The Polar Bear Plunge (and How to Prepare)

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People flock to the beaches in summer. In winter, the shores aren't totally empty though. A rare breed of swimmer, affectionately dubbed "polar bears," happily dives into frigid ocean and lake waters. Are you up to taking the plunge?

Why Polar Bear Swimming?

"It's invigorating!" was Kramer's terse explanation in a now-classic episode of Seinfeld. The character joined the real-life Coney Island Polar Bear Club, and like their fictional counterpart, real polar bear swimmers cite the adrenaline jolt they get from taking the polar plunge into icy waters.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club is most notable for their annual Polar Bear Plunge. Like many polar plunge events around the world, this Plunge takes place on January 1, New Year's Day.

There's also an altruistic element. Most polar bear plunges raise money for charitable organizations. In 2017, the Coney Island polar swim raised $80,000 for area non-profits. One recent polar swim in Lake Ontario raised $420,000 for Canadian charities.

an archival photo of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club at a polar bear plunge
For over 100 years, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club has gathered on New Year's Day for their Polar Bear Plunge. The events deliver a jolt of adrenaline to the 'polar bear' swimmers and raise money for local charities. However, the swims may not be safe for swimmers who have certain health risks or who are unprepared.
This and photo above: @coney_island_polarbear_club/Instagram 

Is it Safe?

Polar bear plunges aren't for everyone, and they certainly aren't advisable for those at high risk for heart disease. Anyone with a family history of blood pressure problems, stroke, hypertension, or other chronic cardiac issue should consult a doctor before taking the polar plunge.

That's because the cold causes blood vessels to constrict. It's your body's defensive strategy to retain heat. But when blood vessels narrow, they make your heart pump harder, and the extra work can put a dangerous level of stress on it.

Unfortunately, seemingly healthy people can be at risk for a cardiac event during a polar swim in icy waters. The best defense, many doctors have claimed, is acclimation; by progressively getting your body used to cold water, you can work to minimize the shock to your system.

Open water swimmer Katie Benoit trains for her marathon swim events in the Endless Pool in her garage
This humble garage installation is where marathon swimmer Katie Benoit trained for her successful English Channel crossing. She kept her Endless Pool set to 59 degrees F to acclimate to the Channel's chilly waters. The Endless Pool provides full temperature control for any swim goal. For temperature control and in-place swimming in open water conditions, Katie said, "The Endless Pool has been fantastic!"

Training for the Polar Swim Events

The Endless Pool has full temperature control. A heater comes standard with every Endless Pool. Before a polar bear plunge, you can turn the pool's heater down or off to let the water temperature drop.

Many open water swimmers train in Endless Pools. They praise the pool's adjustable swim current for its remarkable simulation of real open-water conditions. And of course, the at-home convenience of the Endless Pool saves time and hassle and can be kept open year-round for winter swimming. But full temperature control is a significant reason they turn to Endless Pools.

Open water swimmers appreciate being able to train in water set to the temperature of their next big swim, be it the icy Bering Strait or the balmy Persian Gulf. In the case of polar bear swims, practice may make possible.

Polar Plunge Preparation

If you're acclimated to cold water, and if you have your doctor's clearance to plunge into icy waters, then a few tips can make the best of a frigid situation.

First, while costumes are festive, remember that the fabric will also absorb water. The cold against your skin, combined with the weight of the soaked clothing, could put you in unnecessary danger, both in the water and after.

Consider ear plugs or a swim cap to keep the icy water out of your ears. By protecting your ears, you can avoid the risk of infection. Over time, exposure to cold water can lead to hearing loss; it's a condition known as 'surfer's ear.'

Lastly, don't overdo it. When your body tells you it's time, then get out of the water and get dry and warm! At a polar plunge, a quick plunge is all that's required to participate; leave the swimming to more experienced polar bear swimmers.

A Brief Polar Plunge History

The first polar swim seems to have been on Christmas Day in 1860. The organizers, the Brighton Swimming Club, continue the tradition to this day. (They have a few times canceled the event due to "dangerous" conditions in the Channel.)

Many polar bear plunges, particularly in the U.K., still occur on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, December 26. On the Isle of Wight, polar bear swimmers gather at a naturist beach for a naked polar plunge on the day after Christmas!

On January 1, an estimated 30,000 people in the Netherlands take a New Year's dive ("Nieuwjaarsduik" in Dutch).

In the United States, polar bear swims date back to 1904 in Boston. So if you participate, you'll be part of a century of tradition!

Of course, participation doesn't have to mean stripping down and taking the polar plunge. These events draw almost as many spectators as polar swimmers. If you prefer to keep your swimsuit in mothballs until Memorial Day, you can still bundle up and join the fun.

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