Conquering the Ice: At the Extreme End of Open Water

“I got in and the pain in my hands was like nothing I had ever experienced, it was like they had exploded from the inside out but my skin was keeping the explosion in.” That’s the feeling of getting in to water at zero degrees Celsius according to ice swimmer Caroline Saxon, as she recounts her experience in Murmansk last year. “There were people cross country skiing over the frozen lake we were swimming in!”

This is the sport of ice swimming, the extreme cold water discipline that sees participants immerse themselves in water that is often literally at freezing point with the aim of becoming an Ice Swimmer – a title achieved by swimming a mile in water that is below 5 degrees Celsius. It is, as Saxon’s ice swimming teammate Jonty Warneken puts it, with only a hint of understatement “a little bracing”.

“There is definitely a gradient of cold” explains Saxon. “Anything below 3 degrees, when I get in everything instantly goes numb and your hands and feet claw. Anything above 3 there is an element of pain and I get painful finger tips. Between 5 and 8 I find it really tough because I can feel every single degree in my body but my hands and feet are fine. Racing is definitely easier because of the adrenaline. You have to get in and go, no faffing! The adrenaline kicks in, I just take off my clothes, get in the water, shoulders under and swim. You don’t really have enough time to realise that it is cold.”

It all leads to the obvious question, when there are plenty of heated pools and rivers and  lakes at positively balmy temperatures in the high teens, why? “I think it’s just a natural extension of open water swimming” explains Warkenen.  “You swim open water in the summer in a wetsuit, then you may swim in winter in a wetsuit. At some stage you’ll meet swimmers who swim in skins all year round and they will endeavour to persuade you out of your wetsuits….next thing you know you’re entering an ice swimming championship with the promise of zero degree water!”

“I always answer with ‘why not?’” adds Saxon matter-of-factly. “I was a competitive swimmer in the pool and my coach decided I was the right shape for open water swimming and should give it a go. From that point onward I focused my training on open water longer distances, up to 5km on the National Grand Prix circuit.”

Embed from Getty Images The water temperature often approaches zero degrees Celsius

After calling time on a first swimming career that had led to GB representative honours,  Saxon found her way back to a lake some years later and found about ice miles online. “I wanted to do one so asked the lake if I could swim through the winter. They said yes, but on the condition that I trained to be a coach and ran the sessions. My first season I learned with my friends and cold-water swimming was a journey of discovery for us all. We learned how our bodies coped with it and I taught my swimmers what I learned.

“I then discovered the competitive aspect of ice swimming, and I completed two ice miles, one in 2018 and a second in 2019. I enjoy racing, and getting into freezing water is really good for my mental health and I love coaching the winter swimming club. I love seeing my swimmers getting the same benefits for their mental health and physical wellbeing as I do, as well as achieving what they didn’t think they could do.” But it has to be properly cold she says. “ I have struggled a bit this season with the waters not being cold enough meaning I am not getting the full amount of ‘factory reset’ the cold water usually gives me.”

But cold or not you still need a base of swimming fitness. “It’s best to keep up the race fitness in the pool and a minimum of one swim outdoors a week for acclimatisation” advises Warkenen. “For me it’s being able to keep my breathing consistent when in the ice and thrashing myself in a pool helps. But nothing beats being in an icy lake, training under the supervision of an experienced team of rescuers and people who can help you recover if needed. I tend to train alone and have recently started to use the Honor MagicWatch2 and specifically its heart rate function whilst swimming. I think this will be a step change to my training. I can now train to various heart rate levels which I haven’t been able to do before.”

Warkenen faces an additional challenge by virtue of a motorcycle accident several years ago that led to reconstruction of his right ankle and amputation of his other leg below the knee. “For me its utter torture in my ankle and foot and I faff a lot to try and avoid getting in! Once I can get over that pain then it’s the usual fire and ice feeling all over the body. I prefer racing as the adrenaline helps me deal with the pain in my foot and ankle” he says. “My amputated stump does get cold and I have the added hassle of trying to get a leg off and on afterwards when I am properly cold. Once I am in the water, I am usually OK. I would advise any para swimmer to get involved.

“Everyone is equal in the ice and people just see you as an ice swimmer, an equal because you get in and swim. Sure, it hurts, but the pay offs if you do are huge. I just wish more would come and swim with me. It’s sad to be at an event and out of hundreds of swimmers there may only be two or three disabled ice swimmers, if that. I dream of being in a full 1km heat at the world championships of disabled swimmers and then putting a competitive para relay team in the relay. When we get to that time, I will look at them in awe and with some satisfaction.”

Embed from Getty Images The ice swimming world championships take place in temporary pools cut into frozen rivers or lakes, as here at the 2017 championships in Germany.

Still interested in taking the plunge? Safety is the main thing to remember. “Respect the Ice” says Saxon. “Do it with people who know what they are doing. And I mean really know what they are doing” adds Warkenen. “Don’t swim with people who think they know but take risks, knowingly or not. When things go wrong for a swimmer in the ice they can go wrong very quickly and that is from someone who has probably witnessed over 50 ice mile attempts. Find an experienced team who understand the swimming and recovery, ask around, ask what is their experience, qualifications etc. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t get in with them.”

Most importantly says Saxon, “Leave your wetsuit at home; trust me, it is easier and you will get way more out of it both physically and mentally.

“Listen to your body, have no expectations and find a lake offering cold water swimming sessions with coaches and lifeguards there who have experience of ice swimming. Your first swim is going to be little more than a dunk in the cold and maybe a little bit of head up breaststroke. Do not compare yourself to the people around you, and swim your swim”

Even if you’ve got a swimming background don’t think you can simply translate those performances into freezing water. Saxon, who swims with Birmingham Masters reckons she is more than a second per 25m slower over 100m, while there are no dives or tumble turns. “Usually we think the ice puts an extra 20% on times but getting down to or close to freezing water can add a further drop in times” thinks Warkenen. Saxon agrees. “A 1km at zero is much, much harder than 1km at 4.9 degrees, but 4.9 still counts as an ice swim.”

So, back to that freezing lake in Murmansk then, and the zero-degree water. “I thought ‘I can’t do this, it’s too cold’” recalls Saxon, “but after another two days of acclimatisation, I managed to swim 1km in the same temperature.” Conquering the ice indeed.

Global smartphone brand HONOR has partnered with the International Ice Swimming Association to highlight the adventure sport capabilities of the HONOR MagicWatch 2, which monitors heart rate, SWOLF, distance, calories burned, speed and oxygen level in your bloodstream, via the SpO2 tracker, while you are swimming. They are available at Argos in 46mm and 42mm sizes