Winter swimming or ice swimming is a daredevil activity during the cold season, seen as a test of virility, a part of survival or rescue training or – as weird it may seem – a way to relax. In colder climates winter swimming often means swimming in a hole in the ice; in warmer climates, swimming in comparably cold weather.
Winter swimming does not necessarily mean actually swimming. Often the hole in the ice is too small for that, and most people stay in the water only for a moment anyway. There are ice swimming championships though, with distances of 25, 50 and 450 metres.
In Finland and other Nordic countries, as in the Baltic states and Russia, ice swimming is traditionally done as part of a sauna bath. Many Finns find this a way to make the sauna even more pleasant and relaxing!
Ordinary ice swimming
There are ice swimming associations in many towns in Finland, with many members winter swimming every week. Outsiders are usually very welcome. Going winter bathing when at a cottage with friends is not unusual either. At the cottage you usually have to dig a hole in the ice first, at regular winter swimming saunas the water is usually kept open by making it move around.
Normally one goes winter swimming after having gotten warm in the sauna. Getting from the warmth into the cold water is of course a shock for the body. Usually the sauna is some distance from the water, which allows the body to adapt a little. Also immersing into the water is done quite slowly, by stairs instead of jumping into it (this minimizes the cold shock response). The water is cold – but after getting up, usually after ten seconds or so, you do not feel cold, but warm. Your body did not have time to lose much warmth after all, and the procedure stimulates blood circulation. This is part of the magic in the refreshed feeling afterwards.
Many recommend using socks, beach sandals or similar, and a cap. An exposed head with wet hair in extreme temperatures is not healthy. In moderate weather with a short distance to the water these may not be needed.
- Ice swimming championships
- In Eastern Europe and Russia winter swimming has become part of the celebration of the Epiphany.
- There are "Polar bear plunges" at New Year's Day at many locations in North America and Western Europe. There is also a 'Polar bear' swim on the Haeundae beach in South Korea.
The cold shock response can be dangerous, especially if you have your mouth in the water (as you may instinctively take a deep breath). Hypothermia is not a risk in normal circumstances, but is certainly an issue in survival and rescue training. Winter swimming should only be done under supervision by experienced swimmers, with adequate rescue equipment.