Getting The Best From Sauna – Part I – Our Routine

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Getting The Best From Sauna – Part I – Our Routine

We hear people say that sauna will provide this short-term health benefit and that long-term health benefit and sauna will help with recovery and sauna will help us sleep and on and on. And there’s some truth in all of that.

But what is ‘sauna’? Is jumping in a hot room quickly for 10 minutes after our workout and then heading to a warm shower a sauna? Will that provide us the health benefits we desire?

Why is sauna so much different in English speaking countries compared to Europe?

What matters, and not, with how we sauna?

Just as form is critical to our workouts, our sauna routine is critical to getting the most or even any benefit from sauna.

Goals

For many of us recovery from our workout is our primary goal. For others a few rounds alternating between the sauna and cold plunge is purely about enjoyment. Some are looking for the longer term health benefits, both physical and mental, like lessening the probabilities of heart problems or dementia. And a lot of us want it all.

The good news is that we can and should get it all. What we need to do for any of these totally overlaps with the others – what makes sauna most enjoyable are the same things that provide for good recovery and longer-term health benefits.

These benefits are all rooted in six key things;

  1. Hygiene – Keeping Our Lungs Healthy and Avoiding Harmful Gook – This is primarily high levels of bacteria, CO2 and other stuff in the air, on the benches or on our skin. Bacteria also stinks (sweat doesn’t) which doesn’t make for a pleasant time in the sauna for anyone.
  2. Comfortable & Enjoyable – We should enjoy it! If we don’t totally enjoy it then we’ll not want to do it and if we don’t do it then we’ll not benefit from it. As well, enjoyment is itself good for us and one of the key benefits of going to sauna.
  3. Calming Relaxation – Mental and physical rest are critical for homeostasis, for mental and physical recovery, and are a key element of sauna.
  4. Core Temp Heat/Contrast – There are numerous potential benefits achieved by raising our core body temp, quickly cooling it down and then repeating this several times – contrast therapy – hot/cold/hot/cold/hot/cold.
  5. Local Penetrative Heat/Contrast – Local heat is that which directly affects our tissues such as muscles or tendons. Followed by cooling down this can help us recover and avoid DOMS.
  6. Steam – Producing short bits of steam in a Finnish sauna by throwing water on the stones is both hugely enjoyable and briefly transfers a gob of heat to our body to help with raising our core body temp.

Now, let’s look at how we achieve all of that – what a good routine might look like and then how it achieves each of our six goals.

 

A Typical Sauna Routine

Just as we need sets, reps and rest for our workout, we need a good sauna routine to get the most from sauna. About 98% of sauna goers in the world, largely everyone outside of the UK, U.S. and OZ, follow a similar routine of multiple ‘rounds’ of hot, cold, hydrate, rinse, repeat.

This routine is rooted in three key things; Enjoyment, Hygiene and Health. 

Critically for enjoyment and health, sauna is about hot/cold contrast not just getting hot and sweating. Time in the sauna itself is actually a minor part of the overall experience. This contrast is not only quite enjoyable (some people call cold plunge after sauna the best high we can legally get) but is likely key to many of the health benefits. 

A typical sauna session then looks something like:

SaunaRoutine02

It’s important that we set aside enough time to do this in a relaxing way because relaxing is a key element as well. For a typical three round sauna session we should plan for about 2 – 2.5 hours. Short on time? Do only two rounds. Have more time? Four or seven rounds is quite wonderful.

Now let’s look a bit closer at how this achieves our 6 goals.

 

1. Hygiene – Avoiding Harmful Gook.

Saunas and steam baths are breeding grounds for bacteria and other germs. These can be unhealthy to have on our skin or to breath in and are almost always unpleasant to smell. The good news is that this is easily dealt with.

Sweat, mostly water & salt, doesn’t stink nor does it cause any health problems. However, sweat trapped in warm places, particularly between skin and cloth or skin and skin, can become a bacteria factory. This bacteria then gets embedded in our clothes. And this bacteria isn’t necessarily healthy. And it can stink. A lot.

