With a one-mile ice swim event being considered for inclusion at future Winter Olympics researchers at Winona State University in Minnesota and the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA) have investigated the performance and human physiological response in water -5° Celsius or less.
The scientists analysed more than 80 ice swimmers ((71 male, 17 female) who completed ice mile swims, in an attempt to understand how age, gender and environmental factors such as wind chill affected performance.
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.
“It’s amazing to see how a ‘silly’ idea eight years ago has taken off,” said Ram Barkai, IISA founder and board chairman.
“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 5° C or less) and how we can train our minds to accomplish these goals,” said Spencer Treu, a member of the research team.
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 said. “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.”