A man in swim trunks stands before a hole in icy water.

Liam – December 17, 2018

I recently signed up to run the 2019 Chicago Marathon. It’ll be my first. My wife Kim, who is my most fervent supporter, said to me, “Are you out of your mind? You’re going to die, you know. That’s the whole point of marathons—run until you die.”

“It’s not the whole point,” I told her. “It’s just that’s what happened to the first guy who ran it.”

“So, are you, like, an extreme athlete now? What’s next? Triathlons? Winter swimming?”

“Let’s see how I handle dying with my first marathon before committing to any triathlons, but this winter swimming thing…”

Kim rolled her eyes. “I’m going to make some hot chocolate and watch a bad Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.”

“Winter swimming is in my DNA!” I called out as she disappeared into the warmer half of our apartment.

Okay, maybe submerging myself into large, frigid bodies of water isn’t exactly a genetic thing, but it is quite Danish. There are 80 official winter swimming clubs throughout Denmark today with nearly 20,000 registered members called icebreakers or isbryderne. Membership is in high demand—many clubs have waiting lists—but membership dues are quite affordable, costing around 500 kroner (just shy of $60 USD) a year. There’s even an entire festival dedicated to this pastime: The Skagen Winter Swimming Festival taking place January 24–27, 2019.

While the thought of spending a day on the beach in the dead of winter’s most icy grip might run contrary to our American brains reared on Beach Boys songs, the Skagen Vinterbader Festival appears to be as much fun as any one of the Frankie and Annette beach movies. There are a few differences, mainly that the Vinterbader Fest is attended in large part by older swimmers, and it reveals a lot more skin. Yep, when it comes to winter swimming, the Danes go in the buff.

While Kim might chalk this up to some wonky Nordic thing, there are some real benefits to skinny dipping in ice water. To start, it’s good for you. Some studies show that submerging yourself in cold water, even taking cold showers, can raise levels of mood-regulating and pain-killing chemicals in the blood, helping to combat depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. The chill adds a thrill by increasing energy levels and sharpening the mind.

A man wearing a big parka with a fur hood looks down.

It may seem counter-intuitive that swimming in frigid water could help beat the winter blues, but research shows that it can improve mood. Is that why Danes are so happy?

In a CPH Post story from 2015 about winter swimming, icebreaker Berrit Sidse Kvorning said, “I don’t know if winter swimming makes you healthy or if it’s just that healthy people are the ones who winter swim. I guess that’s a chicken and egg thing. But I do know that it makes you a little proud of yourself.”

So, at the very least, dipping into the deep freeze is a confidence booster.

Icebreakers aren’t playing Marco Polo or having chicken fights. The plunge is quick. Yet, there are those who will get in and swim a few hundred yards. These human polar bears have taken the time to work their way up to spending that much time in water, which can be as cold as 34℉. However, with the health benefits of winter swimming come risks such as hypothermia or cardiovascular issues due to the spike in blood pressure with each dip. Healthy people need not worry about this, but if there’s an underlying condition that isn’t known, things could get problematic.

Many icebreakers take their dips as part of a larger mind and body wellness treatment at spas by getting nice and toasty in a sauna first. Rituals within these saunas have become quite popular. Kurhotel Skodsborg, Denmark’s largest spa located just outside of Copenhagen, is renowned for its saunagus rituals. There, essential oils are poured onto the hot rocks, which increases the heat and provides the benefits of aromatherapy. A mist maker will whip a towel around to further intensify the heat. After 10 or 20 minutes, with everyone pretty darn hot, it’s out to the sea.

Many icebreakers’ dips in cold water are accompanied by a toasty visit to the sauna first (but most Danes do it in the buff).

Considering the health benefits and camaraderie that come with winter swimming, it’s a little surprising Chicago isn’t the winter swimming capital of the world. Because, as anyone with half a brain or a weather app knows, Chicago winters are brutal. Average Lake Michigan temps in winter hover around 38℉, and it’s only a 30 minute drive from The Danish Home to North Avenue Beach. Maybe a winter excursion is in the future for some of the residents? For the rest of us, there are spas with saunas and an ice pool like Red Square in Wicker Park and even swimming clubs that brave the chill.

Winter swimming is something I’ll have to try. But right now, I’m going to enjoy some hygge with Kim watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.