I am the walrus: Russians are not afraid of the cold water

Winter swimming or “walrusing” (swimming in open water in winter) is a common pastime in Finland, the Baltic countries and Russia.
Winter swimming or “walrusing” (swimming in open water in winter) is a common pastime in Finland, the Baltic countries and Russia.
Each country associates such swimmers with a sea creature. In Russia and Poland they are called “walruses,” in Finland “otters” or “seals,” and in North America “polar bears.”
Expert opinion and practice suggests that the benefits of winter swimming outweigh the potential harm. Bathing in an ice-hole increases blood circulation, relieves pain in the shoulders, joints and back, and reduces depression, asthma symptoms and insomnia. Winter swimming helps patients with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
Enthusiasts say that winter swimming helps overcome stress, invigorates the body and soul, improves blood circulation and increases “cold resistance.”
There are health risks too, so be sure to consult a doctor before taking the plunge. The combination of cold water and bathing is not suitable for people with heart and circulatory problems, or severe asthma.
Full immersion is also not recommended, since a wet head increases heat loss. And although the cold dip is brief, there is a significant loss of body heat, which can lead to hypothermia. To avoid catching cold, dress warmly after bathing.
Winter swimming competitions are often held in Russia, usually ranging from 25 to 200 meters. But there are also winter swimming “marathons” over much greater distances. To cover an open stretch of water one kilometer or more requires excellent health and special training. Twenty minutes in such water would be enough to freeze the average person to death.
There are no more than 30 people in the world able to cover a kilometer in 0°C water, and the overwhelming majority of them are Russian.
Typically the winter swimming season begins when the reservoirs ice over, and lasts till late March. There is also the Russian Orthodox tradition of bathing in a cross-shaped hole on the Epiphany (January 19).
This type of hole is called a “Jordan.” Bathing in such a hole is believed to wash away all sins, since evil spirits roaming the Earth disappear into the Jordan at Yuletide.
Physiologist Ivan Pavlov wrote: “The common cold and cooling of the body are mainly observed in pampered humans who dress too warmly and avoid frosty air, ventilated rooms and sponging down with cold water. Hardened people do not know what it is to catch cold. They are healthier and possess more energy and vital functions.”
Winter swimming should definitely be combined with a Russian bathhouse or banya. After taking a cold dip, be sure to put on a warm pair of boots and wrap yourself up in a blanket so as not to catch cold (just in case you are not one of the Pavlovian elite).

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