Cold water swimmers take the plunge for December Challenge

Kingston’s cold water swimming group, Kingston Wim Hof, has grown considerably since its early days at the height of the COVID pandemic. Next weekend, the group will hold a special December Challenge event. Photo via Albert Nerenberg.

Only a select group of people would find joy in jumping into the frigid waters of Lake Ontario in the dead of winter. Members of Kingston Wim Hof certainly fit into that category, as the group holds regular cold water swims throughout the year. For most group members, the supposed health benefits of cold water swimming are what motivate them to submerge themselves in freezing cold waters, often staying in for at least five minutes at a time. 

“Cold immersion is a hot new health modality that seems to make people stronger, healthier, and even happier,” said Albert Nerenberg, one of the founders of Kingston Wim Hof. “There’s research showing that it can also be used as a treatment for depression. It’s hard to be depressed the moment you jump into a freezing lake.”

The group utilizes the Wim Hof Method, which focuses on breathing techniques and cold water immersion to “master” one’s mind and body. Through a series of conscious breathing exercises and calculated immersion in cold water, participants are able to tap into some of the perceived benefits of the method, which include increased energy levels, better sleep, and reduced stress. 

An ariel view of a recent Kingston Wim Hof swim. Photo by David Yateman.

According to Nerenberg, the practice has even benefited group members suffering from serious health issues such as diabetes. “There’s a certain part of the group that have major conditions — there’s somebody with diabetes, someone with porphyria [a liver disorder] — and they’re all people [who] find that cold swimming is crucial to the maintenance of good health.”

While participants are certainly well informed on the potential benefits of cold water swimming, Nerenberg acknowledges how it may look to people who are unaware of those motivations. “We know that we look insane. In fact, people often stop and stare.” However, strange looks from the general public haven’t stopped Nerenberg and his fellow swimmers from taking the plunge into Lake Ontario at least twice a month throughout the entire winter.

“[When the pandemic started], a bunch of us decided to go outside because [gathering outdoors] was OK during COVID. The problem was, it started to get really cold. At that time, we knew a bit about the Wim Hof Method, but we didn’t really know the application. So, we thought we’d train ourselves on how to handle the cold. Then we got trained in the Wim Hof system, and we jumped in the lake.”

“It was fine in October and November,” Nerenberg said. “We were kind of amazed we could do it, but we never thought we would go through the whole winter. But for the last few years, a bunch of us have gone right through the winter.” 

In early 2021, Kingstonist caught up with Nerenberg to discuss cold water swimming and Kingston Wim Hof. Since that article was published, the group has grown considerably, regularly attracting new participants to their bi-weekly swims. When they first started, Nerenberg noted, it was just a small handful of people participating in the swims; however, a recent November event attracted over 40 people. 

Californian Tiffany Caudhill attempts a cold water jump into Lake Ontario for the first time on December 1, 2022. Photo by Albert Nerenberg.

Nerenberg added that the group has even begun to attract members from outside the region, with some coming from as far away as California to take part. “It’s partly because of the fun of doing it with other people. A lot of people do this kind of thing on their own; they’re the only person in [their] town who does it. So the idea of doing it with like-minded people is interesting… [In Kingston] the lake is so beautiful, and it’s so clear, usually, and so nice. There are many beautiful places to go into the lake.”

Despite the perceived health benefits of cold water swimming, Nerenberg did acknowledge some of the potential dangers associated with jumping into freezing cold waters in the middle of winter. As such, group members look out for one another while in the water. “[When] we jump in the lake, we always check that everybody came up, [and] we stay very close together.” Nerenberg also noted that, “by coincidence,” a number of the group’s members are paramedics, meaning that first aid is often nearby should any swimmers require assistance. 

On December 11, 2022, Kingston Wim Hof will be holding its December Challenge at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour. Image via Kingston Wim Hof.

This month, Kingston Wim Hof will be holding a special public event, The December Challenge, which is part of a new monthly campaign to encourage people to try cold water swimming throughout the winter. The first monthly challenge took place in November and attracted a decent crowd, something Nerenberg is hoping to replicate this month and throughout the rest of the season. “Just this year, we had the first November Challenge. I think around 45 people [participated]… The idea was, can you last five minutes in Lake Ontario? It was so good… and so fun, we decided we’re going to do challenges right through the winter.”

The December Challenge is scheduled for 12 noon on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, and will take place at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour (53 Yonge Street). Once again, the “challenge” is for participants to stay in the water for five minutes. “We’re doing the December Challenge, then after that, of course, will be the January Challenge, and then the February and March Challenges. It is an escalation of difficulty, and it seems to be attracting people from all over.” 

To learn more about the Wim Hof Method or to find details on the December Challenge and other upcoming cold water swims, visit the Kingston Wim Hof – Inside Fire Facebook group. 

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