What does it feel like to swim wetsuit-free in ice-cold water surrounded by glaciers? For Icelandic ice swimmer Birna Hrönn it’s a form of relaxation and escape. Birna swims in zero and sub-zero temperatures in oceans, lakes and rivers, and has loved cold water for as long as she can remember. Last year, she won her age group at the International Ice Swimming Association Arctic Cup World Championship (1000m freestyle), although being competitive is not her motivation for cold water swimming and she doesn’t enjoy it.
Birna kindly let me quiz her about her passion for cold water swimming for the Q&A below, but I’d also encourage you to check out Endurance Sports TV’s beautiful documentary about her love for ice swimming, Birna: The Woman who Swims in Ice, which follows Birna around her native Iceland which is truly stunning.
Obviously, Birna has years of experience swimming in cold water and has built up her resilience over time, so choose your own water escapades carefully!
Can you remember the first time you swam in cold water?
Well, I don’t remember any exact time. But I have always been fascinated with cold water. When I was a little girl, my dad had a summerhouse with no running water or electricity. So we had to get our water from a little stream nearby, and me and my brother and sister were used to washing our hair there and it was freezing cold. I did often fall in the stream; sometimes I wonder if I did it on purpose.
I’m from Iceland and the weather here is unpredictable but I have always worn shorts. Since I was a little girl, it was hard to get me to put on pants, so I guess I have tolerated the cold really well. It has kinda always been with me to stay cold. For example, I slept in my tent all year round and last week (mid-November) it went down to -14°C during the night and I slept like a baby.
How has your cold water endurance improved since you first started cold water swimming?
It is just like every other practice, if you do it a lot you will be better at it. But it has also been really easy for me to stay in longer. I just noticed that because people around me don’t want to stay in as long as me, and if I keep swimming on my pace I can stay in pretty long.
But for me, it is not about the time I can stay in or how cold it is. I do it to enjoy being part of nature and my mind and soul are at peace when I’m in the water. It is the best thing in the world.
What is it about swimming in very cold water that you enjoy so much?
It is how I’m part of nature and the peace it brings me, I feel calm and relaxed and I guess it sounds weird [but] I finally can breathe and enjoy being. I have really much anxiety and I can feel that if I get in the cold water my nerves calm down and it is easier to carry on with life.
Can you describe how it feels when you enter water at 0-degrees and submerge yourself?
I feel calm and like the water, especially the ocean, is hugging me. It sounds strange, but I feel like I’m one with nature and I can enjoy the moment; my mind is just there at that moment not planning something else and it is really relaxing.
Do you ever find the cold water painful?
Well, my fingers and toes get sometimes a little pain because I don’t wear any protection, but the amazing relaxing that I get for my soul and mind are more appreciative than sore fingers and toes.
How often do you swim in cold water each week?
Usually, I swim in the cold 3-5 times a week and it depends on the temperature and if I’m training for something how long I stay in. And one thing I love is travelling around Iceland and swimming in new spots.
What’s the coldest temperature water you’ve swum in?
The coldest that I have swum in is -1.8° C. Yes, the ocean doesn’t freeze because of the salt but it gets thick.
What’s your routine for when you get out of the water?
Before I go in, I line up my clothes in the row that I want to put them on, because my fingers are kind of frozen [so] it makes everything easier. Then I go in for the swim and when I’m out, I put a wool hat on my head over my swim cap, and I step on a blanket if the ground is frozen. Then I put thick wool socks on, take off my wet, cold swimsuit and dry myself off and put warm wool clothes on. Then I hike up a mountain or jump around. I’m one of the people that likes to warm up fast, but that is so personal and really important to figure out what is good for you – what I like is not necessarily what other people like. It comes with the experience and the most important thing is to listen to your body, not what others are doing.
How long does it usually take before you feel warm again?
I’m pretty quick to warm-up but that depends on how my day is – if I had a good sleep and what I have eaten during the day, and my mental state. If I have been stressed out, it takes me longer to warm-up.
Are there any after-effects of the cold once you get out?
Well, it is important to be aware of the after-drop, because when I come out of the cold I don’t get cold right away, it isn’t until after few minutes [later] that I start to feel the cold, so it is really important to use those minutes to get dressed and that is the main reason why I want my clothes lined up – I want to be able to put them on before I get cold.
These are all things that come with experience, so I recommend that everyone listen to their body not what other people are doing.
You won gold in your age group at the 2019 IISA Arctic Cup World Championships 1000M Freestyle event. What was your experience like?
It was kinda a fun experience because I only compete to meet my ice swimming friends. I really don’t like competing. So I went to Murmansk in Russia to have a great meeting with my frozen family who are many great and dear friends. I feel like I’m normal when I’m with them.
I started my swim and I was only focused on enjoying being there because I’m dealing with really much anxiety. My frozen ice swimmers friends know about this, so they help me to be able to start my swim. I’m fine as soon as I’m in the water. I see it this way: if I make it into the pool and if I’m able to start my swim, I have already won because my anxiety didn’t win.
I finished my swim and got out and got warm, and Cor Hesterman from the Netherlands helped me through that. The Dutch team usually helps me with all kinda stuff because I’m the only one from Iceland – I’m so thankful for all my frozen friends.
I didn’t check my swim time or anything because I really didn’t care. I won already; I won myself and my anxiety. Then I went for dinner with two of my Dutch friends and they started to ask me what my time was and what place I was in, but I didn’t know and I really didn’t care. Then they looked it up and they saw that I won gold in my age group, so I had to rush from the dinner to my hotel room to get my Icelandic flag so I could have it in the medal ceremony. It was a really nice surprise.
Where are your favourite places to swim in Iceland?
WOW… I can’t really answer that because they are so many and different. I just love travelling around Iceland, sleeping in my tent all year round and swimming here and there. I love exploring and finding new places, which are endless here in Iceland. If you are interested to see some of the things I do, you can see it on my Instagram account: www.instagram.com/icebirna.
What are your favourite items of kit for your cold water swimming?
I use swimsuit and earplugs, goggles and cap but my favourite things are the wool clothes that I put on afterwards when I get out. I love my wool sweaters that my friend knitted for me. I bring them with me everywhere, they are traditional Icelandic wool sweaters.
Do you have any sponsors?
Yes, Garmin Iceland gave me a watch so I can now follow my training better.
Zo-On, they make clothes and they have given me clothes to wear in the cold; jackets and other things that I need. I have also gotten swimsuits and caps from Speedo so I don’t have to buy them.
All other things I pay myself and sometimes my friends and relatives help me to buy plane tickets.
You can follow Birna’s ice swimming adventures via her Instagram account, www.instagram.com/icebirna. If you are an Endurance Sports TV subscriber, do check out the documentary about Birna’s ice swimming here.