And then there are the bacteria and pathogens that we pick up from gym equipment or bumping against others.

This bacteria then enters the sauna on our skin and embedded in any textiles/cloth we’re wearing. Better, it hangs around in the air and on the benches for others to enjoy long after we leave. So this one’s easy – dump the sweaty stinky bacteria laden clothes and wash the skin.

1) Hygiene Before Heat – Always shower well with soap immediately BEFORE entering the sauna for our first round.

If we shower our entire body with soap, every inch of it, as far down as possible, as far up as possible, and possible, then we’ll rid ourselves of most of this bacteria and not carry it and its odors in to the sauna with us. This will be healthier and more pleasant for us and everyone else.

Then during our first round in the sauna we’ll sweat out some bacteria that was in our pores so after our first round in the sauna we need to make sure to rinse really well in the shower – wipe down every inch of our body to get rid of this bacteria. Alternatively, we can jump in a lake or sea and wipe the sweat and bacteria off there.

We should always rinse in the shower just prior to each round in the sauna (or steam bath or other thermal space). This can be before or after our cooldown, though we should always fully rinse off any chlorine before entering the sauna.

Typically we should also always rinse well before entering a cold plunge. So yeah, that could mean showering twice per round which isn’t unusual outside of North America.

We always want to enter the sauna completely clean.

2) Limit Textiles. Cloth can harbor bacteria and skin covered by cloth becomes a breeding ground for it. The less material the better from a hygiene standpoint. It’s also much more comfortable. There are a number of reasons why about 99% of the people in the world who sauna regularly do so nude.

3) Sit on a towel. No part of our skin or swimsuit should ever touch the wood and ideally no sweat should drip on it. Laying down? – cover the entire area with towels.

[photo of person sitting on towel in German sauna]

In many countries its also expected that bathers will put a towel under their feet to keep the foot bench clean.

 

2. Enjoyment, Etiquette & Regard For Others

A Compelling And Enjoyable Experience = Consistency

To get any benefit we have to actually do it and if we don’t find it totally enjoyable then we’ll not want to do it. 

The U.S. and UK both appear to have very high drop-out rates. People get enthusiastic about sauna, begin going, maybe build a sauna at home, but after a year or three, after the novelty wears off, our sauna use declines and soon our home sauna has become a storage space. This is a pattern we’ve seen repeated over and over since the 1960’s. 

[image of sauna storage room.]

People in Europe sauna frequently and do so consistently for their entire life because they have a more compelling and enjoyable experience. The saunas themselves are more enjoyable as are their routines and culture around sauna.

Good Sauna is like good wine and good sex. Quite enjoyable and we get to call it healthy.
– Trumpkin’s Sauna Notes

Etiquette is a key element of enjoyment for everyone and the core of this is Respect For Others. Insure that others have a good experience and we will as well.

For everyone’s communal benefit:

  • Shower First
  • Wear nothing or only a clean swimsuit. No sweaty workout clothes.
  • Don’t hold the door open any longer than necessary
  • Sit on a towel. No skin, personal textiles nor sweat should touch any wood. 
  • Be still & quiet
  • Ask before throwing water on the stones.
  • Nothing but clean fresh water on the stones. NEVER from a personal water bottle.

 

3. Calm Quiet Meditative Relaxation

In Europe there’s a saying that you should be in the sauna as you are in church – quiet, calm and still.

For about 99% of the estimated 80 million regular sauna users worldwide this is sacrosanct. And for good reasons.

This meditative element, doing nothing, letting our brain and body rest, is as much a part of sauna as the heat. 

This is important for some of the recovery and physical health benefits that may hinge on our being fully at rest while our circulatory system responds to the heat at all points of our body. We don’t want to be tense or active in the sauna but completely relaxed.

There’s an air quality issue with this as well. Activity results in our exhausting greater quantities of CO2. Our bodies are already under stress and don’t need the extra stress of high blood CO2 caused by high levels of CO2 in the sauna.

