How you can swim outdoors in the winter, according to the Icelanders

Published: January 15, 2021

girl swimming in the lake in the winter freezing temperatures Photo by Inga Gedrovicha/Shutterstock

Chances are your cozy cottage is situated by a lake, stream, or other body of water. In the summer, this glorious, shimmering water almost beckons swimmers to hop in, but in the winter, it seems like only the most “extreme” of athletes are able to pursue the task. Winter swimming takes quite a lot of mental power and physical preparation — which is not to say that it can’t be done. Take the Icelanders, for example. These people are truly living proof that you can take advantage of your nearby lake, stream, or river even in the winter (and not have to be a professional athlete to do so!).

Swimming in Iceland dates all the way back to the country’s settlement and can be credited to Snorri Sturlson: historian and author who started the trend by building his very own pool. Granted, this was a pool and not a lake, and it was also geothermal allowing its users to soak in warm waters. Still, Sturlson’s idea caught on and took many forms in Iceland.

One of these forms is the very same cold-water swimming that you can do without straying too far from your cottage. Having many glacial and clear-water rivers, inland lakes, and lagoon lakes, Iceland seems like the ideal spot for taking winter plunges. Today, one of the most popular places to do so is Nauthólsvík Beach, a popular attraction in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland. Visitors are encouraged to first wade into the waters of the natural sea (which are known to drop to temperatures of about -1.9 degrees Celsius in the winter) and then run back to Nauthólsvík’s steaming hot tubs for a long soak.

So what are the benefits of this impressive albeit jitter-inducing behaviour? As it turns out, there are many. After submerging into very cold water, the body’s systems go into overdrive: blood rushes to the organs, tissue swelling decreases, and calories are burned in the process. Stress is also relieved through the release of beta-endorphin hormones in the brain, which, according to ScienceFocus, “provides pain relief and gives a sense of euphoria.”

It’s also important to realize just how ingrained the swimming ritual is in Icelandic social life: another way it can curb stress and increase overall happiness. For the Icelanders, meeting friends, neighbours, or colleagues at a local pool or beach is akin to going out for coffee or a long walk. They show up at roughly the same time each day and proceed to chat about life, catch up on the news with their fellow regulars, or even meet new friends. It’s no secret that a reliable, robust social life is the key to contentment and longevity, and Iceland confirms this very fact through its impressive score on the Happiness Index: a 7.5 (out of 10) in 2020, making it the 4th happiest country in the world.

The most telling evidence of just how vital swimming is for Icelanders and their social life can perhaps be found in a recent BBC story from August 2020, which details the thrill Reykjavík residents experienced at the reopening of the city’s largest pool, previously closed due to COVID-19. A huge line formed outside the entrance and the atmosphere was all-around festive. Finally, the nation’s people were able to reconvene in a space that felt safe and comforting: the space, of course, being a simple swimming pool.

When I visited the country in 2019, I was pleasantly surprised at just how well-adjusted the locals were to a daily swimming routine. In the dead of winter — when the sun rose at 10 a.m. and set at about 5 p.m. — Icelanders, young and old, energetically carried out the procedure of showering, running outside, plunging in the outdoor pool, swimming laps, recovering in a hot tub, and getting dry in a sauna. As steam rolled off the surface of the pool, I luxuriated in this cheerful environment while I could. Back home, outdoor pools were closed until summer and outdoor swimming in sub-zero temperatures wasn’t very common.

That’s not to say that people in North America can’t take a little inspiration from Iceland and introduce swimming to their own winter regimen. In fact, doing so can provide similar advantages for mind and body that the Icelanders are already well aware of.

Here’s how you can maximize your cottage’s location near a body of water and take the plunge this winter, safely and enjoyably:

  • Know the rules. Even Nauthólsvík Beach provides safety tips on their website, including “don’t go too far from the coast,” “don’t [swim] until you have started to breathe [sic] normally,” and “listen to your body.” Other expert tips include warming up slowly before going for a swim and staying in the water for only a short amount of time. Most sources advise that this time be at most twenty minutes (less if you still feel cold after ten minutes in the water).
  • Gear up. Though many brave Icelanders choose to go swimming in nothing but a swimsuit or trunks, special clothing and accessories like neoprene swim caps, wetsuits, swim socks, and even thermal gloves can help a great deal with trapping body heat and keeping you warm for longer. Though a full cold-water swimming outfit is often an expensive purchase, the investment will be sure to pay off when you stay toasty and warm on your next winter swim.
  • Team up. Part of the allure winter swimming (and all swimming, in general) holds for Iceland’s residents is due to the fact that it is a very social activity: a time to rekindle old connections and make new ones. Consider making your next winter swim more fun by bringing along a (bubbled) family member or friend. The great outdoors is the ideal place for socially-distant, COVID-compliant activities. As far as safety goes, swimming with a partner is also a good idea. Nauthólsvík advises that you always monitor your partner’s condition by speaking regularly.

After your swim, observe how you feel. If you’re anything like the Icelanders, the feelings of joy, peace, and energy that winter swimming leaves you with will have you coming back for a dip time and time again.

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