Introduction:

Today, many athletes are familiar with the benefits of ice baths for the recovery of the nervous system and musculoskeletal system. However, a much smaller number of athletes are familiar with winter swimming, which confers a greater number of benefits. For this reason, I’d like to share a set of guidelines that would help maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of winter swimming.

In particular, I wrote this article for athletes living in countries with a winter swimming tradition. As a Frenchman I am aware that this includes Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. Living in such a country will simplify the task of joining a winter swimming club, and figuring out where you can practice this sport.

I would like to add that winter swimming is a covid-safe sport as it is practiced in open water where practitioners are ideally a meter away from each other.

The health benefits of winter swimming:

  1. It is a social activity, so you are more likely to make it a regular part of your strength and conditioning program, and meeting other positive people is generally good for your health.

  2. Winter swimming will help sore muscles and ligaments recover [2].

  3. It aids the recovery of the central nervous system [2].

  4. Winter swimming will help you reconnect with nature. As I like to tell my friends: disconnect from social media and re-connect with nature. You won’t regret it.

  5. Winter swimming leads to better sleep.

Basic guidelines:

My basic assumption is that the water temperature is between zero and five celsius, and that the athlete has no underlying cardiovascular health conditions.

  1. The athlete must be able to swim at least 1 km at a good pace without interruption.

  2. Avoid swimming if there are currents.

  3. Protect your eyes as they are a part of your brain, and more fragile than you think. Make sure to wear air-tight goggles, and wear a head cap to keep your hair dry.

  4. There are three factors that will compound the level of difficulty: the water temperature, time spent in the water, and your wattage while swimming. As a general rule of thumb, make sure to spend less than 15 mins in the water to avoid the risk of hypothermia [2].

  5. The first challenge for your first week of swimming will be to acclimate your body to the cold. Over the span of five days, you may add a minute each day where you simply remain stationary, hanging on a ladder by the deck. To avoid cold shock, it is important to get into the water slowly.

  6. Once you can immerse yourself at zero celsius for more than five minutes, you should be able to swim 25 metres without difficulty as long as you control your breathing. But, make sure that there are more experienced swimmers around and that a life buoy is on deck. As winter swimming is an extreme sport, it is essential to take precautions.

  7. If you’d like to swim longer distances, it is not wise to compete with friends outside an organised competition setting. There are winter swimming competitions for 100 m, 400 m, and 1000 m categories but it is wise to train with a winter swimming team under the supervision of a coach.

  8. The wild beauty of the ocean is appealing but it is important to remain respectful of nature. Never swim alone.

  9. Winter swimming requires important mental and physical conditioning. Due to the interaction of these factors, a regular meditation practice that helps you reliably attain the flow state is very useful.

  10. Don’t take on any challenge for instagram, or give in to peer pressure to prove any kind of point.

I decided to write up these guidelines because it is easy to overlook some difficulties. Winter swimming is hard, and a bit harder than it looks.

Discussion:

Although many athletes set limits on what may be a part of their training, I think winter swimming is a reasonable addition if you live in Northern Europe. I would like to add that this is a very modest set of guidelines written from the perspective of someone that used to practice judo regularly.

That said, in the near future I plan to participate in winter swimming competitions over the course of modest distances(\(\leq 50\) m).

References:

  1. 8 Benefits of Cold Water Swimming. https://www.iprshealth.com/news/8-benefits-of-cold-water-swimming/. IPRS health. 2020.

  2. Cold water immersion: kill or cure? M. J. Tipton N. Collier H. Massey J. Corbett M. Harper. Experimental Physiology. 2017.

  3. Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement: Mental Training for Athletes and Coaches. Keith A. Kaufman, Timothy R. Pineau, Carol R. Glass. American Psychological Association. 2017.