the buddy system. You make a pact with someone else that you’ll jump in at the same time. (Bailing at the last second and having the other person jump alone should be a criminal offense.)

You can jump in style by using the diving board – several people I spoke to swore by this method.

A man jumps from the diving board at Barton Springs Pool in August.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Drum Roll, Please

So what does our medical expert say about all these strategies for getting into 70-degree water? Is there an ideal way to get into Barton Springs, in terms of minimizing the discomfort you’ll experience from the cold?

"Boy, if there is, I haven’t figured it out yet,” Ziebell says. "There’s not a medically right answer to that question of how do you get into cold water. I think it’s whatever way works for you, works."

Damn. So however we get in, that’s the best way.

How does Ziebell do it?

"I get in all at once, because the more I ease myself in, the more torturous it seems to me," he says, "so I’m going to go to the deep end and jump in."

What's your best way to get into Barton Springs? Tell us in the form below. We'll do a followup story with all your submissions.

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