The Sauna Cool Down

Many folks think of sauna as a small room, very hot, and wood paneled with a stove. This isn’t sauna. This is a component OF sauna. Folks who are not afraid to live – who have carved out their own health and wellness retreat – understand that the hot room is a set up for something more significant: the cool down. The cool down is where and when the magic happens.

Why We Cool Down

With steam billowing off our bodies, JP, 612 Sauna Society, and Scott Pollock, American Swedish Institute, and I were discussing the virtues of completely cooling down our bodies between sauna rounds. “It’s no wonder why some people don’t like sauna. I feel bad for the people who go from the hot room, to outside, then right back in. Back and forth. Jackrabbiting their sauna rounds.”

JP is right. Microbursts may work for two guys who built a $120mm company, but for most of us, our bodies become confused and it is easy to feel dizzy with many short sauna rounds.

From the tundra in Alaska, to the Northern reaches of Scandinavia, enclaves of sauna enthusiasts all over understand how awesome it feels to exit the hot room when “the idea of a cold lake plunge is about the best idea you’ve ever heard.” Then, enjoying the complete cool down, in the garden all misty wet with rain, until our body core is completely cooled, and not just our skin. When we listen to our core, we tap deep into our physiology. Want to know what that means? Listen to Wim Hof here.

What is a Good Sauna Cool Down?

The time we enjoy cooling down outside is often longer than our time heating up in the sauna. Our barometer of a good cool down is marked by our ability to brush aside the false inputs of cold skin and instead focus within, to our core. Consciousness. By doing so, we increasingly obtain command of our entire physiology. Much as with the Wim Hof Method, listening to our core “brings us deep into our physiology, where we begin to control our immune and nervous responses to all forms of stress.”

Why Sauna Enthusiasts Love the Cool Down

You know that feeling when we mistakenly step into a freezing cold shower? “yow!” and we jump back in terror “Omg, that’s so cold!” Well, here’s a little secret: we sauna enthusiasts seek out that feeling. We are like crack heads for that adrenaline rush. After experiencing this feeling over and over, we are able to unpack what is actually happening, in a weird, rational kind of way.

Conventional sequence from contact with cold water:

  • Skin: “cold water, man! go tell the brain to get our muscles to react, fast!”
  • Brain: “shit, the skin down there just told us that there’s fucking cold water hitting the body. Time for conditional response! Sending an outpouring of stress hormones right now. Hey muscles: pull back now!”
  • Muscles: “righty, oh. On it!”

We pull back. We breathe hard. We are freaked out, but we recover.

Experienced sequence from contact with cold water:

  • Skin: “cold water, man! It’s just cold water, is this what we want?”
  • Brain: “Yes, the skin down there just told us that there’s fucking cold water hitting the body. My conditional response has been rewired. This feels fucking awesome. No stress hormones needed right now. Hey muscles: you good?”
  • Muscles: “Shit yeah, this is awesome, bring it on.”

Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari, (Sapiens), and behavioral psychologists everywhere remind us that basically 20,000 years of being chased by tigers have created conditional responses for survival. Our minds secrete norepinephrine and cortisol that flood the body during stress. This is hard wired into our system. Cold plunges, cold showers between sauna rounds, and the Wim Hof Method of deep breathing and cold water exposure unearths benefits of more energy, reduced stress levels, and an augmented immune response that swiftly deals with pathogens: rewiring the hard wiring.

With the authentic sauna experience, yes we enjoy ourselves like crazy. Yet, in addition, thanks to the clean rinse after every sauna round, we fully heat up and fully cool down as part of the rubber band theory and we, over time, chip away at 20,000 years of conditional response to rewire our minds, and our bodies.

We can learn from a 6th grader about how completely cooling down between sauna rounds. cold plunge or cold shower greatly enhances our sauna experience (as well as augmenting our conditioned caveman immune response).

It’s been said that with sauna, when we surrender, we win. As we build trust and confidence with heat AND cold, we are tapping into some serious shenanigans (note comment section below).

