The Sauna Cold Plunge Routine For Compounding Benefits

Key Takeaways
Hot and cold therapy work together at a molecular level to improve vascular, mitochondrial, and mental health. Some benefits are only achieved when you end in the cold (Soeberg Principle), but it doesn’t have to be that cold!

Reaching a minimum threshold of exposure each week is more important than any particular routine. Here’s a weekly Sauna Cold Plunge Routine that works best in studies:

Routine: 2 or 3 rounds, ending in the cold (important).
Exposure and Frequency: Get in a total of 10 minutes of cold each week, and about 1 hour of heat each week spread out over 2 or 3 sessions.
Cold Temperature: Uncomfortable but safe. Anything colder than 19 C/66.2F can activate brown fat and insulin sensitivity. Doesn’t have to be ice water!
Hot Temperature: Saunas should be traditional (not infrared) sauna reaching temperatures of 85 C/185F. Keep a log of temperature and duration. An infrared thermometer like this is essential for both.

We’ve known separately about the befits of sauna and cold exposure but Danish researcher Susanna Soeberg (Søberg) is tying it all together, and finding that hot and cold exposure work together in ways not previously understood.

Hot-Cold Exposure and Mitochondrial Health

They key is in the mitochondria, which plays an important role in overall health and preventing disease.

Cold Therapy improves mitochondrial health, at a molecular level, increasing the number of them.

Heat makes the mitochondria more efficient, resulting in better use of oxygen in blood. Routinely doing them together is better than sauna alone.

While it may not be what you want to hear, the clear conclusions from scientific research is that it’s optimal to end sauna routines in the cold, letting your body do the heavy lifting to warm your body after the final cold plunge.

The reason for this was coined the Soeberg Principle by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a Stanford Neuroscience Professor.

The Soeberg Priciple: Ending a sauna practice in a cold plunge forces the body to increase thermogenesis, which increases metabolism

Training Thermal Regulation Improves Performance

Usually, when an athletes performance starts to deteriorate it is due to overheating.  Pro surfer Laird Hamilton and his wife Gabby are experts in thermal regulation training and contribute much of their success to their ability to thermoregulate.

Thermal regulation, the ability to heat the body up and cool the body off, is among the most energy consuming processing the body is ever tasked with.

By alternating between cold and hot, your body will get much better at regulating temperature when under pressure from athletic exertion.

  • Cold is a hormone regulator
  • Cold boosts testosterone (but may reduce sperm count)
  • Cold makes immune system more powerful
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Improves Circulation
  • Improves thermal regulation
  • Improves athletic performance by preventing overheating

Cold exposure, or ice baths, are excellent for recovery, the vascular system, and the mind. The ability to withstand cold increases with practice and improves the bodies ability to regulate heat, circulation, and mental toughness.

Indeed, traditional Finnish saunas are outdoor structures (not connected to the home) that are near a lake or river when possible.  Some Finnish sauna bathers take a cold plunge between each round, even if there’s ice on the lake.

Update, January 2022

Wim Hofers rejoice: there’s finally a product called ‘The Ice Barrel’ made especially for ice baths and cold exposure. It’s pretty awesome. Check it out here:

What is cold exposure?

The thermal regulation system can actually be built up and improved by training it by exposure to extreme temperatures.  We know sauna is effective at one extreme, but if you want to really maximize the benefits you also need cold exposure.

Cold exposure can be achieved by ice baths, laying in snow, jumping in nearly frozen water, or just being outside in freezing temperatures with minimal clothing.

Training Your Cold (Fat) Muscles for Thermogenesis

Thermogenesis is your bodies ability to create heat.  Bodies always produce heat, usually from organs such as the heart, liver, and brain.

Normal fat, or white fat cells, can keep you warm by literally adding insulation.

Humans store a special kind of fat that the body can use to rapidly create heat on demand.  Brown fat, also called brown adipose is a type of body fat that is activated when cold.  Brown fat keeps babies, who cannot shiver, alive.  It was recently discovered that adults still store brown fat, and we may be able to increase it.

Learning to harness brown fat makes it easier to access whenever needed.  When activated, the body has an incredible warming sensation even in freezing water.

Brown fat location is highly personalized, but it’s often in your neck, abdomen, and down your spine.  Tiny amounts of brown fat can heat your entire body from within.  It’s what Wim Hof calls “the inner fire”, and harnessing it helped him beat world records in cold exposure.

Sauna Cold Plunge Routine

When you’re starting out, a typical routing will be 10-15 minutes in the sauna and 30 seconds to two minutes in the cold plunge.  Try to slow down your breathing in the ice.  You will feel your heart slow down, and get into a meditative state if you are able to control your breathing.

More advanced routines may incorporate exercise (bike riding or yoga) in the sauna and cold exposure up to 15 minutes.

Always end your session in the heat if you’re going to workout or train, and in the cold if you’re looking to recover.  Listen to your body and work with a qualified trainer.

How Cold Does The Plunge Need To Be?

A world of health benefits can be activated by cycling between hot (sauna) and cold exposure. For those who follow Wim Hof, getting the water as cold as possible without freezing is common.

But according to new research, mild cold is enough to activate the central nervous system. Extreme temperatures or duration is not required.

All that is required to activate brown fat is dropping skin temperatures, which is relative!

According to researcher Susanna Soberg, 19 C/66.2 F is enough to activate brown fat and create “the inner fire” we are looking for.

So if you feel cold, and you endure it for several minutes, you are likely receiving benefits of brown fat and heat shock proteins.

Susanna Soberg recommends finding what works best for you to get some cold in your life.

Tip: SLEEP at 19 C/66.2F for 30 days to increase Brown fat and insulin sensitivity! This is VERY important to prevent diabetes and overall health!

Susanna Soberg

Even putting your hand or foot in cold water for 4 min (4 C) will initiate cold shock response and Brown fat activation.

So it doesn’t really matter if it’s winter swimming, ice baths, cryotherapy, cold shower, snow angels, or just turning the thermostat down when you’re sleeping. Cold therapy can work for any lifestyle, just find out what works best for you.

Cold Plunge Options and Ideas

When possible, the best option for a cold plunge is the most natural one – a river, ocean, or lake.  If that’s not an option, here are our reviews of the best cold plunge baths for outdoors.

Otherwise you’re going to need a large outdoor ice bath.  Here are a few options.

Chest Freezer

The chest freezer ice bath is an environmentally friendly option for an ice bath, as you can reuse the same water for several weeks.  The freezers are well insulated and a bag or two of ice before your session should do the trick.  Many people find them used on Craigslist or eBay but make sure they don’t have bad odors, which may never come out.

Ice trough Ice Bath

Using a trough is a popular and good looking choice for taking ice baths.  Simply fill with water and ice.  If you want to get fancy like music producer Rick Rubin, you can rig it up with sensors and chillers to maintain the perfect temperature without adding ice.  They also look great next to barrel saunas.

The sauna cold plunge routine for compounding benefits 1

Does jumping into an ice cold lake sound impossible right now?  Maybe you just need a good sauna session first. It’s said that the right time to leave the sauna is when the idea of jumping in an ice cold lake sounds like about the best idea you’ve ever heard.  

Hot-Cold exposure training is catching on with elite athletes, but the sauna cold plunge is nothing new.  The Finnish people have always enjoyed jumping in the lake between sauna sessions, and winter swimming is popular throughout Scandinavian countries. 

They sauna hard, and they stay in long enough that the cold sounds enjoyable.

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