It’s difficult to relax when others are talking loudly or doing jumping jacks.

So, out of consideration for others and for our own benefit then;

  • No loud talking or grunting (or sighs that would wake the dead). 
  • No electronics. 
  • No doing workouts or yoga.

Some quiet shoulder blade pinches while we’re sitting? Sure. Windmills? No. Hot Yoga? Go elsewhere.

How quiet? Someone 1m (≈ 1 yard) away shouldn’t be able to hear us.

 

3 & 4. Heat/Contrast

Whether we want to raise our core body temp or get localized heat for a joint, we need to do the same things.

Our goal is to raise our temp and then for contrast cool down quickly. Then repeat this a time or five.

1) Raising our core temp or localized heat is a function of time, temp and skin exposure. Let’s look at the latter two and then time.

Ambient (Sauna) Temp – The temperature in a sauna is measured at a point 1m (39”) above the middle of the primary (longest or the one opposite the heater) sitting bench. E.G., approximately head height. It should not be measured anywhere near the heater.

Recommendations on the best temp vary as does the science. We know that subjects in one study showed benefits from saunas that averaged ≈79°c. Others recommend 90°c which is also the most common sauna temperature you’ll find in Europe. And the International Sauna Association recommends 80-105°c (and unofficially ±10°c).

There is very likely a Time-Temp curve for maximal benefit that we can discuss later but this may be overshadowed by one critical element – our own comfort and enjoyment. In the end we need to actually do it – so in most cases the best temperature is our personal preference. Very likely anything from ≈70°c – 115°c should work.

Skin Exposure – How much our core temp rises is based on the various temperatures that various parts of our skin are exposed to. If our entire body, every inch, is exposed to the same temp then heating is considered 100% effective. That never really happens though.

The air in any space, including a sauna, stratifies from hottest at the ceiling to coolest at the floor. So the skin on our head is exposed to higher temperatures than our thorax which in turn is exposed to higher temperatures than our calves.

 

[body region image – stratified colors?]

So different parts of our body are exposed to different temps and this has a big impact on raising our core temp.

If you’ve even been too warm under the covers and stuck one leg out to cool down then you’ve experienced this. You didn’t need to expose your entire body to cooler air but only one leg and that cooled your entire body. The same thing happens in a sauna if our feet and legs are too cool then our core doesn’t likely heat up as much as we’d like.

The actual effect is a weighted average of the various temps our body is exposed to.

In a good sauna our feet on the foot bench are no more than about 15-20% cooler than our head. So if it’s 90°c at our head and 72°c (162°f) at our feet then this is 84% effective.

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The greater the head to toe temp difference the less effective in raising our core temp and the longer we need to stay in to achieve the same effect.

The key – The higher we are above the floor the less stratification and more even the temps. So sit on the highest bench – not for higher temps but for more even temps.

[image of someone with knees pulled up. Lassi?

It’s best for our body’s fluid circulation for us to sit upright with our feet on the foot bench but if there’s significant temperature difference then pulling our feet up on to the sitting bench may help.]

Laying down is also an option so long as this isn’t interfering with others. This may not necessarily work though because whatever side is facing down doesn’t receive the same heat as the rest of us.

Note: Inhaled air temperature does not appear to be a significant contributor to core temp based on current information.

 

Time – Typically we should stay in the hot room about 10-15 minutes. People in Europe say that if you can stay longer then the sauna isn’t hot enough and if you can’t stay at least 10 minutes then it’s too hot.

A big huge monstrous caveat. Stay in ONLY as long as you are comfortable. It’s not a contest. Finns say to leave when jumping through a hole in the ice on a lake seems like a great idea.

There are several things that affect how long we can stay in.

