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Sauna and Cold Plunge Routine: Benefits and How-To

Sauna and Cold Plunge Routine
In the wild world of fitness and recovery, we sometimes find ourselves doing things that sound straight-up bonkers. Like, who thought, “Let’s go from sweating bullets in a sauna to taking an ice-cold plunge”? Sounds intense, right? To truly get behind this routine, we’ve got to first nail down the why and really know the benefits. The how-to of a sauna and cold plunge routine is the simple part, but your “why” should be a mantra you say as you fight through the cold shock.


Diving deep into the world of contrast therapy, this piece aims to shed light on the method behind the madness. Why exactly does flipping between hot and cold make such a difference to our recovery and fitness levels? We’re breaking down the science, the benefits, and the safe ways to get into this practice. By the time you’re ready to take the plunge, you’ll have your why ready, turning each session into a powerful affirmation of your commitment to wellness.


Sauna + Cold Plunge: So Why Are We doing This?

A sauna combined with a cold plunge might sound less than inviting at first glance, but there’s a compelling reason why it’s gaining popularity. Known as the ‘Nordic Cycle’ or ‘Viking Bath,’ this routine involves alternating between a warm sauna session of 15-20 minutes and a brisk cold plunge for no more than five minutes. Repeated 2-3 times, this practice isn’t just about enduring heat and cold; it’s a strategic method of contrast therapy. By leveraging the stark temperature differences, this approach promotes healing, increases blood flow, and significantly enhances overall well-being.


The Science Behind Heat and Cold Therapy

Getting a sense of the science behind heat and cold therapy will give you more than enough reason to embrace this practice. This one-two punch isn’t just about enduring extreme temperatures; it’s a strategic approach to enhance athletic recovery and performance.



Heat Therapy in the Sauna

In the sauna, your body experiences controlled hyperthermia, similar to a fever-like state. This elevation in temperature improves circulation, increasing blood flow to muscles and skin, essential for flushing out toxins and aiding recovery. Additionally, saunas can reduce inflammation. The increase in temperature also encourages the generation of heat shock proteins, which are essential for repairing and protecting cells, particularly for athletes who are constantly pushing their boundaries.  Read more about the benefits of a sauna


Cold Therapy in the Plunge

In contrast, a cold plunge is all about the shock factor. Immersing in cold water induces vasoconstriction, narrowing blood vessels and effectively reducing inflammation and muscle soreness. This exposure not only activates the lymphatic system for toxin removal but also increases the release of norepinephrine, improving mood and alleviating pain. Read more about the benefits of an ice bath


The Combined Effect

Combining sauna and cold plunge, or ‘thermal contrast therapy’, is believed to optimize the body’s recovery processes. The heat from the sauna expands blood vessels, enhancing circulation, while the cold from the plunge pool constricts them, reducing inflammation. The use of contrast therapy also stimulates the generation of heat shock and cold shock proteins, which mend injured proteins and speed up muscle recovery. This alternating effect accelerates physical recovery and bolsters mental resilience, preparing athletes for the demands of their sport. 


Benefits of Sauna and Cold Plunge Routine

When you combine the heat of a sauna with the chill of a cold plunge, you unlock a suite of benefits that go beyond what each offers individually. This fusion of thermal extremes doesn’t just offer momentary relief; it initiates a cascade of positive changes in the body. From enhancing physical recovery to boosting mental clarity, here are the top 10 benefits this dynamic duo offers when used together.



Enhanced Circulation and Muscle Recovery

Both sauna bathing and cold plunges significantly impact blood flow, albeit in different ways. Saunas increase blood flow by dilating blood vessels, while cold plunges initially constrict blood vessels, redirecting blood flow to vital organs. This contrast therapy aids in reducing muscle soreness and speeds up recovery, making it ideal for athletes after intense workouts.



Strengthening Immune Function

Engaging in sauna and cold plunge routines strengthens the immune system. Sauna use mimics a mild fever, triggering the release of white blood cells and other immune-boosting elements. Cold plunges increase the concentration of glutathione, an antioxidant crucial for T-cell function and natural killer cells, enhancing the body’s defense against infections.



Fat Burning and Weight Loss

This routine can accelerate fat burning and support weight loss efforts. Cold plunges activate brown adipose tissue, which burns fat for energy. Saunas, by increasing the heart rate and metabolic rate, help in burning additional calories. Combined, they offer a robust approach to managing weight and improving metabolism.



Stress Reduction and Improved Mood

The routine of transitioning between a sauna and a cold plunge can significantly reduce stress and improve mood. Sauna bathing releases endorphins, promoting relaxation and calmness. Cold plunges, although initially stressful, teach the body to manage stress more effectively, leading to long-term stress reduction and mood enhancement.



Increases Energy Levels

One of the notable benefits of combining sauna and cold plunge routines is the increase in energy levels. Post-sauna, the body experiences a release of beta-endorphins that boost energy. Cold plunges trigger the release of norepinephrine, a hormone associated with heightened attention, focus, and energy, making this routine especially beneficial for athletes seeking an energy uplift.



Sleep Improvement

Both sauna use and cold plunges can positively impact sleep quality. Sauna sessions increase core body temperature, which then cools down, aiding in sleep initiation. Cold plunges, particularly earlier in the day, have been noted to improve sleep quality by promoting relaxation and reducing stress.



