Why Mainers are Taking the Icy Plunge (and You Should, Too)

Cold-water swimmers around the state submerge throughout the year for exercise, socializing, and undeniable health benefits.

“I never thought I would have a sledgehammer as part of my swim kit, but now I drive around with one,” says Puranjot Kaur, cold-water swimmer and resident of Mount Desert Island. At least once a week throughout the winter Kaur meets up with a group of like-minded swimmers who aren’t afraid to take the plunge (sans wetsuit) into Maine’s chilly winter waters. The sledgehammer is necessary to break through the thick ice that forms on MDI’s inland lakes and ponds. Last year, she used it to carve out a little swimming hole in Echo Lake that was big enough for her and her cold-water companions. Other times they met at the beach and swam in the ocean. The 30-degree water and the negative windchill did not deter them.

Kaur is an experienced distance swimmer who has made two attempts to swim around Mount Desert Island in the summer months. During the pandemic, when the indoor pool lost its appeal, she began swimming outdoors in the winter too. What started with just three or four friends has exploded into a group of 20 or more women around the island who meet weekly for cold-water dips. “It was kind of a perfect storm with COVID: people were looking for something to shake up their routines,” Kaur says.

People are turning up on Maine’s frigid beaches for exercise and a social boost, but there are health benefits as well. Kaur says she has experienced a lot of improvements with inflammation issues, like headaches, and with overall mental health. Scientific research backs up her experience. A study from researchers in the United Kingdom showed marked improvements in the mood of a 24-year-old woman suffering from major depressive disorder that did not respond to conventional treatment. Scientists think that the anti-inflammatory effect of cold water and the increases in endorphins and even vagal nerve stimulation, which creates a relaxation response in the body, could explain the effect. Cold-water swimming has also been found to reduce the number of respiratory infections and increase swimmers’ white blood cells. Another study from researchers in Poland that followed people who regularly swam outdoors between October and April showed a lower concentration in the blood of triglycerides and homocysteine, an amino acid linked in heart disease.

Mike Tipton, a physiology researcher who studies extreme environments, cautions those who wish to enter the sport that the cold water can be a cure, but it can also be a curse if not done carefully.

“We are a tropical animal,” he says. “People need to realize that they are taking on a major stress to the body.” The risks of cold-water swimming can include cold shock, cardiac arrhythmias, hyperventilation, and eventually hypothermia. Before taking the plunge, he advises people to get a health check. He also says it’s important to stay in shallow water, keep the swim short, and have a partner with you. To get started, one of the best precautions is to adapt to the cold slowly, limiting time in the water to less than ten minutes. According to Beat Knechtle, a Swiss physician, researcher, and ultramarathon athlete, swimmers should gradually adapt through regular exposure to the cold water. He suggests people “swim with the seasons,” starting in late summer and then continuing into the fall.

That is the strategy of John Gale, Portland resident and longtime cold-water swimmer. Gale is a regular at an annual event in Vermont’s Lake Memphremagog, where swimmers compete in various races and sprints in a 25-meter pool carved out of the ice. When not racing, he meets up with a friend or two and heads out for open-ocean swims. “If you are prepared it’s fun, but it can be dangerous,” he says.

Gale and his swim partners get used to the cold by gradually wading up to their knees, then their stomachs, before going all the way in. “Part of the process is the whining and complaining that it is cold. We stand there for a few minutes and talk and curse,” he says. Whether it’s a cold-water plunge, a true swim, or just a quick dip and curse, for these hardy souls cold-water swimming has lots to offer during the winter season.

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