The Cool Down is Often Even More Enjoyable Than the Heat Up

Once folks start feeling a good cool down, I recognize either:

  1. Their saunas are located in places of great repose.
  2. They are in tune to the rubber band theory – expanding of the mind, body, spirit.

Regarding #1

Though not everybody is fortunate enough to own lakefront property, or be able to build their health wellness retreat along the banks of a babbling brook, I want to encourage everybody to create their own slice of outdoor repose. A simple deck with a few patio chairs, maybe a fire pit. Introduce some native greenery – birches and pines perhaps.

Also, adjacent to the hot room door, the changing room should be more than just a place to dump your clothes. It is wonderfully important to establish a place where one can enjoy their time between sauna rounds. Do you have a sauna in your basement? Next sauna, go outside and hang out for a few minutes. Even if your sauna is next to your laundry room, bring down a tall plant, carve out a corner to hang out between sauna rounds.

Regarding #2

Once above is in place, now I encourage all sauna users to apply a simple practice (not a rule, but a practice). Spend at least the same amount time cooling down as you do heating up. It is critical to allow enough time, in a cool environment, for the body to cool down. The mind will play tricks on your body in cold weather. You will feel icy cold air against your hot skin and your mind will say “get back in the sauna!”. Don’t give into this. It is like a hot chick at the high school party saying: “bet you can’t chug that half bottle of vodka”. You can do it, but you’ve just shortened your enjoyment.

The Cool Down as a Function of Time Outside Between Sauna Rounds

Sauna bathers understand the nonlinearity of a good sauna cool down. As the wind blows and steam billows, we have a grasp of how our bodies retain heat, even in sub freezing temperatures. Further, we understand that after a certain threshold of time, our bodies are fully cooled. We feel it, and at this point, we either towel off and get dressed, or head back into the sauna for another round.

An expression of this understanding can be represented as:

The experienced sauna bather exhibits concave nonlinearity antifragile cool downs. The vertical access (n) is heat. The horizontal access (f) is time. As we exit the hot room, and after we jump in a cold lake or dump cold water over our heads, our bodies are still plenty warm. And we remain so, nonlinearly.

Even after a few minutes outside, our bodies still give off heat and we are relatively comfortable outside in the cold. Yet after a certain time, our body heat starts to drop faster, and at a certain point we should be reaching for either our clothes to get dressed or, if we are between rounds, the hot room door to warm up for another round.

This concave nonlinearity is an example of “antifragile”*. We have strength of body and mind. We gain from the disorder of temperature extremes. We are an example of how “some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Inexperienced sauna bathers are fragile. When exiting the hot room, and leery of an ice cold lake plunge or dumping cold water over their heads, they are immediately more vulnerable to a cool breeze and cold temperatures. In other words, they feel as if they are getting cold quickly. They shiver and squirm. They reach the threshold to seek warmth much more quickly, even nonlinearly as a subject of time outside.

The inexperienced sauna bather gets cold quicker between sauna rounds. As people become more exposed to the authentic sauna experience, they garner the opportunity to develop “robustness” in their mind and body. By “listening to our core, not our skin” we start to extend our cool downs, and we become “antifragile” because of it (a very good thing). We “strive and grow” from these “stressors.”

  • better health – fewer to zero colds, flu, etc.
  • better disposition – less prone to want to throw a plate against a wall in anger.
  • more stamina – able to shovel the driveway in Troxers or minimal clothing. “Cold? eh… not so bad.”

For now, we know this intuitively and experientially, yet we welcome (and are seeking) clinical studies with more multisyllabic words to help explain why.

13 thoughts on “The Sauna Cool Down”

  1. Been lately practiced 3 min cooling sessions in the ice ho… sorry AVANTO . Deep breaths, self awareness, just amazing after sauna feeling.

  2. the deep cold has finally returned to wisconsin! did a three-rounder before work this morning. five degrees out with a light snow falling and a bucket of water makes for a quick cool down session. sunday should be a rager with a forecasted HIGH of -5!

