Next time you’re in the Czech Republic, don’t be alarmed when you see senior citizens jumping into a half frozen river for a swim.
Winter swimming is a surprisingly popular pastime in Russia and Eastern European countries. In many places, such as Finland and Norway, ice swimming is often connected to the use of saunas – after a brief period of time inside a particularly hot sauna, folks simply run out of the building and plunge straight into a lake or hole in the ice. While jumping in and out of icy water is more common than swimming, many places maintain permanent long cuts in the ice that look very similar to lanes in a pool, allowing you to move once you get in the water.
In the Czech Republic, ice swimming is particularly common among seniors – and both the Vltava and the Labe Rivers are popular places for a cold winter swim.
Czechia’s tradition of ice swimming is relatively new compared to other European countries. At least among seniors, it seems to have originated in 1923, when a local goldsmith jumped into the Vltava River on Christmas Day. Since then, other seniors have repeated the traditional swim and have even formed small winter swimming clubs.
In fact, Czech pensioners who engage in winter swimming believe the tradition has enormous health benefits, including better circulation, an improvement in heart health, and a boost to the immune system – in addition to increased energy and better mood. Plus, the ice swimming clubs have become a friendly community for seniors.
For those courageous enough to give ice swimming a try, there are competitions around the country – covering distances from 100 to 1000 meters. Senior clubs usually stick to the shortest distances, as too much time in very low temperatures can be taxing to the heart and might cause hypothermia.