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Not for the faint-hearted: ice swimming in Copenhagen

Denmark’s 8,700km-long coastline offers numerous opportunities for winter swimming, with Copenhagen’s frosty beaches and harbour baths ideal for a polar plunge  

Jumping into icy water can leave you feeling warm and happy.
Jumping into icy water can leave you feeling warm and happy. (Photo courtesy: Visit Denmark/Emily Wilson)

As the year draws to a close, Danes follow a tradition like clockwork: they stand on chairs just before midnight and jump off when the clock strikes 12, to avoid stepping into the space between the old and the new year. And Søndervig, a small town on the Danish west coast, has made another tradition mainstream: bringing in the new year with a jump into icy waters, followed by oysters, champagne and thick slices of kransekage, the Danish New Year cake.  

Ice swimming, a common practice in Nordic countries and Eastern Europe, has now become popular in the US and Canada as well, with polar bear plunges often held to ring in the new year. But in Denmark, winter swimming is a national pastime. The Danes have been throwing themselves into cold water on wintry days since the end of the 19th century, when the first winter bathing establishment was established in Copenhagen. 

Also read: Enjoy a Christmas with blue skies and balmy breezes in Cape Town

The Nordic nation’s 8,700km-long coastline offers opportunities galore for ice swimming and polar plunges. As the days darken and the wind gets colder, it’s common to see locals head to frosty beaches and secluded harbour baths to get rid of winter blues by jumping into chilly waters. Winter runs from December to March, with temperatures hovering around freezing. February is usually the coldest month—and the warmest is August, when temperatures touch 15 degrees Celsius.

No wonder, then, that Copenhagen-based photographer and teacher Daniel Hjorth says ice swimming is common in Denmark. “The sea is never more than few hours away and with summer lasting just a few months, we need to get used to the cold to enjoy the outdoors and water round the year,” says Hjorth, who captured a particularly cold winter through Ice Swimmer Kids, a photography project he did close to 10 years ago while interning at the Danish newspaper Politiken. 

In Copenhagen, most ice swimmers make a beeline for the historic Helgoland Bathing Institution on Amagerstrand. Built in 1913, this is one of the oldest sea baths in the city and home to the 6,000-member strong winter swimmer’s club, Det Kolde Gys (The Cold Shiver), since 1929.   

The Danish capital has beautiful harbour baths, public swimming pools along the waterfront that are ideal for relaxing. The Islands Brygge, opened in 2002, designed by architect Bjarke Ingels and still the most popular, is a 75m swimming and diving pool located in the midst of the city. The chance to ice-swim amid soaring high-rises isn’t one to be missed.  

Across the country, going by a December 2022 tally, there are 182 winter swimming clubs with more than 68,000 members. In Sluseholmen district, is the Coral Bath, named for its shape like a coral reef. This is less busy than Islands Brygge and offers similar facilities: a swimming pool, a diving pool, a children’s pool and a paddling pool. 

Then there’s Copenhagen’s first specially designed dipping zone. The mobile, architect-designed swimming circle, opened in late 2020, is currently located by Kalvebod Bølge, an extension of the waterfront at Kalvebod  Brygge. The choices are plentiful for those who want to dive into icy waters. There is Sandkaj, a bathing zone in the Nordhavn quarter, where the boardwalk and cafés create a beach-like vibe; Fisketorvet, with recreational bathing facilities lined up along the waterfront; Søndre Refshalebassin, a small bath located on the industrial island of Refshaleøen; and Hellerup Beach, a small, sandy, child-friendly beach.  People typically don full-body swimming gear to do polar dips.

While swimming in the sea and canals is free, a one-hour session at an upmarket club can cost between Danish krone 100-250 (around 1,200-3,000). A hot shower can cost upwards of DKK 30.

Maja Olsen, a true-blue Copenhager and barista, says the Kastrup Sea Bath is one of the most beautiful places for outdoor swimming. Constructed in 2005, it is a “conch-like structure with many diving towers and a fabulous view over the sea and Øresund bridge to Sweden,” she says.

Research shows that 'deliberate cold protocols' can improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
Research shows that 'deliberate cold protocols' can improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. (Photo by Teja Lele)

Research shows that winter swimming offers a variety of health benefits. Apart from strengthening the immune system, it leads to changes in haematological and endocrine function, reduces upper respiratory tract infections, and enhances general well-being, say various studies. An icy dip also releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, serotonin, and dopamine. Jumping into icy water has an unexpected side-effect: it can have you feeling warm and happy.  

Susanna Søberg, the founder of the Copenhagen-based Soeberg Institute and a leading cold and heat scientist, says ice swimming can improve health and sleep, reduce stress and optimise performance. The author of Winter Swimming (Hop i havet in Danish), a best-seller that was translated into 13 languages, she has researched the science of “micro-stressing the body” and says good health is “achieved by small doses of healthy stress: cold and heat”. Her research shows that “deliberate cold protocols” can improve glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity, and trigger the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which enhance energy, mood and focus.  

Yet, the idea of jumping into bitterly cold, sometimes frozen waters can be scary. Olsen, who has been at it for more than 10 years, reveals her trick to a successful polar plunge. “Steel yourself for the initial shock of the biting cold and the consequent intense tingling in the body. Stand your ground by moving a lot; flap your hands and legs,” she advises.   Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine, US, has outlined a plunge protocol: “Aim for a temperature that makes you feel uncomfortable (want to get out), but still safe; remember that the colder the temperature, the shorter amount of time you need to be in the ice bath; and ice bathe first thing in the morning as the adrenaline rush will keep you up if you do it in the evening”. 

Don’t forget the Søeberg Principle to maximise the health benefits of a polar plunge: End with cold, or force your body to reheat on its own to enhance the metabolic effects of cold. Towel drying, a hot shower, or a steamy sauna may feel good, but takes away the beneficial effects.

This winter, are you up to letting things go swimmingly by taking the plunge in Copenhagen?

Teja Lele writes on travel and lifestyle.

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