Though temperatures never come higher than single digits and frequently go below zero, thousands of Russians have taken to cold water swimming in ice-swimming clubs. The benefits of regular exposure to the cold has been well-documented, as have the benefits of cold water immersion therapy more specifically. However, what we want to look at is how to prepare for ice swimming: is there a way to build yourself up to it to keep yourself safe and sane?
Here, cold water immersion is key. Products that make cold water immersion easier, like Cryotubs, will be an invaluable tool. Mental preparation is everything in ice swimming, so you will want to replicate the mental battle you will be facing under controlled conditions beforehand (not to mention the quite significant physical adaptations needed to make cold immersion bearable).
Prepare yourself for ice swimming with cold water immersion to make it safer and more beneficial overall.
What you will need to prepare for
There are some key areas that you will need to prepare yourself for if you want to give ice swimming a go, from the practical to the physical, from the mental to the emotional. Here are some of the main things you will need to prepare for. Pretty much all of them can be practiced in a cold water immersion pool, at least to some degree.
Practising these first will mean that you are more than ready to take the plunge and that getting into the water for your first ice swim will be far more manageable and you will get far more out of it.
What you will need to do
Manage your cold water expectations
Many swimmers underestimate the power of the cold. They underestimate how profoundly uncomfortable it will make them, they underestimate the shock of the first dive in every session, and they greatly underestimate quite how much their performance will suffer swimming in ice water compared to warmer water.
Acclimatisation is central to this: your body takes time to adapt to the increased demands being placed on it when you’re in the cold. You’re not simply going for a swim, anymore. As far as your body’s systems are concerned, you are fighting to stay alive, and so much energy will go into things like temperature regulation, blood flow and breath control that you won’t have enough left to swim to the standard to which you are accustomed.
This acclimatisation is what you’re doing it for, however. Most of the benefits of ice swimming come as the body adapts to it. You can use a cold water immersion pool to hit the ground running, so to speak. Your body will already be going through the acclimatisation process and will be in some measure prepared for the coming ordeal.
For the beginning, however, you need to manage your expectations. You won’t be setting any new records with your body in sub-zero water. Make your peace with that early.
Cold water shock
Cold water shock is intense. You will hyperventilate as you first enter the water, you will panic, you will experience a surge of adrenaline even as your muscles lock up. It’s quite overwhelming. It’s also quite hard to go from this, for the first time, into any kind of reasonable swimming practice.
The trick: again, acclimatisation. Get your body used to the shock in a controlled setting. Cold water immersion will also be slightly lighter on you than Russian ice swimming. Where ice swimming can have you in sub-zero temperatures, cold immersion will generally take place in the single digit degrees (never lower).
Try cold water immersion, get your body used to the conditions, and then go into ice swimming feeling more confident and being far safer.
Controlled breathing techniques
Controlled breathing is key to cold water immersion practice: it forms a cornerstone of the Wim Hof method and has had many of its practitioners’ successes attributed to it.
Though different breathing meditations serve different functions- and it’s a very good idea to try out a diverse range- the main thing we are looking for here is the settling sensation inherent to breath control and meditation.
Controlled breathing practice will help you to detach yourself to some degree from the physical discomfort of the cold immersion itself, allowing you to observe the sensation rather than be ruled by it. This focussed yet detached concentration will allow you to minimise the negative effects and shock factor of the cold water. At the same time, the slow, rhythmic breathing will allow you to inhale and exhale appropriate volumes of air, keeping your body supplied with fresh oxygen, expelling used air, and overall negating the hyperventilation common to those being plunged into cold water.
Try cold immersion therapy and try the breathwork that accompanies it in many practices. Your mind and body will be in a far better place for doing so, much better prepared for Russian ice swimming and the stresses it can cause.
Get used to it first, for safety’s sake…
These are just a few ways in which cold water immersion practice can help to prepare you for cold water swimming. Cold water swimming is a risk: it carries with it a very real chance of suffering from hypothermia as your core body temperature drops, or from drowning, as hyperventilation or any other sign of shock threaten to rob you of physical agency as you try to stay afloat.
Cold water immersion doesn’t carry these risks. It is conducted in warm, controlled settings where you can be monitored, at slightly warmer temperatures, so you are far less likely to get so cold that hypothermia sets in and you can quickly warm up again afterwards. You won’t drown as you will be in a tub, like a Cryotub, that is roughly the size of a small hot tub, and you will likely be attended by a professional therapist.
Then, when you are used to this, give ice swimming a go. You will be far better prepared for it in every way, and you will be far safer getting into the water.