The health benefits (and risks) of ‘Ice Swimming’

To get an impression of how wonderfully different and beautiful ice swimming is, watch the below video of Jamie Monahan swimming in the Antarctica. Jamie is a seven-time US champion in winter swimming and first winner of the World Cup of the International Winter Swimming Association. She is also the first person ever to complete the International Ice Swimming Association’s Ice Sevens Challenge. To successfully complete this challenge, athletes must swim six ‘ice miles’ with water temperatures at 5°C or lower and one ‘ice zero mile’ with water temperatures below 1°C. GASP – 🙀!

What is ice swimming?

Ice swimming refers to swimming outdoors in very cold water with water temperatures below 5°C. Winter swimming and ice swimming are often used interchangeably although ice swimming explicitly requires ice to break when swimmers enter the water.

Historically, cold-water swimming was part of many religious and cultural festivities in Northern and Eastern Europe – most notably in Finland, Russia and the Baltic states. In recent years, however, the sport became increasing popular and evolved into an all year-round sport with many athletes travelling to all parts of the world to compete. The winter and ice swimming season typically starts in November and lasts through to March in any given year. There are even many winter and ice swimming competitions organised by the two larger organising bodies which are the International Ice Swimming Association and the International Winter Swimming Association.

Health benefits of ice swimming

The joys from taking a dip in cold water are plentiful and there are many mental and physical health benefits such as:

  • Enhanced mood – Any exercise will help stimulate the body’s production of feel-good endorphins but the cold water seems to elevate that process to another level;
  • You will sleep better – Dipping into cold water regularly will build your body’s ability to essentially repair itself and will lead to a sense of relaxation which, in turn, helps you sleep better;
  • Strengthened immune system & improved circulation – The change in temperature caused by the cold water will make your heart pump more blood to our organs. The cold water may also kick-start the immune system leading to, for example, higher levels of white blood cell production.

On the flip side, swimming in cold or ice-cold water can be dangerous, even deadly, particularly for beginners.

Risks of ice swimming

Cold-water swimming comes with some very specific health risks. Dr. Jonathan D. Packer, an assistant professor of orthopedics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine says that “initially, you have this shock, and people will take a couple of large breaths. It’s important not to panic at that time, because you can accidentally ingest water. It can be dangerous, and you can drown. The most common source of death from being in cold bodies of water are the cardiac arrests from this cold shock response”. Here are some of the main health risks:

  • Hypothermia – Hypothermia is a dangerous drop in body temperature to below 35°C and is a medical emergency. Swimmers should be particularly careful when warming up since warm blood from the core will cool very fast when flowing to the peripheral parts of the body. Typical symptoms of hypothermia include blue lips, shivering, fast breathing, slurred speech and more;
  • Cold shock – A state of ‘cold shock’ is our body’s response to a sudden drop in temperature by, for example, being immersed unexpectedly in water with degrees of around 15°C or lower. Any temperature below that is defined as cold water and this will seriously affect our bodily functions. It is assumed that cold water shocks cause more deaths than hypothermia;
  • Cold incapacitation – When swimmers are getting too cold after about 10 to 15 minutes of being in cold water, many experience extremity stiffness, swim failure and other symptoms. Cold incapacitation often leads to drowning.

As a general rule, get expert medical advice before winter swimming particularly if you have a heart condition or suffer from high blood pressure or asthma.

British swimmer Jess Campbell warns that ice swimming “is definitely not something to try by yourself. All of the ice swimmers often start swimming in the summer and gradually acclimatise”.

Best places to go ice swimming

Still interested and ready to give ice swimming a try? For beginners, we recommend to start your ice swimming journey in Nauthólsvík Beach in Iceland. Located not far from Reykjavik, the beach comes with an artificial hot spring where you can warm up again immediately after your ice swimming experience.

Things are a bit more serious when it comes to ice swimming in Harbin in China. Every year, hundreds of men and women compete in an ice swimming contest as part of Harbin’s annual winter festival. The temperatures in winter can plunge as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius in the city located in China’s northern Heilongjiang province freezing the local river. Professional swimming pools are dug out of the surface of the river for locals and tourists from all over the world to engage in this popular outdoor activity.

And then there is Murmansk in Russia. Ice swimming is very popular in the city and there are quite a few ice swimming competitions happening every year. Local ice swimmers even refer to themselves as ‘morzhi’ or walruses!

Here are some great tips specifically for beginners:

Photo by Mika on Unsplash