  3. Jim: I’ve done the course. I practice the WHM almost daily. Sauna enthusiasts will transition in nICE fashion to his practice as we already know what it’s like to cold plunge.

  4. Health club sauna bathers: there’s nothing wrong with popping open the door next to the pool and getting access to your own fresh air cool down. But you may need a waiver from the manager (who listens to Sauna Talk and knows whet we are talking about).

  5. Hey Glenn – I have to tell you how much I enjoy these short posts on all topics sauna. Thanks for your work here at Sauna Times and have a great Christmas.

    BTW, do you have a “rule of thumb” for the minimum time between hot room sessions?

  6. Check out May 2018 Wayne University Study, May 15, 2018, on Wim Hof Method: The defense of body temperature against environmental thermal challenges is a core objective of homeostatic regulation governed by the autonomic nervous system. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811918300673

    Copied from wimhofmethod.com:

    We all have innate mechanisms to deal with the cold: vasoconstriction; increased energy metabolism; pain signals telling us to not do whatever it is we are doing. These are so-called ‘bottom-up’ processes— environmental stimuli hit the periphery, and dictate an automatic physiological response. It works, to a point, but it is very limited and strictly regulated.

    Some additional endogenous operations work in the opposite direction: so-called ‘higher order cortical brain areas’ send out signals that have some endogenous thermoregulatory capacity. But these ‘top-down’ impulses were thought to play an extremely limited role in managing adverse stimuli. Previous studies have measured activity of these areas, and found their contributions to be negligible.

    However, a select few individuals display an extreme tolerance to cold that far exceeds what these bottom-up mechanisms could effectuate, and we happen to know one such individual very well. Wim’s seemingly superhuman ability makes him the ideal subject for research into these other, top-down pathways. Duly aware of these dueling mechanisms, the researchers at Wayne State set up a study that accounts for both.

    They subjected Wim to intermittent bouts of mild hypothermia, using a specially designed whole-body suit that has a network of tiny tubes woven into the fabric, allowing for temperature-controlled water and the capacity to measure skin temperature to within 0.1 °C. They then used PET/CT imaging and fMRI scans to measure both the periphery and whatever is happening in the central nervous system.

    So what did that show? When Wim does the WHM breathing technique, the higher order cortical brain areas are significantly more active. (These are also associated with self-reflection and internal focus, inducing a ‘here and now’ state that whisks away worry about the past and future.) Second, Wim appears to activate regions in the periaqueductal gray; a part of the brain that is the primary control center for pain suppression. This is a promising discovery that could lead to a potential role for the WHM as endogenous painkiller, and reflects results we already see today in people who effectively use the WHM to combat conditions like fibromyalgia. Finally, the measurements showed that the WHM breathing increases glucose consumption, in turn generating heat that warms circulating blood. This at least partly explains why Wim’s core body temperature does not drop.

    The results clearly demonstrate the capacity of certain regions of the brain to contribute substantial top-down regulation of the body’s response to averse environmental stimuli, upending the hitherto accepted theory that this function was almost exclusively reserved for peripherally-induced processes. As with most good studies, the answers have created many new questions. As such this serves as a solid basis for further research, which we hope will follow very soon.

  7. We like to roll in the snow when winter comes to northern Wisconsin after a hot sauna. Nothing better 😊 👍👍

  8. I agree that the cool down is a critical part of an enjoyable sauna, but I sometimes question how cold the rinse should actually be. I occasionally take a brief plunge through the ice into mid-30 degree lake water or a quick roll in the snow, but I find the endorphin release to feel about equal using cool water (60 degrees-ish) through a DIY showering can that I stay under longer. I wonder how others feel who have compared methods?

  9. Agreed, Jeff: The intensity and endorphin rush of a cool shower vs. cold plunge reminds me of the analogy of burning a charcoal briquette, vs smashing a charcoal briquette into crumbles. The briquette burns slow, but crumbles ignites like gas. With a shower, it’s like the crumbles: lots of surface area and air, so accentuated cooling effect. That’s how I read it, anyway.

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