The joy of the ice-cold dip ” Are you insane or just slightly masochistic?”

Why on Earth do Danes want to jump into the sea in the middle of the winter when it’s freezing cold outside?

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By Suzanne B. D. Lassen, freelance journalist

A question not only foreigners but also fellow Danes ask, when they see me walking quite happily along the road on my way to my local winter bathing club. Here, my companions and I submerge ourselves in the cold ocean with a big happy smile.

We can’t wait for the water to cool down so we can feel it properly, the last days of cold have finally made it the right temperature (Editors note: below 10 degrees Celsius). It is much too warm when it is over 10 degrees C!

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“Are you insane or just slightly masochistic?”
Even when I say no, I can see that my friends do not quite believe me. They nod their heads politely while saying, “I’m happy it isn’t me,” and thinking they would never ever dream of getting undressed and naked, especially on a windy, cold and dark winter day, in order to take a swim.

Every single fibre in their bodies, their minds, and their instinct tells them to dress warmly and stay inside.

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So why do we do it?
There is an explanation for the madness.

One reason is that it is fun, crazy, cosy, and slightly intoxicating and you overcome yourself (which you have to) every time you come to that moment, when you are standing with only your towel around you, about to climb down the stairs in order to submerge yourself into the dark, freezing, ice-cold water. Do I really want to do this?

Afterwards, as you climb up the stairs quickly, reaching for the towel left in the basket; wrapping it around your body your focus is on one thing only, and that is to get into the sauna as quickly as possible. The heat welcomes you and you take a step or two up onto the wooden benches, settling into the cosy atmosphere of the friendly banter among the other early bird Vikings.

If you happen to come at a different time of the day, you may meet an entirely different set of faces or maybe nobody at all.

If you prefer, you can sit quietly, listening to the howling wind, looking out of the windows while you enjoy the sensation of the heat warming your body. Dreaming of summer, as you watch the sun rise up over the horizon.

There’s always time for a good chat and friendly banter before you start feeling the need to get out; droplets of sweat trickle down your body and you have the urgent desire for a refreshing second trip into cold water.

After the first dip, your burning hot body makes the second round easy compared to the initial ice-dip therapy.

Depending on how much time you have for this leisurely pleasure of contemplation and relaxation, you will take one or several trips to the sauna before the routines and duties of the day compel you to leave. Now you are ready for your day to start.

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The reward
The most important reward is the kick you get. The minute your body hits the water you feel the adrenalin rush through it. Your body’s defence system sets in.

The blood vessels contract and you start inhaling more quickly. Endomorphines are released at the shock to the body, as it cools down in just a few seconds. The ice-cold dip gives a rush, a fix, and the feeling of total well-being that lasts for several hours.

You get addicted. You feel invigorated and happy. So even if you think it is crazy, it is worth it.

According to the Danish organisation for winter bathers, there is increasing interest for this very special kind of leisure pursuit. More than 25.000 “Vikings” are members of approximately 90 nationwide clubs, and just as many are estimated to bathe on their own directly from the beach or from the bathing jetty. If you want to find a club, check out the list of nationwide winter bathing clubs here

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Is it even healthy? And what is the effect on your body? 
Doctor Bo Belhage, DMSc (Doctor of Medical Sciences), Anaesthesiology Consultant, Clinical Associate Professor at Bispebjerg Hospital, gives this scientific reason for the kick experience: When you plunge into ice-cold water, your body experiences a shock. The blood vessels contract and the brain releases a drug similar to morphine as well as adrenalin in order for the body to cope with the pain.

You can experience the same effect when exercising hard, by running fast for 20 minutes for example. The chemicals released give us the feeling of well-being, which lasts for several hours after the swim.

During the second phase, you start to cool down rapidly. When you winter bathe the body’s circular system is affected. The first thing you experience is the shock effect and you will start to hyperventilate, i.e. breathe more quickly than normal, your pulse and blood pressure increase slightly.

There is, however, a clear difference between how experienced winter bathers’ bodies react compared to inexperienced ones. During an experiment conducted by Bo Belhage there was no apparent change in the experienced winter bathers’ bodies. Neither pulse nor blood pressure rose, while the inexperienced bathers immediately started to hyperventilate, and the amount of blood passing through their brains was reduced by 25-50 percent.

Two inexperienced winter bathers even fainted when they entered the water. A good reason, if needed, never to winter bathe on your own.

Should you however feel like trying it out – take note of the guidelines for winter bathing made by the Danish “Rådet for større badesikkerhed”, the bathing safety council on how to minimise the risk of accidents when you are bathing during the winter.

Before you enter the water
1. Never bathe alone
2. Check the bathing conditions and acquaint yourself with the safety equipment
3. Beware of ice on the stairs and the jetty
4. Submerge your body slowly into the water

When you are in the water
5. Breathe calmly
6. Keep an eye on each other
7. Stay in close proximity of the stairs or passage out of the water
8. Never swim under the ice

For dedicated winter bathers the actual water temperature is still to warm – they prefer when it is below zero with pieces of ice in it! As in the picture below.

The author of this article during a winter bath when there was ice on Øresund.