Polar Bear Dip: Open Water For The Winter

Swimmers are a different breed when it comes to New Year’s Day. Sure they go out and enjoy themselves the night before, doing all the things they claim they’ll never do again, but for some, New Year’s Day brings with it a special challenge: the Polar Bear Dip.

Polar Bear Dips (also known as Polar Bear Plunges or Swims) are events where people gather to enter a body of open water, despite frigid temperatures. Polar Bear Swimmers exist all over the world – some perhaps even in your own swim club – and hundreds of events will be held on January 1st. The event is not relegated to extreme open water swimmers. Most are pool swimmers who venture out into the open water only in the summer and on New Year’s Day, and may not go any further than a couple hundred meters. Some may not even be swimmers at all and just go in to shake off their hangover. And of course, there are those who never stopped swimming in the open water after the summer and may be up for a much more challenging distance while the others cheer them on from their warm parkas on shore. Ask any local open water swimmer where to go if you are interested in this unique challenge.

Before you go, there are a few important things to keep in mind for your Polar Bear Dip:

  1. Never go alone. If you don’t live near an organized event, do NOT attempt this by yourself. Gather at least one or two other swimmers to go with you, and have at least one person on shore to help you when you exit the water. Hypothermia is a real concern, so certain steps must be taken to be safe. If you and your swimming partner(s) are not the same speed, a <a href=” http://www.finisinc.com/equipment/technical-products/resistance-training/swim-parachute-8-inch.html”>swimming parachute</a> is a great way to level the playing field.
  2. Get in slowly. If possible, slowly ease into the water. Start with your feet first, then wade in up to your knees, then hips, splashing water on your chest and face. This will help lessen the initial shock. When you start swimming, you may want to keep your head up for a few strokes. It WILL be uncomfortable until your heart rate and core temperature increase.
  3. Know the signs of hypothermia. Stop swimming BEFORE you become hypothermic. If your core feels cold, that is a big sign. Other signs include difficulty talking, thinking, and making small motor movements, such as touching your thumb to each of your fingers. If you or your swimming partner cannot do this simple test, it’s time to get out. Set a course that is along the shore (as opposed to straight out) so you can exit immediately if necessary.
  4. Get warm quickly. Once you are out of the water, warm up right away. Don’t hang out and chat with your damp suit on. Get your suit off and get into warm clothes. An empty milk gallon is a great way to get a warm ‘shower’ before you change. Bring warm slippers, mittens, a hat, and several layers.
  5. Be aware of the after drop. While you were swimming, your body decreased blood circulation from your extremities to your core, as a survival mechanism to protect your vital organs. Now that you are out, this cold blood will begin to circulate to those areas, creating what is known as the after drop. Even though you think you may be out of the woods after you change, you are still at risk of hypothermia. Make sure you are in warm clothes before the after drop occurs, preferably with a warm drink to also warm up your insides!
  6. Have a DD. Yes, you may need a designated driver for this. If you do become hypothermic, operating a three thousand pound death machine is not in your best interest, or the best interest of those around you. Plus, having that person out of the water while you swim is another sound safety measure, and they can help you dress and re-warm (when you get out, you will likely have what is known as “The Claw,” or the inability to move your fingers from a frightening position).

If you are a seasoned open water swimmer and swim year-round, you may be looking to do a bit more than just a dip. I like to swim loops on New Year’s Day, so I can swim longer, yet still interact with all the other crazies going for the dip. If there is a buoy or rock or some other landmark, swim there and back for one loop, exit the water, and jog the same distance. Repeat as necessary to get your desired distance.

Remember, safety and fun are the name of the game for Polar Bear Dips. Happy Holidays!

Jen Schumacher

Marathon Swimmer, www.jenschumacher.org

Sport Psychology Consultant, www.jenschumacher.com