Every February, in Skellefteå, Swedish Lapland, several brave swimmers gather together for a competition, facing off against tough opponents, a 25m swim lane – and freezing temperatures of between -2°C to 9°C.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where ‘winning’ at the Scandinavian Winter Swimming Championship means putting one’s body through the grind.
On average, it takes a professional swimmer about 20 seconds to swim the 25-metre lane that’s surrounded by ice and snow in Skellefteå. The competition involves breaststroke and freestyle competitions, along with a more relaxed ‘hat and cap race’, where people wear eye-catching headwear as they swim. According to Swedish Lapland’s official website, a naked body loses 50 per cent of its heat through the head – it’s why the swimmers have warm headgear on, in the traditional hat and cap race.
But why do the Scandinavians go through such a seemingly painful experience every year?
It might have to do with the period called ‘Melancholiad’. Winters in the north are brutal; they’re cold and dark, and temperatures fall to -30°C, with just a few hours of sunlight each day, and that’s only if they’re lucky. Melancholiad is the time that begins when the first tea light is lit, and ends when the last one has burned down. Finding joy in this dark period, through sports, connections and personal challenges, makes winter swimming an appealing prospect for competitors.
Science has also shown that cold-water swimming has remarkable psychological and physiological benefits. The temperature for cold-water swimming is usually understood to be below 15°C, but those who engage in ice-water swimming go even further, with temperatures below 5°C.
According to a December 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, swimming in cold water benefits the immune system – it increases leucocytes, monocytes and the body’s resistance to respiratory tract infections. It’s also known to benefit the endocrine system, and increase insulin sensitivity. By lowering blood pressure, studies have also found that it has an antidepressant effect.
Scientists are still trying to uncover why cold-water swimming affects moods so positively. Perhaps it’s because it gives people a greater sense of achievement, when they realise they are able to overcome both the swim distance and the cold. Or it might be because of the rewards they receive right after the swim – a warm towel or blanket, a hot cup of tea and the gratitude that comes with being out of the cold. Just as exhilarating as the swim is, the resulting sensation of calm and warmth are equally satisfying.