In 2000, Helsinki hosted the first Winter Swimming World Championships, a bi-annual event that attracts around 1,000 athletes across the globe. Picture: International Winter Swimming Association, iwsa.world

I

must be insane. I am sitting in an 80-degree sauna with felt-hatted strangers, attempting to muster the courage to step outside. I peer through the foggy window, sweat dripping into my eyes, and I wince at the sight of the snow-covered ground. Unable to bear the heat any longer, I tentatively open the wooden door. Steam rises from my skin, and I follow the well-worn path to a jetty. And there, despite my vocally colorful desire to the contrary, I lower myself into the icy water below.

This took place some years ago now: I had always been curious about Finland’s fascination with winter swimming and decided to take the plunge one Christmas holiday. Given that I find Australia’s balmy ocean waters uninviting on occasion, I am still not entirely sure how I convinced myself to climb down the ladder on that fateful day. But here is what I learned: it is strangely addictive, and I have started to enjoy swimming in single-digit temperatures.

Picture: International Winter Swimming Association, iwsa.world

Finns have long embraced winter swimming. While it is believed that the practice first began in the 17th century, the first clubs were not established until the 1920s. Now, Finland is home to more than 200 associations and facilities, including Turun Avantouimarit in the south-west. Kaija Sipilä, one of the trustees, said that the club was founded in 1957 at the behest of Turku locals who were keen to continue swimming in winter.

It is strangely addictive, and I have started to enjoy swimming in single-digit temperatures.

According to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, there are around 150,000 Finns devoted to the hypothermia-inducing hobby. At last count, Turun Avantouimarit had almost 700 enthusiasts, including two who have been members for more than 56 years. Sipilä said that there are some members who prefer to swim only when the sauna is open, but there are also some fearless fanatics who enjoy swimming every day, even when there is no option to retreat to a steaming sanctuary.

Picture: Courtesy of Turun Avantouimarit

There are, of course, plentiful benefits to winter swimming. According to Sipilä, regular dips help to relieve joint pain, improve immunity, and boost tolerance for the chilly winter weather. Devotees also believe that winter swimming has the capacity to improve mental well-being, providing a much-needed endorphin rush that serves to release stress. Sipilä added that there is a social side to the hobby; certainly, I have found that Finns are especially talkative in a sauna.

But caution must be exercised: winter swimming is best avoided by anyone with a heart condition or high blood pressure. Novices new to the practice should also be mindful to avoid gasping upon entry, a point that seems entirely unfeasible when plunging into glacial temperatures. But this instinctive response has the potential to cause hyperventilation and, in the worst case, drowning. Perhaps not surprisingly, hypothermia also poses a minor risk.

Picture: International Winter Swimming Association, iwsa.world

While winter swimming is, in the main, a fleeting dip in frosty waters, some ardent aficionados have begun to challenge themselves further. In 2000, Helsinki hosted the first Winter Swimming World Championships, a now bi-annual event that attracts around 1,000 athletes across the globe. Races range from 25 meters to one kilometer, but there are strict temperature regulations. Between minus two and plus two degrees, for example, is categorized as ice water, meaning that the maximum length permitted is 200 meters.

While I find the prospect of swimming any distance in minus two degrees, let alone 200 meters, alarming, I am looking forward to taking the occasional dip again this coming winter. It is relaxing and invigorating in equal measure, and as Sipilä said: “When you start swimming in cold water, you can’t be away; your body insists on continuing the hobby.”