Having been born in Finland, going to a traditional sauna comes naturally to me - like breathing. I also understand that if you've never done it before, it may seem mysterious or even difficult.
There are a lot of "sauna rules" out there that may make you feel that you have to take your sauna in some specifically defined way - no need to stress about that. The best thing about having your own home sauna is that you get to make the rules.
However, I want to help you enjoy your sauna to the fullest, so I gathered all of my Finnish Sauna expertise to recommend some best practices. Take these recommendations and experiment with that works for you. One thing before we begin: the tips below apply to Traditional Finnish Saunas only. Infrareds and Steam Rooms have different settings - and different results. I don't want to stall you any longer, so here are 9 ways how to take your sauna session to the next level:
Combining saunas and exercise is a proven way to extend your life span and considerably improve your health. I've made it a habit to get a sweat on before going to the sauna. Sauna is now a part of my health and weight loss journey so I tend to use it regularly (if you want to find out more about how I managed to lose weight with the help of sauna bathing, check out my free eBook "Saunas - Secrets of Weight Loss"). Having two rounds of sweat leaves you feeling incredibly refreshed and healthy.
Adjust the exercise to your fitness level and situation. If you have a wood-burning heater, for example, chopping up firewood can be a great exercise. You can also go for a jog, or run a marathon - or just have a walk in nature. Whatever works best for you.
If you did heavy exercise, give your body time to cool down before going to the sauna. I like to take at least an hour to settle down. Going to the sauna immediately after exercise can be used as a “fitness hack”, but it’s an advanced tactic for serious athletes (and not exactly a fun one). Just doing exercise and going to the sauna after cooling down is more than most people do for their health - I’m happy with that.
Even if you didn’t exercise (I don’t always have time for that), try to relax a bit before going to the sauna. While sauna will work wonders to calm you down, it’s a good idea to slow down and settle in. While the sauna is heating up, you can do some meditation, or just sit in peace. Do your best to not go to the sauna in a hurried state of mind.
Having a light snack before the sauna is ok, but large meals are a bit problematic. Eating a lot makes your body concentrate the blood flow to your stomach, and being in a hot environment makes the body concentrate the blood flow to the outer skin layers. When it tries to do both at the same time, you may end up feeling not very good.
If you’ve done exercise before the sauna, having a sports drink is probably a good idea. You want to have the electrolytes up and be well hydrated. That prevents you from becoming woozy in the sauna. Another helpful tip is to always have enough drinking water available.
You can do sauna at any time of the year, week, or day. It makes no real difference whether you do it in the morning or at night - just use it often, as that’s how the extreme health benefits are shown to happen.
The right temperature for going to a sauna is a personal preference. Many people like to have their sauna fully heated up - after all, you do want your sauna hot.
Personally, I like to take it easy and go in when the sauna is at about 60ºC, or 140ºF - as long as it is still heating up! There is a big difference in being in a sauna that is at that temperature heating up, or when it’s cooling down (it is about how the Löyly works, a topic for another blog post).
This can be a bit counter-intuitive. As the idea of the sauna is for it to be hot, many people (even including many Finns) think that hotter is better. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve been in a sauna that was over 130ºC - around 270ºF. Finns are extremely competitive, and those kinds of temperatures are good for competing in "toughness". They are not that great for enjoying the sauna.
There’s a limit in the electric heaters sold in the United States that turns them off when the sauna gets to 194ºF. I think this is a good rule of thumb for a maximum enjoyable sauna temperature - go any further than that, and the sauna can turn into a sort of sports instead of healthy, relaxing activity. Usually, I have my saunas at between 160º-180ºF. Sauna is about taking it slow and enjoying life, not baking yourself at maximum heat.
The sauna feeling is really not just about the temperature. The way your body feels the heat is much more than just a number on the thermometer. There are a lot of factors, but in a sauna, the most important is the humidity in the air - and you use the löyly to control that.
Löyly is the water you throw onto the heater rocks. If you’re unable to do this (in some commercial saunas, this is sometimes forbidden because of misunderstandings), your sauna experience won't be as enjoyable. Löyly makes you feel the heat in the sauna much more. It is a smooth, full-body feeling and there is just no substitute for it. It is hard to describe the feeling if you haven’t experienced it - but once you have, you won’t forget it.
According to the scientific study that followed the health of over 2000 Finnish men over 20 years, the best sauna health effects were had by having a sauna 4-7 times a week, with the sauna at 79ºC (174ºF) and with 20-minute sauna sessions. Please note that these are averages… I wouldn’t stay in the sauna for 20 minutes at a time.
If I have time, I really like to take my time with a sauna. An hour goes by without noticing. An hour wouldn’t go by without me noticing if I were to sit in the sauna without breaks… breaks are very important. For those really long sauna sessions, I often do about a 50/50 split, about 5-15 minutes in the sauna, and about the same time outside the sauna. With 3-5 repetitions of this, the 20-minute average seems really short. When having the sauna with friends, time flies by just shooting the breeze.
If you have a chance, try combining the sauna with cold treatment (if you have a cardiovascular condition, please talk with your doctor before doing this). In addition to exercise and sauna, cold treatment is the third way to supercharge your health. The traditional Finnish way of doing this is to go swimming in a hole in the ice. If this sounds too extreme, an easier way to do it is to have a cool shower. You can turn it colder when you get used to the idea first.
Just a word of warning - doing this may really knock you out after the sauna and put you to sleep, so if you need to drive after the sauna, then don't do the cold treatment. Often it’s like sleep medicine, so consider having a dedicated driver. I'm not kidding!
Cold treatment combined with sauna is definitely an advanced tactic. Combining exercise, sauna and cold treatment all at once with no prior experience is extreme - if you’re just starting out with these things, take them one at a time and ease into the experience.
You’ve had your sauna, with or without exercise and cold treatment - then what?
At this point, you’re very relaxed and refreshed. It’s a good time to eat something and let your body cool down. Going straight to sleep after the sauna is not recommended, as you’re still feeling the residual heat from the sauna. Just take it easy, knowing that you’ve just done wonders for your mind and body!
I hope that these tips will help you create the optimal sauna experience. If I may leave you with one last tip, it would be to take it one step at a time. Experiment with the different recommendations I gave you and stick to what works best for you. In the end, your home sauna is your sanctuary, so you make the rules.
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