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An extreme challenge in difficult to understand temperatures


Ice swimming: an extreme challenge in difficult to understand temperatures

Ice swimming is the fastest growing extreme water sport. Tens of thousands of swimmers are now hitting cold water daily and before COVID restrictions thousands have flocked to events from Siberia to Argentina to Antarctica, the mountains of California and the loughs from Ireland.


Soaking in ice water has historical roots in northern countries, from Iceland to Japan. It was part of a sauna routine – but not really ‘swimming’. Several key stages have contributed to the emergence of sport. Lynne cox** Performed a high-profile 2.2 mile / 3.5 km swim across the Bering Sea between Russia and the United States in 1987 in 4 ° C / 40 ° F water at the height of the Cold War and 1.4 miles / 2.25 km documented in his 2002 York Times bestselling New Book “Swimming to Antarctica” in 0 ° C / 32 ° F water. Winter swimming in northern countries held its first world championship in Finland in 2000. Later, Lewis pugh* completed a 0.62 mile / 1 km swim crossing across the North Pole to highlight global warming in 2007 in waters at -1.6 ° C / 29 ° F. Yes, sea water has a lower freezing temperature!

The sport grew rapidly with the formation of two organizations to coordinate events and set safety standards: the International Winter Swimming Association (2006) and the International Ice Swimming Association (2009). They have contributed to an open water swimming season extending throughout winters in the northern and southern hemispheres.

What is that?

Photo courtesy:

Ice swimming is an extreme sport and therefore the swimmer tackles cold waters with just a small swimsuit and cap (both without neoprene) and goggles. Water temperatures vary depending on the challenge, ranging from below 0 ° C / 32 ° F to anything swimmers might find at a world championship in a majestic location like Lake Bled in Slovenia. And yes, wind chill can magnify the challenge. Bathing takes place in open-air pools, lakes, seas, rivers and often in a course carved out of surface ice (photo Tyumen, Siberia in Russia – frozen river).

Marathon swimmers face longer swims (over 20 miles / 32 km) across the English Channel. The waters are cold, ranging from 8-19 ° C / 46-66 ° F, but far from ice swimming.


Individuals push the physical and psychological limits in all sports, which attracts swimmers to cold water. For traditional pool swimmers, a serious cold water challenge begins at a water temperature of 15 ° C / 59 ° F. Then everything changes. Each degree drop from that level presents a very different challenge. 7.5 ° C is not twice as difficult as 15 ° C. It’s another world and 0 ° C is not of this world!

The workouts are shorter, and the key is to acclimatize to the cold water – to make your body and brain accept it. Some will sit in a giant ice bath to prepare and visualize. All swimmers then set goals: Faster times, longer in the water, represent their country during a trip to Siberia for a world championship with friends, win and walk in the red jacket “ice miler “And even” take advantage “of the esprit de corps that stems from” common suffering “and success.

Range of events

The sport presents a range of events and challenges. There are competitions by age group with races of 50/100 meters with all strokes (see photo) and annual competitions by points. These events can also make it possible to take a step up to an “endurance” swim of 450 meters. Other events push the distance to 1 km with world records and age groups recorded. Stars from the pool and marathon world, including three times Olympian Petar stoychev***, caused these record times to drop. Many prefer team challenges like the Bering Strait Relay ****: 66 swimmers from 16 countries completed the swim during a frigid six-day adventure.

Individual challenges start below 5 ° C / 41 ° F with a mile of ice – around 620 on record so far. Complete one on each continent and join Jaimie Monahan* with the Ice7 badge. Drop below 1 ° C / 33.8 ° F and this mile earns the “ice zero” badge – only 21 registered to date. Then vary the location: Arctic (highest latitude), Antarctica (lowest latitude), Mount Everest (highest altitude), etc. And don’t forget to swim under the ice!


In all extreme sports, safety protocols develop steadily as knowledge increases. Needless to say, the main danger is hypothermia – when a swimmer’s core body temperature drops below a certain level and organ failure can result.

One of the unique elements of sport and hypothermia is called “gout”. The swimmer’s core body temperature continues to drop even after leaving the water and starting the warming-up process. Research allows safety teams to look for signs that a swimmer is approaching a problem and to end their swims early and safely. Safe practices for sports dives: carry out medical checks in advance, never swim alone, increase gradually, breathe slowly / do not hyperventilate, go out before having problems, dry off – put on warm diapers as quickly as possible, warm up slowly, push starts, opens turns, and NEVER jumps into a hot shower or hot tub afterward.

As for the future, more swimmers, more events, more challenges and maybe the Winter Olympics are targeted. For pool swimmers reading this article who already have the required equipment, see you on the ice.

* Honored by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (IMSHOF) and Ice Swimming Hall of Fame
** Honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame and IMSHOF
*** Honored with the Three Temples of Fame
**** Honored with the Ice Swimming Hall of Fame