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Rovaniemi winter swimming competition opens – participants from 34 countries take the icy plunge

The 2014 Winter Swimming World Championship in Lapland's largest city begins Friday and runs through Sunday, including three competitive swim categories and several open events. In the name of science, two dozen endurance race swimmers swallowed a “thermometer pill” before their performance.

Kansainvälisen talviuintiliiton puheenjohtaja Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen sekä varapuheenjohtaja John Coningham-Rolls
International Winter Swimming Association President Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen from Finland says one reason the sport is so popular is that anyone can do it. Vice-President John Coningham-Rolls of London, England says winter swimming is a conscious lifestyle. Image: Bikka Puoskari / Yle

The Winter Swimming World Championships are currently underway, taking place in the frigid waters of the Kemijoki swimming stadium in the heart of Rovaniemi.

The competition opened on Friday with the longest race: the 450-metre winter swimming endurance event. Some twenty volunteers offered their bodies in the name of science before the race, swallowing a pill designed to measure the swimmers’ body temperature. The results will contribute to an Argentinean doctoral research project. Winter Swimming Association Chairs Mariia Yrjö-Koskinen and John Coningham-Rolls acted as observers of the experiment from their front-row seats in the crowd.

“The objective is to determine how the human body’s coping mechanisms adjust to the cold water. The volunteer is examined once before the swim, again during the performance and then again after,” explains Coningam-Rolls.

What exactly is it that warms our bodies in cold water?

Among other things, the study examines how concentrations of body fat affect how we cope in cold water.

“It is often thought that the human body has to have a lot of fat on it to survive in the cold for long. Studies show, however, that fat alone is not enough to keep us warm,” says Yrjö-Koskinen.

“Interestingly, the extent to which volunteers had trained their muscles for the event seemed to have a more significant effect on their ability to maintain their body temperature,” she continues.

The doctoral thesis also intends to examine the effect of food on the body’s ability to withstand the cold. No confirmed results of the experiment will be available for some time, but measurements taken Thursday indicate that the body temperatures of winter swimmers fall only a little while they are in the cold water.

“The results were quite surprising. For most, body temperature was not significantly reduced while swimming,” says Yrjö-Koskinen.

More research is needed on the effects of winter swimming

Both chairs of the international winter swimming organization agree that the effects of winter swimming on the human body should be studied more.

“Studies have been conducted around the world for some time, but research results rarely confirm previous studies.” Yrjö-Koskinen says that Russia has carried out extensive research on the cold, particularly in the context of its army. To date, Finland has done very little, comparatively.

“In Finland, there has been hardly any study on the residual health effects of winter swimming. It has been almost twenty years since Oulu University’s Pirkko Huttunen studied the matter. It is very important for us to have international research findings.”

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