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The thrill of the chill: Coach Saima Kivimäki on why we should all be winter swimming

With many pools still closed and swimming activities on hold because of the C19 pandemic, more and more people are discovering the joy of wild swimming – right through the winter. The National Open Water Coaching Association reported an increase of 323 percent in the number of people swimming outdoors in the fall, and here in Sweden, winter swimmers have reported queues at times at popular winter swimming spots. We wanted to know more about the allure of icy water, so I asked our own winter swim enthusiast, SISC coach Saima Kivimäki, to tell us more. 

Photo by Guillaume Chauvat

When I zoom Saima post-swim on a frigid January day, the first question on my mind is why. Why would anyone want to swim in freezing cold water?

“That’s what I keep asking myself before I get in,” she laughs.

Saima has always enjoyed cold water swimming, which is popular in her native Finland. One of her earliest memories is gliding in an icy lake with her grandmother.

Today, Saima swims twice a week in Tullinge, about 4 km from her home. Her pre-swim routine includes biking to the lake with a friend (a safety precaution) wearing tons of warm clothes since there’s no sauna for warming up before or afterwards.

Photo by Guillaume Chauvat

Saima’s no-fuss approach shows just how little gear you need for winter swimming – she wears only regular socks, gloves and a winter hat plus her bathing suit. After surviving what she considers to be the worst moment – standing in a bathing suit in the freezing air, she enters the water slowly, without hesitating. 

“Don’t test the water beforehand,” she says, “or you won’t want to get in.”

Now that the winter has set in, Saima swims only for a few minutes. On the day we speak, the water was only 3 or 4°C.

“I just hung on the ladder and stayed in as long as I felt comfortable. Today, it was for just about a minute.”

The coldest water Saima has experienced is 2°C in -15°C weather.

“At that point, the water actually feels warm because the outside air is so cold,” she tells us.  

Winter swimming has been called “a hangover in reverse” – painful at the start but wonderful afterwards. Saima agrees.

“In the beginning, it’s really cold and you feel like getting out,” she explains. “Your breathing is really fast. But you just need to calm down and breathe normally. Once you’ve been in the water for five seconds, it feels okay and you don’t feel the cold as much.”

After a dip, Saima dries off quickly and puts on at least two or three layers of clothes including thermal underwear.

“It’s important to get dressed quickly and warm up slowly to prevent after-drop,” she says, referring to the sudden decrease in core body temperature that can result from swimming in cold water. 

Photo by Guillaume Chauvat

Then some hot chocolate to drink and it’s back on the bike to enjoy the afterglow for the rest of the day. 

I’m a bit surprised that there’s no cake involved, since some of the other winter swimmers I follow swear by cake. Saima doesn’t need cake, though. The feeling of accomplishment is reward enough.  

So what advice does Saima have for anyone wanting to give winter swimming a try? 

“Start with a sauna. Don’t just get into cold water – that’s a bit harsh. Warm up first and don’t aim to actually swim. Stay in a few seconds, then warm up in the sauna.”

She also advises warming up gradually afterwards and having something warm to drink like hot chocolate. 

If you can plan well in advance before the winter, she says it’s also a good idea to acclimatize yourself by starting in the fall before the water gets really cold. But she adds it’s not too late to start now. 

See you in the water!

1 thought on “The thrill of the chill: Coach Saima Kivimäki on why we should all be winter swimming”

  1. Pingback: I tried winter swimming – and I liked it! – Stockholm International Swimming Club

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