When the temperatures drop below freezing, the water reaches bone-chilling temperatures, and lakes begin to freeze over, swimmers flock to the water for a swim…with no wetsuits.
They cut a hole in the ice and lower themselves into the water, enjoying a few moments of tranquility as the snow falls around them. They must be crazy, right?
Maybe. But swimming in freezing cold water — called ice swimming — actually has tons of benefits!
Before we dive in, a quick disclaimer: Never go ice swimming alone, and talk to your doctor before you go for your first cold water dip. Better safe than sorry! Read on for more safety tips.
Ice Swimming Around the World
Ice swimming has been popular all over the world for thousands of years. There’s a record of cold water swimming in the United Kingdom from back in the first century!
And in Russia, people have been ice swimming since at least the 1500s! In Russia and other countries where Eastern Orthodox Christianity is a dominant religion, some people go ice swimming to celebrate the Epiphany.
Related: How I Fell In Love with Ice Swimming
In Nordic countries like Finland, ice swimming is a huge part of day-to-day life. Swimmers will go for a quick dip in the icy ocean, followed by a relaxing trip to the sauna to warm up!
Dipping, Not Swimming
Let’s get one thing straight, though: Ice swimmers aren’t swimming long distances in the freezing water.
For most ice swimmers, their daily swim is no more than a short dip! Most people begin with just a few seconds, working their way up to 30 seconds or a minute. They might swim in a short circle and hop out to warm up. Over time, the body becomes more acclimated to the cold water, and they’re able to handle longer swims.
It’s just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one.
For more extreme swimmers, the International Ice Swimming Association officiates ice swimming races! These races are either 1 kilometer or 1 mile. To be an official ice swimming event, the water must be 5 degrees Celsius or colder. That’s 41 degrees Fahrenheit!
Benefits of Ice Swimming
So what does it feel like to go ice swimming? As you ease your body into the water, the cold might take your breath away!
At first, your skin will feel prickly. Your hands and feet might even feel like they’re burning. After a while, your body will acclimate and your hands and feet may start to go numb. Then, you might feel a sudden rush of warm tingles, and you’ll start to feel amazing!
Here’s what’s happening in your body while you ice swim:
- Endorphin Rush: A quick swim in icy water causes your body releases endorphins, the same hormones that give you a “runner’s high,” and make you feel incredible after your workouts.
- Happy Hormone Boost: Your body also increases production of serotonin, which balances your mood, dopamine, which controls the brain’s pleasure centers, and oxytocin, which is known as the “love hormone.”
- Improvement in Overall Well-Being: Regular ice swimming has been shown to boost the immune system, improve blood circulation, reduce stress and help your body burn more calories throughout the day!
Plus, being out in nature — even for just a few minutes — can be meditative and calming.
Beyond the physical benefits, ice swimming is a very social sport. There are cold water swimming clubs all over the world, so you’re guaranteed to meet a few new buddies during your swims!
And if you don’t have easy access to an ice cold lake, river or ocean, an ice bath is the next best thing. You might not be able to swim around, but you’re still reaping all the benefits of cold water! People have been using ice baths since ancient times to speed up recovery and improve their health.
Is Ice Swimming Safe?
Related: 3 Tips for Cold Open Water Swimming
If you’re thinking about trying ice swimming, it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into, and to be prepared in case of an emergency. Ice swimming comes with a few real risks:
- Hyperventilation: Sudden exposure to cold water can cause you to hyperventilate. It may also cause a heart attack, as your blood gets cold and moves back to your heart.
- Cold Incapacitation: As you hang out in the cold water, you may find that your limbs suddenly feel too weak to move, making it difficult to walk back to shore or grab a dock railing.
- Hypothermia: Of course, hypothermia is the biggest concern, but it doesn’t typically set in until after about 30 minutes in water above 15 degrees Celsius. Most swimmers won’t last anywhere close to 30 minutes!
- After Drop: Your body temperature may drop suddenly 5 to 10 minutes after you’ve gotten out of the water. This happens when the warm blood in your core moves to your limbs, and the cold blood from your limbs moves to your core. After drop can be brutal if you aren’t prepared!
If you have heart or respiratory diseases or high blood pressure, talk to your doctor before trying ice swimming.
Despite those risks, millions of people enjoy ice swimming every day. The key is being prepared and taking it slow.
How to Start Ice Swimming
So, do you want to try ice swimming yet? If you’re ready to give it a shot, these tips will help you out:
- Don’t Go Alone: Find a local group or experienced friends who can take you for your first ice swim.
- Get the Right Gear: To help keep your head, fingers and toes warm, invest in a beanie and neoprene mittens or booties. They can make a big difference!
- Go Slow: When you’re geared up and ready to get in the water, slowly ease yourself in, so your body can acclimate. Keep your breathing regular to avoid hyperventilating.
- Build Endurance Over Time: When you’re able to submerge your body in the water, build up time slowly, adding a few seconds each swim until you’ve built up to about a minute. Avoid dunking your head…that’s for veteran ice swimmers only!
- Limit Your Time in the Water: To avoid hypothermia, spend as much time in the water as the number of degrees in Celsius. So if the water is 10 degrees Celsius, you should spend no more than 10 minutes in the water. But it really comes down to listening to your body and knowing your limits.
- Be Prepared for After Your Swim: Have a set of dry clothes ready and sip on hot water, coffee or tea to help warm your body from the inside. If you can get to a sauna or sit in your car with the heat on, that helps too!
Whether you think ice swimmers are crazy or not, the cold weather pastime is definitely here to stay. Would you give ice swimming a try? Let us know in the comments!