All over the world, ice swimming is a popular activity. Some do it to cool off. Others do it in conjunction with religious or cultural ceremonies. Still others do it simply for the thrill of the swim. Regardless of the reason, ice swimming, and by necessity, winter swimming have remained popular for hundreds of years. If you’re a fan of extreme sports (because make no mistake- this ice swimming can get quite extreme) then read on to learn more.
As the name implies, ice swimming is the practice of immersing (and attempting to crawl one’s way forward) in water cold enough to freeze. In the past, this was done exclusively by making use of natural bodies of water that had frozen over. A swimmer would cut a hole in the ice. Alternatively, adepts would swim in locations where water was cold enough to freeze, but did not (usually due to motion).
Winter swimming is quite similar, though the water is not at the freezing point – typically just above it. In modern times, a natural body of water is unnecessary, though still preferred by most enthusiasts. Instead, a pool can be filled with water cooled to the appropriate temperatures.
Winter Swimming and Religious Influence
In some places, ice swimming is a tradition centuries old. It was performed to promote strength, fortitude and courage, and arguably is practiced to this day for similar reasons. In Eastern European and Russian traditions, for example, ice swimming plays a prominent role in their Epiphany celebration. The holiday takes place in early to mid January. During that time, cross shaped holes are cut into the ice on the surface of various bodies of water. The dipping in icy water is then performed three times by each participant, once for each member of the Holy Trinity.
Ice Swimming as a Form of Cryotherapy
In a sense, ice swimming can be thought of as a primitive form of cryotherapy. More accurately, a precursor to cryotherapy, and a form of the ice bath therapy, which is often used in sports recovery. It is an exercise primarily seen in conjunction with sauna use. It is not necessarily religious, but instead helps people cool down after sauna usage. However, it is not simply the recovery portion of a workout plan; to many people, it is a sport in and of itself. Also popular today among athletes: Whole Body Cryotherapy (the kind that uses nitrogen vapors in lieu of freezing water).
Today, the practice of ice swimming is spearheaded by the IISA. Dedicated to the challenges of swimming in cold water, the IISA gives practitioners of winter swimming a banner to gather under. Ultimately, the Association seeks olympic recognition; there are a significant number of members who have completed the 1km and ‘ice mile’ swims- a process of swimming one kilometer, or one mile respectively, in water below 5ºC (41ºF).
In conclusion, while the shape and face of ice swimming may have changed, it remains. The reasons vary, but to all who participate it is a thrilling and incredible practice – certainly not for the faint of heart. No, seriously, health risks are not to be taken lightly. But, if you’re not quite ready for that, or you can’t find any super cold water to cool in San Diego, there’s always WBC as an option!
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