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Move Over, Polar Bear Plunge: Ice Swimming Is Next Big Extreme Winter Water Sport

Physiologists study how athletes respond to icy water conditions as the sport is considered for a new Winter Olympics event

San Diego (April 5, 2016)—Hundreds of athletes around the globe are diving into frigid waters to compete in one-mile ice swims. Performance and human physiological response in water this cold—it must be 5o Celsius or less to qualify as an “ice mile” swim, according to the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA)—has not been well-studied to date. Researchers at Winona State University in Minnesota and the IISA analyzed more than 80 ice swimmers in an attempt to understand how age, gender and environmental factors such as wind chill affected performance. They will present their findings today in a poster session at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting in San Diego.



“It’s amazing to see how a ‘silly’ idea eight years ago has taken off,” said Ram Barkai, IISA founder and board chairman. Ice swimming was a demonstration sport at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and is being considered as a permanent addition to the event line-up in future Winter Olympic games. The IISA records performance times and swimming conditions of athletes who compete in ice swims. Barkai—himself a Guinness World Record holder for the furthest, most Southern swim (1 km in 1° C in Antarctica in 2008)—said that the IISA data “is getting ‘old’ daily as new records of endurance are archived.” For this study, the research team investigated data from 88 people (71 male, 17 female) who completed ice mile swims.

“Our study of the IISA data set wonderfully describes how much we as humans can ask our bodies to do while in an adverse environment (water that is 5o C or less) and how we can train our minds to accomplish these goals,” said Spencer Treu, a member of the research team and first author on the research being presented at Experimental Biology. The team found a slight correlation between age and swim speed: The older the swimmers were, the slower they swam. However, the correlation was modest and suggests that ice swimming could be a sport in which individuals could be competitive in well into their 30s and 40s.

The research team also noted improvement in swim times among those who participated in more than one ice mile. Out of 24 one-mile swimmers who swam two or more swims, 15 were faster on their second swim. Among the eight swimmers who did three or more swims, six improved their speed from their first to third swim. “We also discovered that for one-mile ice swimmers, wind chill did not greatly affect swim speed. Finally, we discovered that statistically, gender does not influence the effect of age on swim speed,” Treu said.

Swimming in such cold water is not without risk, but it is possible to compete safely with the proper training and safety measures in place. “This is a potentially dangerous sport, although in the world of RedBull racers, ironman competitions and the like, perhaps the word ‘extreme’ is a more appropriate term,” Treu noted. “The reason many swimmers can successfully complete these swims is most likely due to the intense training and preparation they put themselves through to prepare their bodies and minds.”

Treu, an undergraduate student at Winona State University, will present “Human Physiological Performance during a One-Mile Swim in Cold Water” as part of the poster session “Exercise Training Responses” on Tuesday, April 5, from 12:45 to 3 p.m. PDT in Exhibit Halls A-D of the San Diego Convention Center.

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: To schedule an interview with a member of the research team, please contact Stacy Brooks or (301) 634-7209.

Full Abstract

Human physiological responses to cold water swimming (≤5o C) are poorly characterized. A database

( describes 1 mile ice swimming performance times and swim conditions. This study analyzed data from 71 male and 17 female persons who completed 1 mile ice swims. Swim completion time was 33.9 ± 6.0 minutes for males and significantly slower for females at 36.2 ± 7.8 minutes. Increased age for females may be associated with a more robust increase in swim times relative to males whose swim times were less detrimentally affected by increasing age. A subset of swimmers completed multiple 1 mile swims (n=24), and the second swim time was significantly faster than the first, although improvements were not observed for additional swims. Cold exposure from increasing wind chill has been suggested to have a detrimental effect on cold water swim time, and was associated with an increased swim time that approached significance (P = 0.06). Water temperatures below 5o C had no statistically significant effect on swim completion time. In summary, ice swimming is increasing in popularity with consideration for future Winter Olympic activities. Characterization of ice water exposure physiology remains an important consideration for emergency, military, and medical personnel. This data set provides a useful benchmark for understanding and predicting physiological performance during exposure to cold environmental conditions.

About Experimental Biology 2016

Experimental Biology is an annual meeting comprised of more than 14,000 scientists and exhibitors from six sponsoring societies and multiple guest societies. With a mission to share the newest scientific concepts and research findings shaping clinical advances, the meeting offers an unparalleled opportunity for exchange among scientists from across the United States and the world who represent dozens of scientific areas, from laboratory to translational to clinical research. 

Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents more than 10,500 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.



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