Swimmin’ the chillies: It’s a thing. Really.

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I love swimming.

I’ve always been a distance swimmer at heart. I most enjoy marathon, swims of 10km or more, done following a few basic rules. I like that marathon swimming has parameters; I know them, I understand them, I can talk about them, use them to describe what I do and how I do it.

This past year I became a competitive cold water swimmer too, and now spend my days dreaming of swimmin’ the chillies as well. I do this with like-minded friends, a small chilly tribe, if you will. We may well all be nuts, but we’re pretty happy people, and love what we do.

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Memphremagog Winter Swim Festival, March 2016. Me, second from far left.

As a newbie, I had a lot of questions, the parameters of swimming cold were unknown to me. Who governs this sport?  When does winter swimming begin, exactly? And how cold is “cold”, anyhow? Is it a thing, really? My brain needs to be able to shape things, to define, to categorize, it’s just how I’m wired…

Who dares swim the chillies?

It turns out a lot of people around the world swim in cold water. Here’s a few of my favourite examples:

  • Fall swimmers that continue past the summer, in cool/cold water. Some swimmers will set a goal to swim open water up to Halloween, and a fun new Vampire-themed swim series was established this year;
  • In Eastern Europe and Russia, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Epiphany by swimming in cold water. Typically, a hole in the shape of a cross is cut from the ice of lakes or rivers, and swimmers submerge three times to represent the Holy Trinity;
  • In Northern Europe, ice swimming is common after sauna as a way to cool off rapidly, a practice thought to boost health and relieve stress;
  • In various parts of the world, dousing is the practice of showering one’s body with ice water as a way to elevate internal temperature, doing so is thought to kill harmful bacteria and harden the body;
  • And of course, we can’t forget Polar Bear Plunges at Christmas or New Year’s Day to ring in the coming year. These are typically only short dips in the water, anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes depending on the venue (and how risk-adverse your local authorities are, sigh Ottawa, sigh);
  • And finally, winter swimmers. Some swim for the simple joy of being outdoors, others train for formal events such as competitive winter races or ice miles. Cold water swimming is a cornerstone of training for any marathon or channel swimming taking place in colder climates.

Competitive winter swimming

I’m training to compete in cold water, and I also swim it for joy. I’ve addressed my joy elsewhere, so we’ll stick to talking about competitive swimming here.

Depending on where you are in the world, competitive cold swimming takes places in a variety of venues, here are links to a few examples:

Water temperature at competitions will typically be below 5C(41F), and as low or even below 0C(32F). You’re probably wondering how it’s possible for swimming to take place in 0C or below water temps. Wouldn’t it be frozen solid?

Many people assume that because water doesn’t appear frozen yet, it must be well above 0C(32F). Not necessarily so. If water has impurities, it may not freeze until below 0C(32F). Saltwater has an even lower freezing point of -2C(28.4F).

More importantly for our purposes, moving water won’t freeze at 0C(32F) either. When competitive swimming pools are cut from the ice on a river or lake, “bubblers” are placed just below the surface to purposefully keep the water moving so it doesn’t freeze back over.

And that’s how one swims at or below the freezing point. Brrrrr…..

Great video on the making of a cold competition pool – this ought to get you pumped!

 

Sanctioning cold water swims

Cold water swimming is not recognized by FINA (not yet, and not likely), as such there are no “official” rules or regulations governing its application worldwide.

So then how are competitive events sanctioned? Well, there are two “global organizations” to be aware of: the International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA, Finland), and the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA, South Africa). These are distinct groups, and are not related that I can tell except they both deal in different kinds of cold.

The IWSA’s mandate is to develop safe swim events in cold water worldwide. They have drafted formal rules and guidelines for cold water events, as well as identified categories of water coldness to help classify competitive events and the maximum race distances to be offered. Here’s a snapshot:

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My brain likes it when things fit into a chart. It’s good to have these kinds of parameters, it helps us talk about swimming in cold water, but I don’t know that we can call them “official”, per se. More on that in a sec.

In contrast, the IISA’s mandate is more narrow; to sanction both “ice mile” swims, which are 1-mile swims done in temperatures of 5C or below, and “ice zero” swims, same distance but swum at 1C or below. Some rules and guidelines are in place, but this is more of a recent addition. Very extreme, very dangerous. Some thoughts on it here.

Ok, so let’s come back to this, what’s the big deal about cold water swimming not having an “official” governing body? My view is this: as there is no one governing body that determines what “cold” or “ice” waters are, both are just a matter of interpretation. In fact, the IWSA determines “ice” to begin at 2C or below while the IISA declares an “ice” mile to be swum at 5C or below. IISA’s “ice” is a higher temperature and longer distance, but still, water temp is water temp. Different organizations, different pursuits.

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Cold water swims maybe not be FINA sanctioned, but both the ISWA and IISA do form their own competitive bodies, draft their own regulations, and sanction events under their own rules. But their ideas aren’t always the same, especially around things like requirements for emergency and safety support. It’s an evolving sport, and in North America a fairly new one at that, just something to keep in mind.

When does winter swimming actually start?

The IWSA declares winter swimming to start November 1st of each calendar year, but a fellow cold swimmie friend prefers to think of it as “when all the summer swimmers with good common sense stop showing up.”

Lacks definition, but I rather like that way of looking at things…

Happy swimming.

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