...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Start the new year with a cold spash (1°C)

January 1, 2015
”Idiot test”, ”Brrr!” and ”Urk!” were some of the words I heard it described when I told people I was going to go ice bathing on New Year’s Day. Well, I hate to start the year by breaking others’ bad expectations. Ice bathing was actually more like starting out in a spa and ending up in a roller coaster. And how could that be so bad?

In Hellasgården, in Stockholm where I spent New Year's Day. 
Someone is going out from his swim in the ice.

What is ice bathing? I didn’t even know it was a concept until a couple of years ago, when two friends mentioned that they went for a dip in a hole in the ice. My first thoughts were that they must have been some kind of adrenaline junkies. In the summer months, swimming in 12 degrees C is cold enough. But ice water? They must really be out of their senses. One of them, Susanne, described it in such a funny way however that I was open to giving it a try one day: “You’re just in the hole in the ice a few seconds, like dipping a tea bag”. When she was describing it though, I was more interested in knowing how one actually manages to climb out of the hole in the ice.

Dipping yourself in ice water is not either very new. It’s been argued that winter bathing had been around for a much longer time than the medicinal baths in 1700-Europe’s bath houses, and have a longer tradition than the hot bath popular in countries like Japan. Apparently, however, the ice bath is in a kind of comeback. Or perhaps it’s been an ongoing trend in some circles that I just had no idea about. About five years ago, I read in Runner’s World that athletes use cold-water immersions after intense training to sooth the small inflammations in the muscles, and to help recovery. After that (for lack of a bath tub) I’ve always been showering my stiff legs with cold water after a long run until they’re nice, numb and cold. Now the latest issue of Turist devotes five whole pages to ice bathing. Like the RW article, the article also refers to health and wellness benefits such as stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, among other things. By pure chance, I also saw this other article in the New Scientist with the same claims, just days before I had decided that I’d give that ice bathing a try.

So all is pointing to a long tradition of people who haven’t died while ice bathing, and to some theories that this strange feat might even be good for me. Might as well try it anyhow. 

The procedure that people do differently is whether they first go and heat up in the 60°C-sauna before ice bathing or just go straight ahead and go for a dip, and then seek warmth afterwards. I found out about these two “schools” while warming up in the sauna myself, where about a dozen other sweaty ladies I didn’t know, of different ages from teen to grandma, gathered to experience and discuss the one thing we were all there for. 

“I think it’s better to just go for it because it feels colder if I start with a sauna,” said a woman who was probably in her 50s. Another sweaty girl, also a first-timer like me, wanted to double check if the sauna was indeed 60 degrees hot. The woman in her 50s then dumps a couple of scoops of water into the sauna heater, making the small room instantly stuffier and warmer in the increased humidity. “Aaaaaah!” is heard all around me. 

The sauna quite relaxing actually, although I wished the warmth reached down to my toes. The jovial conversation about ice bathing continues, and we discover that the grandma-aged lady apparently competes in ice bathing. She is there every other day, swimming several times between sauna sessions in order to gradually get her body used to swimming longer and longer periods in the ice cold lake. One of the teens related that she went ice bathing the first time as a child, as her whole family does it too. One of her relatives was there at the lake this morning, just to be able to say that she was the first one for 2015 to ice bathe there.

My feet finally were warm. My turn at the lake.

Outside the sauna, the surrounding January air felt quite nice to the skin. My body heat acts like a shield, protecting me from the cold. On the lake where I’m about to take a dip, people are actually skating. A few meters from them, in holes in the ice, others are emerging from their dip and drying themselves with towels. I had a choice between a big hole and a small hole in the ice. I choose the big hole, just because it might feel claustrophobic with the small one. 

Climbing down into ice cold water after a sauna is just as bad as swimming in a semi-cold lake in summer months: your body kind of suddenly pulls together in shock. In the smaller hole in the lake, I heard a splash and a shriek. However, most people, like me, are probably too stunned by the initial dip to even manage to let out a shriek. An observer might think it even looks controlled and calm.

Since it seems strange to just go in and out of the water, I tried a few quick breaststrokes. Four, maybe five. But my whole body was quickly turning numb so I decided to go out. All of this probably just took just a few seconds. In the immediate moments after going out of the water, it feels like just having stepped out of a roller-coaster. You know: the feeling where you still can’t believe the ride is over, and you’re back on the ground with a big high. Also, I soon noticed my skin was tingling, like being bitten by small bees, but all over the surface of my skin. But third, the logical-thinking part of my brain noticed how pretty disorganized I was becoming from the high. A result, no doubt, of the cold shock. For example, just before entering the water, I reminded myself that I had to take my slippers back to the sauna and that there was a numpad-code to open the sauna door. Going back to the sauna, I realized that I had almost forgotten to put on my slippers. I also tried opening the sauna door without punching in the code, before I remembered anything about a numpad. Interesting yet pretty scary experience, what shock does to your memory.
I felt refreshed but tired a few hours after the ice bath. And at home later that evening, I thought I was feeling extra cold. That was before I discovered that the radiator probably wasn’t working properly in my bedroom, which would explain it.

Already I’ve been hearing different reactions to this experience such as “Welcome to the club!” or “Don’t do that again!”. But all in all, it really isn’t half as bad or even half as scary as I had imagined it to be when I first heard about it.  As one my old Philosophy teachers used to say in a swimming-analogy (he was always quoted for it): Lundagin mo, baby! (“Just jump in, baby!”).


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