Into the freezing water with the iceman
“When I’m in cold water, I am myself. I’m focused entirely on my body and mind. You forget everything else. It’s something that has completely changed my life,” says the 46-year-old Austrian who knows just about all there is to know about ice-cold water. More than 5,000 amateur ice swimmers have passed through his hands. In fact, swimming in cold water is a highly community-based activity. For the groups of hardy people it’s not just a healthy activity – it’s a social experience. Watch this video to see what a gathering of people who want to dive into a frozen lake in Austria looks like.
Josef Köberl immerses himself in icy water as often as he can – sometimes every day, sometimes every other day, but sometimes even three to six times a day. “These are moments of total freedom from all thoughts, problems and concerns. When you concentrate on how the cold affects you, it’s both disarming and uplifting. Moments of pure bliss,” he says.
Josef Köberl immerses himself in ice-cold water whenever he can.
Those are the mental benefits of toughening yourself up through exposure to cold. But there are also many benefits for the body: skin health improves and the cold has a positive effect on high blood pressure and overall physical condition. The activity clearly makes people tougher. The effect on mood is unquestionable – this is due to hormones that ensure that the body does not perceive the cold as a source of discomfort after a period of training. Dopamine levels, for example, can be up to two and a half times higher than normal after an ice treatment.
Dip or swim?
What is the difference between just immersing yourself, for example in a barrel in the garden, and actually swimming in ice-cold water? “Most people start by just dipping themselves in the water. It’s healthy and beneficial, but swimming is a much higher and more challenging level. You have to be more open, more active, and always mentally present – you can’t just let your mind drift. You have to be aware of your body’s signals. Static bathing, on the other hand, is like meditation, it relaxes and frees the mind,” says Josef Köberl.
People who are open and free
More than 5,000 people have taken one of Josef Köberl’s courses. What happens on the courses? “For the first twenty minutes we just chat. I want to get to know the people and see what experience they have. Then I tell them how the human body reacts to cold, what signals it transmits, and what they can expect. Then we get into the water, while I keep asking them what they feel, because some people don’t know – that’s because of the nerves in the skin which press together in the cold, so the signals sent to the brain are different, and people may not even be able to tell whether they’re cold or hot. The most important moment is when we get out of the water – warming up and regeneration. This is about safety. It’s also necessary to start slowly, gradually prolonging your exposure to cold water. The longer you spend in the water, the longer and harder the regeneration period is.”
Almost five thousand people have taken his ice-bathing courses.
A reliable car is a must!
“I need a car I can rely on at all times and in every situation. I often drive in the mountains, so all-wheel drive is pretty much essential. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s nice to know that you have a warm, dry haven to return to when you get out of the water. A partner who’ll get you back home safely. If you didn’t have that security, the uncertainty could play on your mind when you were in the water, so you wouldn’t be focused,” says Josef Köberl, who found that the Škoda Karoq met all his requirements.
“The Karoq won me over straightaway. Everything is intuitive. You don’t need to study the manual to learn how to drive the car. And that’s definitely not always been the case in my experience! The car worked great, and even in the mountains I felt that it could handle everything without difficulty. Driving up snowy hills was a breeze thanks to the all-wheel drive. But equally important is getting back down from the mountains. After just a few metres I could feel how assured the car was in its handling of slippery surfaces. As I say, it’s the perfect partner for adventure. Something else I appreciated was the simple and intuitive switching between driving modes, with clear symbols to make it easy. And I really liked one little detail – the ability to change the colour of the ambient lighting in the cabin. When you’re cold, you shouldn’t be surrounded by blue. Switch on a yellow, orange or red ambient light and you’ll feel better in no time. Even little things like that have a miraculous effect on our brains!”
Köberl has amassed a community of about a thousand like-minded people on social media. After all, it’s a lot safer to ice-swim in a large group. The community is also a good way for winter swimmers to share their experiences and knowledge. Josef shows them that toughening themselves up can be beautiful and also fun. “It’s great when people share their experiences and stories and pass the information on. They are content. Out of more than five thousand people, only a handful of people didn’t enjoy it, and these people approached it with a bad mindset. Everyone else is open and free,” he says, describing how things work in his community of hardy souls.
Warming up and regeneration after getting out of the water is just as important.
Want to give it a try? The iceman shares his advice for beginners.
- The most important thing: make sure you’ve got no underlying health problems, and that your heart and everything else is healthy. Go to the doctor. If the doctor gives you a clean bill of health, there’s nothing to stop you.
- The key thing to remember: we’re all different and need to approach it in our own way and at our own pace. You’re doing it for your own benefit and pleasure. Don’t rush it.
- Start slow and build up gradually. Your daily shower is a good place to start – first, turn the temperature down when you’re about to get out; after a few days or weeks turn it down a bit more; and in the end shower in cold water. Take it gradually and don’t put pressure on yourself.
- Take it further at your own pace. Listen to your body.
- Go to a lake or river and immerse yourself in the water. But don’t go alone. Ideally, go with someone with ice-swimming experience.
- Again, don’t rush it. As you begin to get used to it (weeks, months), start to swim and spend longer in the water.
- And keep this in mind: it’s all about getting to know your own body, its signals, sensations and reactions.
Grinning, Josef Köberl adds a proviso: “Or you might be completely different. I’ve had clients who had never dipped a toe in cold water. They jumped straight in and started swimming, without any difficulties. There’s one key takeaway from this: there is no one-size-fits-all process. There are no limits. You are you, don’t try to be someone else.”
Josef Köberl got into ice swimming by chance. A very keen swimmer, in 2010 he read about a nine-kilometre marathon on Hallstatt Lake in the Salzkammergut in Upper Austria. He decided to give the ice-water race a try. He only trained for it for three weeks. When he got out of the lake, he thought that if he could do this, he could swim across the English Channel. So he did that as well – he crossed the Channel in 14 hours and 21 minutes in 2015. Then came his first “ice mile”, 1,609 metres in water below 5°C, which Josef was the first Austrian to achieve. He repeated the feat five more times in the following years. In October 2019, he set the world record for “the longest time spent in full-body contact with ice”. At Vienna’s main train station, he spent 2 hours, 8 minutes and 47 seconds in a glass tub filled with ice cubes. In July 2021, he claimed another first at Hintertux, swimming 1,511.5 metres in 38 minutes and 32 seconds in water at minus 0.23°C, the world record for fresh water.