The cast of “Ice Holes” has demonstrated that they’re willing and capable to participate in all manners of ice sports: ice fishing, ice car-racing, ice pranking (this one, of course, is more informal).. But on Friday night’s episode, they decided that on ice sports weren’t enough. In a competition to win the other team’s largest fish, the anglers voluntarily went for a swim in the frigid water beneath the ice.
They’re not the only people crazy/willing enough to do this. Every winter, thousands of people worldwide decide that extreme discomfort shouldn’t stop one from going for a swim. It turns out that there are four popular reasons why people go swimming in icy temperatures:
The craziest, of course, are your extremes sportsters. There are various local and independent ice swimming competitions in cold climates across North America, Europe and Asia. China hosts an annual swimming competition in Harbin at the edge of Siberia that 700 brave ice swimmers participated in last year.
But the most extreme ice swim takes place solo: the Ice Mile. Ice mile swims must take place below five degrees celsius, without a wetsuit. Increasingly popular, swimmers who participate generally completed other extreme swimming milestones (English Channel swims,Cook Straight swims, etc.), and want to keep things interesting during the winter. There are now official regulating bodies like the International Ice Swimming Association which hope to ensure the safety of swimmers and allow for standards of competition. Currently, the IISA record for longest swim is held by South African swimmer Ram Barkai, whose 1.43 mile swim took place with a negative seven-and-a-half celsius wind chill. Brutal.
A brief ice dip is also gaining in popularity in some Eastern European countries, particularly Russia. A long-held niche Orthodox tradition, hundreds of Russian Orthodox Christians now take brief ice dips during the celebration of Epiphany, which honors the Jesus’s baptism. Believers also claim that the swims, which oftentimes take place in cross-shaped holes in the ice, will erase their sins. Makes a day-long fast seem pretty painless in comparison.
Relatively tame compared to an ice mile or a January Siberian ice swim for Jesus, polar bear plunges still take some guts. Plunges are by far the most popular form of winter swimming: participants take the opportunity to join hundreds or thousands of their peers for a few minutes in the water. Most plunges have a charity function – Long Island hosts a 10,000-person swim every year on Super Bowl Sunday for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Swimming is generally a very healthy activity with some solid benefits. According to some ice swimmers, a winter dip complements these benefits with unique positives of the cold temperatures. Anecdotally, some ice swimmers report fewer colds, a more robust immune system and better circulation.
But anyone who may be considering ice swimming for health benefits may want to reconsider the reported benefits. According to Time, the physical costs almost certainly outweigh any anecdotal positives, as unacclimated bodies can experience “cold shock,” which strains the heart. Further, the “rush” sensation that’s often associated with the health benefits of an ice swim is simply the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism, which can trigger an irregular heart-beat, and even in extreme cases, a heart attack.