Overall Health and Resilience

The Nordic cycle of alternating between sauna and cold plunge encourages the body to adapt to extreme conditions, thereby enhancing overall resilience and robustness. This adaptation is beneficial for athletes seeking to improve their physical performance and endurance.



Builds Strength and Adaptive Response

Exposing the body to the contrasting environments of a sauna and cold plunge activates a physiological response known as hormesis.  This process essentially ‘trains’ the body to become more resilient to stress, enhancing overall physical and mental fortitude. Athletes can particularly benefit from this, as it aids in building endurance and strength to withstand rigorous training and competitions.



Reduces Inflammation

The alternation of hot and cold therapies is known to be effective in reducing inflammation. The heat from the sauna promotes blood flow and eases muscular tension, while the subsequent cold plunge helps in constricting blood vessels and reducing swelling. This combination is especially beneficial in accelerating recovery from muscle soreness and injuries, making it a valuable addition to an athlete’s recovery space and regimen.



Helps Detoxify the Body

The sauna’s heat induces significant sweating, a natural mechanism for eliminating toxins from the body. Following up with a cold plunge not only invigorates the body but also supports the lymphatic system in flushing out these toxins. This detoxification process is essential for maintaining good health and can contribute to improved athletic performance by ensuring the body functions optimally.


Safety First: Precautions and Best Practices

While engaging in sauna and cold plunge therapies, it’s crucial to prioritize safety and be mindful of the following points:


  • Stay Hydrated: Both sauna and cold plunge sessions can lead to dehydration. Ensure you’re well-hydrated before, during, and after these therapies.
  • Know Your Limits: Start with shorter durations in both the sauna and cold plunge, especially if you’re a beginner. Gradually increase your time as your body adapts.
  • Monitor Body Responses: Pay attention to how your body reacts to the temperature extremes. If you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or uncomfortable, it’s time to stop.
  • Consult a Healthcare Professional: If you have any pre-existing health conditions or concerns, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional before starting this routine.
  • Cool Down Gradually: After a sauna session, allow your body to cool down a bit before jumping into the cold plunge. This helps in preventing shock to your system.


How to Sauna and Cold Plunge: Step-by-Step

To begin your contrast therapy journey, here’s a basic guide inspired by Dr. Susanna Søberg’s  groundbreaking research on the Hot and Cold Plunge Protocol. It’s designed to ease you safely into the practice, ensuring a balanced and beneficial experience.


  • Prepare Your Body: Begin by hydrating well. Drink plenty of water before starting the session to ensure you’re adequately hydrated.
  • Get Ready: Start by heating the sauna. For shorter durations, ensure it reaches an optimal temperature. Prepare your ice bath or cold plunge area. Gather essential items like towels, water for hydration, slippers, and a timer.
  • Start with the Sauna: Begin your contrast therapy with a sauna session. Spend about 15-20 minutes in the sauna, allowing your body to experience the warmth and your muscles to relax.
  • Transition to the Cold Plunge: After your sauna session, move to the cold plunge. Immerse yourself in the cold water for about 3-5 minutes. This sudden change in temperature will help close your pores, reduce inflammation, and invigorate your body.
  • Repeat the Cycle: Alternate between the sauna and the cold plunge for 2-3 cycles. Remember to listen to your body – if you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable at any point, take a break.
  • End with the Cold: Conclude your contrast therapy session with the cold plunge. This helps to leave your body refreshed and closes the pores opened by the sauna.
  • Hydrate and Rest: Once you’ve completed the routine, hydrate again with water or an electrolyte drink. Allow your body some time to rest and normalize before engaging in any strenuous activity.
  • Monitor and Adjust: As you get more accustomed to the routine, pay attention to how your body responds and adjust the duration in the sauna and cold plunge accordingly.


FAQs: Sauna and Cold Plunge Routine


What is the best time of day to do the sauna and cold plunge routine?

It depends. If you’re an athlete that wants to reduce muscle soreness, it’s best within 60 minutes post-exercise. If I don’t have a workout that day, I prefer mornings or mid-day for the alertness that it brings. Generally, Cold plunges are linked to wakefulness and might be more suited for the morning to help energize and start the day productively. Saunas, on the other hand, are associated with relaxation and might be best in the evening, especially before bed, to promote better sleep. But experiment with timing. Like caffeine some people might be fine having this closer to bed. 



How often should I do the sauna and cold plunge routine for optimal benefits?

The frequency can vary based on individual tolerance and goals. Some might benefit from daily sessions, while others might find 2-3 times per week sufficient. It’s important to listen to your body and adjust accordingly.



Are there any health conditions that make the sauna and cold plunge routine unsafe?

Yes, certain health conditions can make the sauna and cold plunge routine unsafe. Individuals with cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, or those who are pregnant should exercise caution. It’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare provider before starting this routine, especially if you have existing health concerns.



Are there any long-term risks associated with frequent sauna and cold plunge use?

Generally, if practiced responsibly and within individual health limitations, there are no significant long-term risks. However, it’s always advisable to consult with a healthcare provider, especially if you have existing health conditions.



How cold should the cold plunge be for effective contrast therapy? Can you take a cold shower instead of an ice bath?

For effective contrast therapy, the cold plunge should ideally be significantly cooler than body temperature to provide a shock to the system. Temperatures around 10-15°C (50-59°F) are often used. A cold shower can be a practical alternative to an ice bath, especially if you cannot access a cold plunge pool. While the sensation may differ slightly, cold showers still provide the contrasting effect of hot and cold temperatures needed for the therapy.



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