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Winter swimming – swimming during the winter season, often outdoors in open water or even ice swimming, when the water is frozen and you have to break it to get in – may be an activity that attracts you.
Eastern Europe and Russia celebrate the Eastern Orthodox Epiphany (some on the 6th and some on 19th January) with winter swimming and some areas hold competitions or raise money for charity with well-publicized events. Polar Bear Plunges are often held to celebrate New Year’s Day, sometimes for charity, although many participants do not swim at these events. While some swimmers use thermal protection or wetsuits, many winter swimmers wear standard swimming costumes.
In Finland, Northern Russia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia ice swimming is used as a way to cool off rapidly after staying in a sauna or as stress relief. Helsinki and Tampere (Finland) have several places for ice swimming and winter saunas.
Australia also has a number of winter swimming clubs, often using outdoor pools, filled by wild winter waves.
You can also enjoy winter swimming in England, UK, including London at the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, Highgate Ponds in Hampstead and Tooting Bec Lido in South West London. Other UK winter swimmimg sites include Clevedon, in North Somerset, Cheshire, Lancashire, Wirral, Merseyside and North Wales.
In Europe, there are Winter swimming clubs in Belgium (Bruges, Boom, Deurne Dendermonde, Huy, Theux and Wachtebeek) and Germany (Wohrsee lake in Burghausen).
China has many winter swimming organisations. In Beijing, there are winter swimming places such as Shichahai, Yu Yuantan and Xihu. In Harbin, northern China, many ice swim in the Songhua River. In Dalian, a coastal city in northeast China, hundreds of people swim in the sea in winter (Fujiazhuang beach, Xinghai Square beach, Shicao beach and Bangchuidao Island beach).
If you are not used to swimming in very cold water – winter swimming can be dangerous.
- A cold shock response occurs after submersion in cold water. This causes an uncontrollable gasp for air, followed by hyperventilation – rapid breathing. This can lead to breathing in water and drowning.
- The sudden drop in temperature as you enter cold water cools the blood in your limbs. As this cooled blood returns to your heart, it can cause fibrillation and cardiac arrest.
- The cold shock response and cardiac arrest are the most common causes of death related to cold water immersion.
If you are healthy, winter swimming isn’t dangerous but children and the elderly should avoid it. If you are obese or have heart trouble including arrhythmia, or a respiratory disease, or high blood pressure, you should also avoid it. Experienced winter swimmers have a greater resistance to effects of the cold shock response.
Hypothermia is not quite as big a risk as might be expected. According to Tucker and Dugas, it takes more than approximately 30 minutes even in 0 °C water until the body temperature drops low enough for hypothermia to occur. Many people would probably be able to survive for almost an hour. There is no consensus on these figures however; according to different estimates a person can survive for 45 minutes in 0.3 °C water, but exhaustion or unconsciousness is expected to occur within 15 minutes. Consuming alcohol before winter swimming should be avoided because it speeds the onset and progression of hypothermia.
But just because water is liquid, DOES NOT MEAN it is at or near 0 °C. Chlorine added to water in swimming pools and salt in seawater allow the water to remain liquid at sub-zero temperatures. Swimming in such water is significantly more challenging and dangerous.
Although there are risks associated with the practice, scientific studies also provide some evidence for the following health benefits.
Winter Swimming Health Benefits
- Winter swimmers are reported to experience less stress and fatigue and more vigor, with a better memory function and a better mood.
- They report feeling more energetic, active and brisk than a similar control group that do not take part in winter swimming.
- Swimmers who suffer from rheumatism, fibromyalgia or asthma report that winter swimming relieves pain.
- It appears that winter swimmers do not get colds as often as the general population.
- Short term exposure of the whole body to cold water produces oxidative stress, which makes winter swimmers develop improved antioxidative protection.
- Exercise in extreme cold promotes weight loss, since more fat is used to insulate the body from the low temperatures.