Ice swimming. Not an appealing idea for many, but these events, which take place in water colder than 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), are gaining popularity…and here’s what’s even more surprising- you won't see anyone in a wetsuit.
Although it might give many the shivers, many swimmers report that these events are fun and invigorating.
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There are ice swimming events wherever there's a cool stretch of water: Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Scotland are just a few countries that have hosted races.
With over 40 countries having branches of the International Ice Swimming Association, it is clearly becoming a popular sport, offering a dose of adrenaline and adventure.
In addition to the adrenaline rush, early studies suggest that cold-water swimming could be a treatment for depression, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system and increases blood levels of noradrenaline and beta-endorphin, which play an important role in the functioning of the heart.
The endorphin rush that ice swimmers experience can be helpful in treating mood disorders since endorphins release stress. While there aren’t extensive scientific studies on ice swimming, in particular, cryotherapy ( the application of extremely cold temperatures to the body) has been used for years.
Cryotherapy is often used by athletes who submerge themselves in ice-cold water for about 10 minutes. Research shows that this can decrease inflammation, promote healing and improve circulation.
Ice swimmers have said it can improve their cognitive abilities, their energy levels…and some people even say it helps their libido. Some people with chronic pain conditions have reported having improved pain from those conditions after starting ice swimming.
In terms of exercise, ice swimming might feel like an extra-arduous workout, but it has this great potential benefit: You burn more calories than regular swimming. Not only does your body have to work just as hard to swim from point A to point B, but it also has to work harder to keep your body temperature up.
Not all fun and games
Despite some potential benefits, ice swimming can be a risky activity for rookies, so don't go jumping into a freezing pool without some supervised practice. In this kind of sport, proper training is essential not only to success but to survival. With proper training, a competitor's muscles can adapt to a lower blood supply so they can keep that muscle effort going longer.
(Don't) dive right in!
The most common source of death from being in cold bodies of water are the cardiac arrests from cold shock response. The low temperature also makes the blood pressure rise, leading to fast breathing, and there's a risk of hypothermia.
Even out of the water, there's a risk of the body temperature dropping even further, so it's important to be monitored for an hour or so after a swim. This is definitely not something to try by yourself. Keep in mind that ice swimmers often start swimming in the summer and gradually acclimatize.
If you want to give cold water swimming a try, start with regular outdoor swims in the summer months and build up to those chillier seasons.
It's also best to enter slowly rather than diving in if the water is under 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), though this may come as a natural instinct anyway, to counter the body's gasp reflex.
And swimming in icy water is not for the faint-hearted -- literally. If you have heart problems or pre-existing medical conditions, you should seek advice from a doctor before swimming. But if you're feeling brave, ice swimming could open up a world of icy-fresh possibilities, lifting your mood, helping friends and offering a unique form of exercise.