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It's a thing. No really, it is...


Who dares swim the chillies? 


Lots of people all over the world, it turns out...

  • In Eastern Europe and Russia, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the Epiphany by swimming in cold water. 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 going into a sauna as a way to cool off rapidly, a practice thought to boost physical health and relieve stress;

  • In many 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 mind;

  • 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!);

  • And finally, cold water swimmers. Some swimmers continue on past the summer until they reach a point where they are no longer comfortable, and some swim on throughout the entire winter. Some swim for the simple joy of being outdoors, others train for formal events such as competitive winter races or ice miles. And some cold water training is a cornerstone for any marathon or channel swimming taking place in cooler climates or chilly nighttime air.


Competitive cold/ice swimming


Personally, I’m training to compete and accomplish particular goals in cold water, but I also swim in it for the joy it brings me. 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:

  • outdoor unheated pools

  • unfrozen lakes/rivers

  • makeshift pools cut out of ice on a river or lake

Here's a great video of the "Boyz of Winter" cutting out the competition pool on Lac Memphremagog for the annual Winter Swim Festival. Pretty cool!!!

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 of any kind, it may not freeze until below 0C(32F). The perfect example is saltwater, which has a freezing point of -2C(28.4F). In addition, 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…..


Sanctioning cold water swims

Let's start with this: cold water swimming is not (yet) recognized by FINA.

Much like with marathon swimming, there isn't a single, overarching body that governs the sport. Instead, you'll find a number of organizing bodies sanction and/or ratify swims, and other groups that put on a variety of events. To start with, 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). 


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 of their framework:

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 in relation to IWSA events.

In contrast, the IISA’s mandate is a little 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. There are rules and guidelines are in place, which continue to evolve over time as the sport grows.

As there is no one governing body that determines what “cold” or “ice” waters are, both are just a matter of interpretation by any given group. As an example, 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. Different organizations, different pursuits.


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…


See? It's a thing, really.


Happy chilly swimming.

I love swimming. 


I’ve always been a distance swimmer at heart. As an adult, I developed a passion for 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. That works for me.

A few years ago, I became a 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.


As a newbie, I had a lot of questions at the time, the parameters of swimming cold were unknown to me. Is there a governing body for 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…

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