The Role that Winter Swimming Plays in Cultures Around the World

Winter swimming involves swimming in waters that are especially cold, sometimes even below freezing. There are winter swimming clubs all over the world, but in certain countries, winter swimming is tied to a religious and cultural experience. If you've never experienced it for yourself before, you might think anyone who would swim in freezing cold waters is crazy! But there are actually a lot of health benefits to winter swimming, which is why so many people have done it for so long.

Some of the benefits associated with winter swimming include a better mood, memory, and energy level. Some swimmers who suffer from rheumatism, fibromyalgia, or asthma may find relief from their symptoms and pain by swimming in cold water for a few minutes at a time. Winter swimming may also help boost your immune system since short-term exposure of the body to cold temperatures helps boost your levels of antioxidant defense.

It should be noted that there are health benefits AND risks to winter swimming, so caution should be taken, especially by inexperienced people. If you haven't built up any kind of tolerance to cold water, you could experience a cold shock response, which sometimes leads to either hyperventilation and drowning or fibrillation and cardiac arrest. For healthy people who are used to swimming in cold water, winter swimming doesn't pose much of a threat unless you have a medical condition like obesity, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, or a heart condition. Children and elderly adults should also take caution since they tend to be more vulnerable to the risks that winter swimming poses.

There are a surprising number of annual winter swimming events and races in Australia, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and other countries worldwide. There are far too many to try and list them all, but we are going to highlight a few key geographical regions and show you how winter swimming plays a key role in each culture. These regions include Russia, Finland, Australia, China, North America, Denmark, and the English Channel.

Ice Swimming Around the World

RUSSIA: Ice swimmers in Russia swear by ice swimming's rejuvenating properties, even incorporating the activity into religious holidays and ceremonies. Russian Orthodox Christians, for example, have a holiday right after the twelve days of Christmas called "Epiphany." It happens in January, and faithful believers take turns baptizing themselves in a hole in the ice that is shaped like a cross. The water in the ice is believed to be holy water on this special day, and believers believe that submerging themselves will help wash away their sins. More and more people have become ice swimming enthusiasts since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, which coincides with the rise of religion in Russia as well, though it's unsure if the two trends are actually related. Though the hobby has just recently gained a surge in popularity, Russians have been swimming in ice holes since as early as 1525 AD. It's possible that Russians were the very first ice swimmers; after all, a Russian professor who immigrated to the United States was the first ice swimmer to become famous. But such a claim can be hard to prove.

FINLAND: Ice swimming in Finland has been practiced since at least the 17th century, though the nation's first ice swimming clubs weren't founded until the 1920s. Originally, ice swimming was only really practiced by seniors since the effects of ice swimming help relieve the pains of arthritis, but in recent years it's gained a lot of popularity even amongst young people. Most people in Finland practice ice swimming for health benefits, especially since it aids in acclimation to the cold weather, improves blood circulation, and prevents common illnesses. Finland is a particularly cold country, so taking precautions to stay happy and healthy is beneficial to everyone living there.

AUSTRALIA: Australia isn't known for being a particularly cold place, but during Australia's five winter months, which are from May to September, winter swimming competitions are held by the Winter Swimming Association of Australia. Over 5,000 swimmers compete on a weekly basis, and the championships are held at the end of September, involving over 30 different swimming events. Athletes come from all over the world to participate in the competition, including some Olympians and world championship swimmers. Winter swimming in Australia is all about showing off your skills and bringing the whole world together.

CHINA: The goals of winter swimming in China are very similar to Australia's. The Jinan International Winter Swimming Festival takes place in China annually, and the biggest event involves swimming across Daming Lake, which has a surface area of 110 acres. In 2019 and 2020, the 3rd stage of the International Winter Swimming Association World Cup was also held in Jinan, and the main event included a 300 meter swim from Huxin Island to the venue of the World Cup. People worldwide enjoy swimming in Daming Lake, especially because of its beauty and surrounding historic buildings.

NORTH AMERICA: Polar Bear Plunges are particularly popular around New Year's Day and often double as fundraisers for special causes. The oldest ice swimming club in the US was founded in 1903 in Coney Island, New York. Though this club does a New Year's Day event, it also hosts regular swims in the Atlantic Ocean every Sunday from November to April.

DENMARK: Winter swimming is very popular in Denmark, where there is very little sunlight between November and April. Seasonal depression is very common, and the Danes believe that the cold shock can give you a lot of energy and a huge endorphin kick. Along with fighting the winter blues, the Danes also feel a strong sense of community by joining winter swim clubs.

ENGLISH CHANNEL: Between Southern England and Northern France sits the English Channel, a large body of water that swimmers have been crossing for sport since 1875. These waters are notoriously chilly during the summer, with temperatures ranging from 41 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Athletes from all over the world have traveled to the English Channel in order to cross it, including swimmers from Egypt, Brazil, India, and the United States.

Ready to try winter swimming for yourself? Remember to find a trainer if you're inexperienced, and enjoy all the benefits that cold water swimming can offer you!