  • CO2 tops our list. Too high of CO2 levels will cause us to leave sooner than just about anything else including temperature. 
  • Overall temperature. The hotter the sauna at our head the sooner we’ll want to leave. Whether our feet are 72°c or 45°c doesn’t much matter – if our head is 90°c in both cases we’ll be able to stay in about the same amount of time. But if our feet are only 45°c we get only 56% of the benefit rather than 84% if our feet are 72°c. 
  • Head to toes temp difference. The greater this difference the less comfortable our body is with the situation.
  • Personal acclimatization. It can take a while for us to acclimate to using a sauna. Our first few times we may be able to stay in only 5 or 10 minutes. Over time we’ll find longer and longer rounds more comfortable and enjoyable. This is not something to push. It’ll come when it comes.
  • Stench can quickly drive even the hardiest of souls out of the sauna.
  • Overall Environment – Noise and excessive movement can be annoying. Calm, quiet, relaxing, and rejuvenating are important elements.

And keep in mind that people with more muscle and less body fat are more quickly affected by the heat and so generally cannot stay in as long as people with more body fat.

2) Cooling down – There are numerous ways to cool down and this can be a long topic itself for future discussion.

Unless we’re jumping in a lake or similar our first bit of cooling down will usually be a cool shower to both cool us and remove sweat and bacteria.

After showering, standing outside in cool or cold air is quite wonderful and can be enhanced with a roll in the snow for those brave enough.

Cold plunge in about a 14-18°c (59-65°f) water is my personal favorite that I find quite enjoyable. Colder might be better from a health standpoint but even so my personal preference is 14-18°c.

3) Rest – Resting for a bit before heading back to the sauna for our next round can be quite important. We want our body to relax and reach homeostasis with a lower heart rate to get the most out of each subsequent round.

4) Re-Entry – While cooling down quickly is often the way to go, the opposite is not so true. It’s generally best to warm up slowly before going back in the sauna.

A bit of time at room temp in the common area before stepping in to the sauna works well. Some people will stage themselves by spending a few seconds just outside the sauna (it’s usually rather warm there) and then a few seconds just inside the door (with the door CLOSED) before stepping up on to the upper benches where the good heat is.

5. Steam and Löyly

Outside of the English speaking world you’ll find steam in every sauna you visit. This is a core element of sauna. In Finnish saunas anyone in the sauna can, with others agreement, throw a ladle of clean water on the stones to create steam. Depending on the wishes of others in the sauna this could be every 5 minutes to 8 minutes.

Sometimes there will be a Saunamaster or Aufgus Master who does it and often with a bit of a show and some towel waving to get the steam fully distributed. A good aufgus is an experience not to be missed.

A Bio Sauna is slightly lower temp than a Finnish Sauna and has a more constant humidity rather than the humid/dry contrast of a Finnish Sauna.

Steam is not only enjoyable but is also important for heath benefits. It’s an important way that our body is heated. It typically only hangs around for a minute or three (and in a good Finnish sauna it’s intense enough that we don’t want it for more than that) but in that brief time a lot of heat energy is transferred to us. And it feels quite wonderful.

Note that despite how it feels, the temperature in the sauna doesn’t actually change, the heat just transfers to our body more efficiently thanks to the steam.

Löyly is a Finnish word for the environment in a sauna; fresh air, even convective heat enveloping our body, and the final element is good steam caressing us. In Finland nobody asks what the temp was but how the löyly was.

Note: Many public ‘saunas’ in the U.S. and UK don’t allow throwing water on the stones. The official reason given is that the electric heater can’t handle water, which most of us know is complete bollocks – because sauna heaters are designed for it.

The real reason is people misbehaving – throwing stuff other than clean fresh water on the stones like from a personal squirt bottle or throwing too much on or throwing water on too often and killing the stones. Hopefully we can get to a point where others act mature enough that these restrictions are no longer necessary.

Conclusion

If we get in the habit of following this routine we’ll not only get much greater benefits from our sauna time but we’ll enjoy it a lot more.

In Part II we’ll take a look at what to look for in a good sauna.

 

Resources

Saunologia
Trumpkin’s Sauna Notes
‘Secrets of Finnish Sauna Design’
ISA
‘Social Sauna’
Perfect Sweat series.