Taking a brief swim in freezing water in the dead of winter might not be for everyone, but Polar Bear Plunges have become common rituals to raise money for charity, celebrate winter holidays or just prove your body can handle adverse conditions. Organized events usually have medical personnel on hand to protect against serious health issues, but taking a number of precautions can help you survive a polar plunge with nothing more lasting than a good story to tell.
Ask Your Doctor First
Plunging into freezing cold water puts strain on your body. If you have a family history of strokes, aneurysms, high blood pressure, hypertension or heart attacks, check with your doctor before agreeing to participate. The blood vessels in your heart can constrict in the cold, which in some leads to chest pains or a heart attack if you're susceptible to these conditions.
Take Cold Showers
Preparing your body for what it’s about to experience can help mitigate the shock of the cold when you jump in for the Polar Plunge. Arctic swimmer Lewis Pugh suggests taking cold showers in the days before the plunge to acclimate your body to what it’s about to experience. Familiarity with the cold helps delay the onset of shivering as well.
A polar plunge isn’t your typical summer day at the beach, so don’t dress as you would for that occasion. Keep warm clothes on until just before you go into the water, and have them nearby for when you're finished the swim. Wear shoes during the plunge if the ocean or lake bottom has shells or rocks to protect your feet.
If you dive into the water head-first, your body likely will go into cold-shock response. Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase and you may feel like you can’t breathe. Gasping for air puts an additional strain on your heart, so try to remain calm and be aware that your initial reaction should pass within 30 seconds or so. Keep your head above water to reduce the risk of drowning if you panic and inhale water instead of air.
Experts differ on the best strategies for getting in the water. Some suggest a race to the water starts the swim with your highest body temperature and gives you the best chance of being able to stay in the water longer. Others suggest easing in to the cold to avoid the body shock that comes with a sudden change in temperature. Regardless of how you enter, this isn’t the time to show off about your ability to handle the cold – every second you’re in the water allows heat to leave your body. Don’t stay in any longer than two or three minutes.
Once you’re out of the water, don’t stand around in just a towel. Change out of any wet clothes, as remaining in soaked clothing increases your chances of hypothermia even when you’re out of the water. If there’s space on the beach, set up a small tent so you can slip off your bathing suit quickly, before the longer walk to a bathroom or your car. Put on warm, dry clothes and drink hot liquids to start the process of getting your body temperature back to normal.