Q&A On Extreme Winter Swimming In The Czech Republic

Q&A On Extreme Winter Swimming In The Czech Republic

Jack Bright tells the story of extreme winter swimming. It’s brutally cold, but exhilarating.

Jack shows 1.PKO, a swim club in the Czech Republic that specializes in winter swimming in freezing water temperatures. “It is an organized sport with frequent races through the winter season. In the Czech Republic some of the world’s most extreme winter swimming is held due to an excellent organization with rules that have developed over 50 years.”

The Daily News: Is there any medical evidence that extreme cold-water swimming is beneficial to your health?
Jack Bright: In short, yes there is. But it is really complicated to explain. Doctors Vybiral, Lesna, Jansky and Zeman are from the Czech Republic and have carried out many studies. They have found that humans, including winter swimmers, can adapt to cold water. A step-by-step training method of cold showers combined with swimming in gradually colder water brings about a tolerance. The main health benefit of winter swimming seems to be a boost to the immune system against illnesses. It also gets the heart working pretty hard, so circulation is improved. There is a physiological adaptation that takes place in winter swimmers but it is very important to start gradually with this activity and to respect your own body, respect nature and also less is better than too much.

The Daily News: How long should you swim to gain these benefits?
Jack Bright: That is a difficult question, but it is basically ‘no pain, no gain’. You will lose all the benefits if you stop practicing it. It takes much longer to acclimatise and build the tolerance than it does to lose it. But it is possible to benefit from one season of winter swimming for the next spring and summer.

The Daily News: Is it easier to tolerate the cold water the older you get? Does age matter?
Jack Bright: I think the optimal age is between 18-55 years. Young and old people should take care, especially old people who are more susceptible to heart attacks. It is true that fat will help with regards to insulation. As with long distance swimming, someone who appears a little overweight could be an excellent swimmer. Some successful English Channel swimmers from the Czech Republic have used winter swimming as part of their training. This country has a fairly good pedigree in long distance swimming considering its size and the fact that it is land-locked

The Daily News: What are the risks of extreme cold-water swimming, besides hypothermia?
Jack Bright: Hypothermia shouldn’t be a risk as it should only occur after a minimum of 30 minutes exposure. 30 minutes used to be the time limit for our races some years ago, but now it is 22 minutes. You must not swim in cold water if you have any problems with your heart because the shock of cold water and the stress that it puts on your body, particularly your heart. It can cause problems like a heart attack or stroke. Here in the Czech Republic, there is a required medical check-up once per year by a sports doctor that includes a load test to measure heart performance.

The Daily News: How is safety handled in the Czech Republic?
Jack Bright: We have complex rules that have developed over time. The time limit, which used to be 30 minutes, is now 22 minutes. At all events, we have a doctor and an ambulance with staff and all emergency equipment including a defibrulator. Support boats and divers look after safety in the water. Everything is highly organised. The rules preclude a beginner to enter the longer races. Everyone must start with 250-meter swim first. When you have swum that distance in still water with a temperature no more than 4ºC (39.2ºF), then you have achieved Level 3 or the 3rd degree of winter swimming. Then, you can progress to Level 2 and finally the masters level or masters degree in winter swimming. It means you have swum 750 meters in still water of 4ºC or less within the 22-minute time limit. It is also very important to be able to exit the water safely as the cold water can affect your balance and coordination. On exiting the water, your movements may be awkward and uncoordinated for a while.

The Daily News: What is the optimal time a healthy 30-year-old or a 50-year-old should stay in the extreme cold-water?
Jack Bright: Between 10 and 15 minutes is seen as the optimal time to spend in water of 4ºC or less. When you spend 18 minutes or more in such water, you feel it considerably afterwards with regards to frozen hands and an uncertain balance for a short period.

The Daily New: What is the best way to swim in the extreme cold-water: head-up freestyle, breaststroke or regular freestyle?
Jack Bright: Just like regular swimming, the fastest swimmers are those who use regular freestyle. However, at the start, no matter how used to it you are, the cold water is still a shock to your system and you hyperventilate. Therefore, head-up freestyle is quite effective for the first 10 or 20 meters – or just using a lot of sighting. Also, the back of your head will feel like an ice cube for about the first 30 seconds up to 2 minutes. As a result, it is difficult for some people to put their face in the water. You can use two silicon caps or buy a divers neoprene cap to help with this. Experience, of course, helps with all this.

The Daily New: How best to re-warm yourself after an extreme cold-water swim?
Jack Bright: Generally, the best way is to get inside to the changing rooms as soon as possible. If this is not possible, get dry and dressed as soon as possible. Once you are fully clothed, keep moving and drink hot sweet liquids to re-warm your body from within. Some people like to go for a jog, but some do not due to the numbness in the feet causing problems. A few like to stand in front of a radiator or fire, but really the best way is to get dry and dressed and take hot sweet fluids. The extremities – your hands and feet – are the problem. Keep moving your fingers as soon as you exit the water, no matter how hard it is. Then eat something and relax. It is also important that you do not overdo it. It is widely believed within the winter swimming community that swimming in sub-4ºC for 10 – 15 minutes should be done optimally twice per week or possibly 3 times, but more than 3 times per week is too much.

Jack‘s film on 1.PKO was shot during one of the harshest central European winters in years and features beautiful cinematography from award-winning Jan Mika. “Hopefully after watching this film, people will be inclined to embrace nature, be more active and try winter swimming for themselves.”

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Steven Munatones