Watch: Woman credits early morning dip in icy water for boosting her mental health.
A woman has revealed she believes her secret to health and happiness is down to starting every day with a freezing swim in -20°C temperatures, wearing only her swimsuit.
If your mental health has taken a bit of a battering during the ongoing pandemic, it might be time to turn to ice water swimming to give it a boost.
Elina Mäkinen, 27, swims for between two and four minutes in the icy pools each day, with the beautiful backdrop of snow-covered Helsinki, Finland, and credits the practice for helping to maintain her wellbeing.
“Sometimes it is a real struggle with the pain, but there’s still always the after-swim euphoria," the tax advisor explains.
Mäkinen first discovered the joys of the chilly dip when she was only five years old and was taken with her grandpa and brother, Antti Mäkinen, 29.
“My grandpa shouted to me to get out and that I'm not supposed to swim in the water," she explains.
“We now laugh about the event and he told me he was never scared for my swimming skills but more scared that he had to get in the water as well!
“I was born in December and babies sleep outside in Finland during winter time, so I guess I have liked the cold since an early age.
“Of course I love summer time too, but I joke a lot with my boyfriend that I hate sweating and cannot tolerate heat at all!”
Swimming in the icy lakes is a tradition in Finland in winter so Mäkinen has acclimatised to the chilly conditions throughout her childhood.
And she has continued the icy practice throughout her teens and now that she is studying studying Tax Law at the University of Eastern Finland, claiming it helps her to unwind.
“Going to the sauna and ice was my get-away and time to relax," she says.
“We participated in competitions in ice with my mum and got to know more about the ice swimming culture with other people around the world.
“I started noticing the mental and physical game is something I really enjoy and decided after the 2014 World Championships to start training for longer distances like 450m and 1000m.”
Her favourite local lake to swim in is the Suuri Vehkalahti in Joensuu, but she also likes to visit spots in Russia when on holiday.
While she aims to swim for between two and four minutes every day, occasionally she will only brave a quick dip to wake up her body before she starts shivering.
But once a month, Mäkinen opts for a longer swim, up to 17 minutes, to maintain her ability to swim in extreme conditions.
“I used to tie a rope around my hips so that I could swim still, but the only problem was that the rope froze to the stairs so I could not get the knot open," she explains.
“It was -30 degrees outside and I managed to get off my belt and went straight to a sauna to warm myself up.
“I had to pour warm water on the rope to open it after a few hours.
“After that I learned to be extra careful and always have plan B!”
While she loves being in nature, Mäkinen says there are times even she doesn't fancy an icy dip.
“I love getting out of my comfort zone, so when I least feel like I want to get in, that is the time I push myself to go out for the swim,” she says.
Her secret to bearing the arctic temperatures is both not thinking about the cold, but also staying conscious of how her body feels.
For the past two years she has been documenting her adventures wild swimming on her TikTok @elinamae and now has over 1.1 million followers keeping track as she jumps into icy lakes.
She posted her first ice swimming TikTok in 2019, which quickly attracted a legion of curious followers.
While filming one of her early videos, a police officer spotted her in the water, and climbed down to the river to check that she was ok.
“It was super hard for me to take videos in public places after that!” she says.
Mäkinen says strangers are split between thinking she's crazy and feeling inspired to give it a go themselves.
“I hope that I can encourage people to try ice swimming but at the same time want to remind them to take care and be safe.
For anyone who is keen to give it a go Mäkinen has some words of advice.
“Go out of your comfort zone and take time on concentrating yourself and how you feel.”
Mäkinen isn't the only one to fully embrace the benefits of cold weather exercise.
Topless rambler John Carstairs, 55, regularly walks in freezing temperatures and believes exposure to the cold is the best stress-buster.
Carstairs lived in Germany for more than a decade and learnt to appreciate the health benefits of exercising in the cold.
Now he’s returned to Edinburgh, the dad-of-four regularly turns heads when he goes for walks dressed in nothing but boots, a wooly hat, gloves and a pair of shorts.
The fitness instructor is trained in the Wim Hof Method, which promotes being “happy, healthy and strong”, and treats cold exposure and breath work as central to achieving those aims.
Watch: Cold water swimming 'could hold key to dementia drug'
Going for a topless walk in freezing temperatures isn’t the only cold weather exercise seeing a surge at the moment.
Recent figures from Sport England suggest more than 4.1million people are regularly donning their bathing suits to go cold water or wild swimming.
Benefits of exercising in the cold
As well as physical fitness, Swim England say the health benefits of wild swimming are thought to include better sleep, improved circulation and increased happiness.
“Cold water swimming (and cold weather exercise) are becoming increasingly popular for their psychological and physiological benefits,” Harry Aitken, sports scientist and master trainer for Auster Fitness previously told Yahoo UK.
“Training whilst getting fresh air, increasing your vitamin D levels and working your whole body’s cardiovascular system is excellent.”
But what it is about exercising in the cold that has particular benefits for our health?
According to Aitken some of the plus points of cold exercise come about because the extreme vascular system is often not worked in everyday life.
“The body is very accustomed to warm temperatures, we have hot showers, wear many layers of clothing and have the heating on at home,” he explains.
“Cold exercise, or cold water immersion, shock your body into producing heat and insulating it.
“It can help regulate the cardiovascular system, most prominently at the extremities – the small capillaries that help push blood around and control flow become activated, reducing load on the heart.”
Despite the benefits there are also some risks of swimming in freezing waters, namely 'cold water shock'.
"Cold water shock causes the blood vessels in the skin to close, which increases the resistance of blood flow," explains the RNLI website. "Heart rate is also increased. As a result the heart has to work harder and your blood pressure goes up. Cold water shock can therefore cause heart attacks, even in the relatively young and healthy.
The sudden cooling of the skin by cold water also causes an involuntary gasp for breath.
"Breathing rates can change uncontrollably, sometimes increasing as much as tenfold. All these responses contribute to a feeling of panic, increasing the chance of inhaling water directly into the lungs," the site continues.
"This can all happen very quickly: it only takes half a pint of sea water to enter the lungs for a fully grown man to start drowning. You could die if you don't get medical care immediately."
How to deal with cold water shock and minimise the risk
The RNLI has put together some tips on how to enjoy cold water swimming safely.
If you enter the water unexpectedly:
Take a minute. The initial effects of cold water pass in less than a minute so don’t try to swim straight away.
Relax and float on your back to catch your breath. Try to get hold of something that will help you float.
Keep calm then call for help or swim for safety if you’re able.
If you’re planning on enjoying the water:
Check conditions - including water temperature - before heading to the coast. Visit metoffice.gov.uk for full surf reports in the UK and Ireland.
Wear a wetsuit of appropriate thickness for the amount of time you plan to spend in the water and the type of activity you're doing, if entering.
Wear a flotation device. It greatly increases your chances of making it through the initial shock.
You can find more tips here.
Additional reporting SWNS.