“This isn’t about staying warm; it is about experiencing the cold. “
These wise words come from Dennis Thomas, the president of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. His perspective makes the event, at which daring participants brave winter waters, more enticing. The byproduct of these glacial dips is pure exhilaration, a full-body high that thrusts you into the present. One seasoned swimmer calls the intense experience the “best medicine” he’s ever had.
Polar bear plunges are often held on New Year’s Day around the globe. I took my first dunk in February in New York City, where the passionate CIPBC holds swims every Sunday between November and April. My partner in plunge crime was in search of a spiritual experience and personal challenge. An icy dip in the Atlantic would be both baptism and badass triumph.
Due to their extreme nature, I had assumed that polar bear swims were reserved for the macho, the daring, and the super-adventurous. Yet, I discovered a fun-loving bunch that was all camaraderie, no competition. The communal buzz encouraged me to do something I had never thought possible: to wade into a 35-degree ocean in the dead of winter.
January first is around the corner. Why not start 2016 off on the right paw, er, foot? These ice-cold soaks will shake you out of your winter doldrums.
Here’s the skinny on how to dip.
What to Expect
Plunge participants are a varied bunch in age, athleticism, and body type. Everyone is welcome, save for those with heart problems whose tickers aren’t equipped to handle the chill. Bathing vets are happy to help the first-timers; some swims even offer buddy systems reminiscent of elementary school, as pictured above.
Swimmers warm up with jumping jacks on the shore before walking into the water, where the temperature can be in the low 30s in the winter. If you’re lucky, the water will be warmer than the air, to help soften the shock. Once in, swimmers try to last for at least 10 minutes; in NYC, they form a circle, holding hands in frosty solidarity. The die-hard dippers aim for 20 minutes, singing and playing games to distract from the freezing temps.
What to Wear
Make like its summer and don your usual swimsuit; I recommend a one-piece, ladies, to avoid bitter bellies. Wetsuits are considered “cheating,” but aqua socks, neoprene booties, and old sneakers are allowed, and encouraged, to prevent cuts and provide a bit of insulation. Hats of the practical (knit beanies) and whimsical (Viking helmets) persuasion are also worn. Bring a robe and towels for après-dip.
Note: New Year’s Day dunks are costumed affairs, welcoming Santa Claus, mermaids, superheroes, and more.
Come with your bathing suit already on, so you don’t have to undress twice, and bring a plastic bag for wet clothes. Entice a non-swimming pal to be your photographer and towel holder, a plus on snowy days. When entering the water, a brisk walk is the best pace; running shocks the system while a slow stroll tends to prolong the pain. Don’t drink beforehand; though alcohol helps with inhibition, booze makes your body cool down faster (hello, hypothermia) and you’ll have a harder time warming up. Save it for an après-swim reward.
If you’re lucky enough to swim on a sunny day, take the time to soak up some rays after leaving the water. The warmth of the sun on your goose-bumped body is simply sublime. Afterward, seek out a sauna or hot tub at a local spa or friend’s house. In NYC, the nearby Russian bathhouse, the Mermaid Spa, offers a toasty trifecta of saunas, steam rooms, and hot tubs, plus a full bar for a celebratory drink. Don’t plan to party, though, for the buzz of winter bathing will wear you out. On the plus side, you’ll have one of the soundest sleeps ever.
Polar bear plunges aren’t just for show; they actually do your body good. A cold dunk increases blood flow to your organs, flushes out impurities, and helps exfoliate your skin. Plunges also boost immunity, since the sudden change in temperature is a mild stressor that triggers the immune system to jump into action. These chilly dips create an all-natural high, by increasing levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins; the latter are also released during sex, hence the theory that polar bear swims boost virility.