Although swimming naked in cold water during the hardest days of winter could seems like an activity for the brave at heart, it’s growing into a trend and gaining momentum every year among everybody over the age of 16 around Europe.
In addition to its daring quality and the simple thrill, the main reasons for the popularity of what’s known as ‘Viking style swimming’ are the mental and physical health benefits attached to one or two minutes at a time of immersing into freezing water.
The benefits of polar plunges
An icy dip reportedly induces the release of adrenaline, serotonin, cortisol and dopamine which translate, among other benefits, into boosts of the immune system, improvement of blood circulation, increase of libido, burning of calories and reduction of stress.
Add to that list an increase in the capacity to cope with stressful situations and the reduction both of inflammation and risk of depression.
A recent study in Scandinavia of young men who participate regularly in these polar plunges shows that winter swimming may allow the body to adapt better to extreme temperatures.
“Your body temperature drops fast and the body’s defenses go on high alert,” explains Visit North Jutland. “The blood vessels contracts and a cocktail of endorphins and adrenalin rushes through the body. This is the experience most winter swimmers have when they jump in the ocean on a cold winter morning.”
“Winter swimming is not often associated with pleasure, it is very cold! In spite of this, more and more people are jumping into ice-cold sea, and there is a rise in memberships in the local winter swimmers clubs.”
A new old tradition
Not only in Europe but in many countries around the world, intrepid swimmers of all ages are plunging into ice-cold waters to celebrate holidays, to follow national traditions or just for a thrill “that can feel as sharp as daggers,” as Time wrote, “and for bragging rights that last all winter.”
The hobby is not new. In Nordic countries, particularly Scandinavian, Eastern European and in Russia, it’s been practiced for centuries — partly as a cultural tradition, for example at New Year’s, as well as in religious celebrations including the Epiphany and Christmas.
The number of winter and ice swimming competitions around the world sponsored by international organizations such as the International Ice Swimming Association and the International Winter Swimming Association have been growing and more and more locations, particularly in Europe and North America, organize “bear plunges,” most commonly to celebrate New Year’s Day.
The oldest of such winter contests in the U.S. is the Coney Island Polar Bear Club founded in 1903, with swim events every Sunday from November until April.
In Swedish Lapland, there’s the annual Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship, a gathering of brave souls who swim in 1°C cold water.
Lovers of extreme competition enjoy the Ice Zero Mile, abiding by International Ice Swimming Association rules, considered the toughest swimming test on the planet, a solo, mile-long competition performed in water temperature below 1ºC.
The Naked Winter Swim
Among the best known and more “fun” competitions, organized every year in January, is the Skagen Winter Swimming Festival in Norway.
Skagen is the country’s northernmost city and every year attracts thousands of tourists to participate and to observe the ‘swimming’ competition that takes place during a four-day festival.
Every morning at the Sønderstrand beach, participants shed their clothes and get into the freezing sea water. Activities start early in the morning for a proper warm-up and last until late in the afternoon.
According to Culture Trip, “Denmark’s Winter Swimming Festival is a haven for nudists,” although swimsuit is optional.
“The Skagen Winter Swimming Festival is for those who aren’t afraid to push past their limits,” the organizers warn.
“Brrr. Why in the world would anyone want to go swimming in the sea in wintry Denmark?” VisitDenmark asks. “Up here in the north, winter swimming is seen as healthy for the body, good for the mind – and more than a little refreshing. It’s one of our top things to do in the winter. We have been throwing ourselves into cold water on dark days since the end of the 19th century, when the first winter bathing establishment was established in Copenhagen.”
Almost all Danish towns and small villages have their own winter swimming clubs.
If you’re among those tempted to submerge more than your toe in cold water this winter, consider this expert advice:
Although winter swimming is a popular and healthy trend, there’s no reason to throw common sense overboard. The sea is not to be joked with – especially not in winter.
Never swim alone, familiarize yourself with current and wind conditions, and follow the general advice for winter swimming. If you have heart problems or high blood pressure, avoid winter bathing. And always ask your doctor if in doubt. And remember – there’s no shame in changing your mind at any point in the process.
If you’re serious about swimming Viking style, registrations are open for the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship. (Not naked but still extremely cold and including an ice-hole poetry competition.)