FEATURES,  View from the Water

You don’t need to swim an Ice Mile to be a real outdoor swimmer

Image: cold water swimmers having fun at Tooting Bec lido

No. Definitely not. Not even tempted. Forget about it.

I’m talking about the Ice Mile, which over the past few years has become the benchmark challenge for people who swim outside in winter.

In case you haven’t heard about it, an Ice Mile is a challenge set and regulated by the International Ice Swimming Association and is defined as swimming a mile in water at 5 degrees Centigrade or less, without the use of a wetsuit or other thermal insulation. Its appeal partly lies in the fact that it sounds quite achievable. After all, many people can swim a mile in something between 20 and 45 minutes. That’s nothing compared to an Ironman or swimming the English Channel, both of which can take upwards of 10 hours. And 5 degrees doesn’t sound so bad. Surely it’s just a case of mind over matter?

The reality is that 5-degree water is brutal. Your body cools down fast and as your muscles get colder, they become less efficient so you slow down. A mile in cold water will take significantly longer than in a warm pool, and that’s if you actually make it. Many experienced swimmers have been pulled out short, defeated by hypothermia, even when they had the will to carry on.

Personally, I’m in awe of anyone who completes an Ice Mile. There’s a real risk of failure (and a not totally negligible risk of death) and therefore a huge sense of accomplishment for the successful. But it’s not just the feat itself that’s impressive. It’s all the training and preparation that’s necessary to ready your mind and body for the task – the repeated immersions in cold water and the long bouts of shivering while you warm up again. If you’ve done an Ice Mile, it means something in the world of swimming.

But I’m still not tempted.

I’m not just concerned about my own safety and comfort here (although those are my primary motivations for avoiding an Ice Mile), I’m also worried about the perception of outdoor swimming in the wider world.

Big swimming challenges like the Ice Mile have their place. Their extreme nature captures the imagination, attracts media attention and draws in a certain kind of swimmer. But there’s also a risk that they skew the picture of what swimming outdoors is all about. Yes, physical challenge is important to a lot of people, but outdoor swimming offers so much more than that, as many Ice Milers appreciate.

As swimmers who love the open water, it’s in our interest that more people do it. Higher numbers of participants will drive the creation of new and exciting events and prompt more places to open their gates to swimmers. Unlike swimming pools, we have practically unlimited space outside so overcrowding is unlikely to become a problem.

We therefore don’t want to create the impression that to be a ‘real’ outdoor swimmer, you have to subject yourself to extremes of cold and distance. Without taking anything away from those who achieve extreme swimming challenges, let’s also celebrate everything else outdoor swimming has to offer such as fun, fitness, friendship and, of course, cake.

People have been swimming in cold water for years with the emphasis squarely on short dips and fun. It’s only in recent years that the more extreme challenges have become popular. Let’s welcome their arrival, but please don’t forget that you can enjoy outdoor winter swimming without testing your limits.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.