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Cold Plunge vs Sauna: Which is Best for You?

With all the rage about recovery and wellness these days, everyone is talking about their use of cold plunges and saunas.

Taking a cold plunge employs the use of cold, while sauna uses heat. Both are forms of therapy that can be used to help recover after workouts as well as a means to achieving optimum wellness. During a cold plunge, your blood vessels constrict, which slows down blood flow and leads to a reduction in inflammation and muscle pain.

Sauna sessions do the opposite and enhance blood flow, contributing to pain reduction, muscle repair, detoxification, and accelerated healing. From some of the benefits we have listed, you can see that both are great options for post-workout recovery and improving your overall health.

So, heat vs cold, which one is your best option? Let’s get into the article and figure it all out.

Introduction to Saunas and Their Varieties

Saunas are enclosed steam rooms that produce heat within them. Today, several types of saunas are available, slightly over four or five, showing how keen individuals are on improving their wellness and post-workout recovery.

However, the most common classification of saunas is traditional saunas and infrared saunas. The traditional sauna (Finnish sauna or dry sauna) is the most common and well-known type; most times, it’s a wood-lined room heated by hot rocks and steam.

A more modern sauna, the infrared sauna, uses infrared heaters and lamps to create heat. Compared to traditional steam saunas, which warm the air, these modern saunas warm the body from the inside through safe penetrative infrared rays.

Some other types are steam saunas, Turkish baths (hammams), and wet and dry saunas. They all provide and allow an individual to experience unique health benefits. One choice over the other depends on individual preferences, goals and the type of sauna available within an area of residence or home.

Introduction to Ice Baths and Cold Plunge Benefits

Ice baths involve dipping in cold water at 50-60 degrees fahrenheit or lower for short durations. It is considered a great form of therapy that most athletes opt for to help reduce muscle soreness, inflammation, and swelling, leading to better and improved performance.

Cold plunge therapy is not limited to athletes and gym enthusiasts. Other individuals can also take the plunge and experience other great health benefits, such as an improved immune system, better mental health and mood elevation, and increased metabolism.

Ice Bath vs Sauna: The Science of Recovery

Recovery is equally important as any workout regimen; it involves allowing yourself to rest after an intense workout, giving your body time to restore and repair muscles, tackle any inflammation or soreness or deal with any pain or swelling. Failure to factor in recovery might affect overall performance or cause injuries. Below, we shall look at the effects of heat and cold exposure.

Exploring Hormesis, Stress Response, and Shock Proteins

Hormesis refers to the beneficial effects that come about as a result of being exposed to stress triggers. These triggers can be intense workouts, intermittent fasting or being exposed to extreme temperatures.

The response one has to these triggers supports the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Exposure to stressful situations like extremely hot or cold conditions causes an activation of heat shock proteins (HSP).

Studies have shown that these shock proteins help with cell regeneration and improve your immune system and ability to handle stressful situations by building your resilience levels.

Vasodilation and Its Benefits

Vasodilation happens when your blood vessels open, which is the opposite of vasoconstriction. It can occur when one is exposed to extreme heat, like in a sauna or after one exits or emerges from a cold plunge.

It leads to improved circulation and increased blood flow, ensuring adequate delivery of nutrients and oxygen in your whole body, which helps reduce inflammation and repair and restore muscles.

The Role of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress Reduction

Inflammation and oxidative stress are correlated where one can trigger the other, leading to other medical conditions like diabetes, hypertension and others. The free radicals from oxidative stress can impair and affect your cells' function.

Hence, it is crucial to participate in recovery sessions centered on dealing with and reducing inflammation while helping with other issues that arise due to intense workouts. Due to the interrelation between inflammation and oxidative stress, when you reduce one, the other also reduces.

Mental Resilience and Norepinephrine Release

Constant and consistent cold exposure or hot temperatures for recovery, in the long run, will impact your mental resilience. The ability to stay calm and relaxed when faced with stressful situations contributes to robust mental resilience; this state will be beneficial during the recovery sessions and in other situations you might face in your daily life.

Typically, when your body is exposed to stressful situations, the first response is flight or fight; the hormone norepinephrine is also released during such conditions. This hormone and adrenaline prepare your body and brain to react to stress triggers.

Sauna vs Cold Plunge: Recovery Techniques Unveiled

Each recovery method, whether an ice bath or sauna, holds its own regarding the benefits it lets you experience. The hormetic stress that your body goes through during each session triggers physiological processes that help reduce inflammation, rejuvenate, repair and replace tissue and muscles.

Sauna Benefits

A hot sauna session is great for post-workout recovery or for when you want to feel relaxed and rejuvenated; other benefits of sauna use are:

  • Improved circulation contributing to better cardiovascular health, hence lowering risks associated with heart diseases or strokes

  • The increased blood flow releases and reduces tension in your muscles and joints, leaving you with elevated energy levels

  • Sauna baths trigger an increased sweat production that helps with detoxification and removal of other harmful substances

  • Regular sauna sessions also contribute to enhancing your overall well-being

Ice Bath Advantages

Ice baths or cold showers have been used for centuries, and the ancient Greeks and Romans were on to something that had unique health benefits ahead of time. Over the years, the practice has become popular, and many individuals have embraced it. The rise in popularity of ice baths can partly be attributed to social media, but the unique benefits you get to experience are the winner. The benefits and advantages of ice baths are:

  • Help accelerate healing, contributing to muscle recovery and repair

  • Limits and reduces inflammation

  • Boost your immune system, making it stronger

  • Improves mental health by alleviating symptoms of stress and reducing anxiety

  • Improves blood flow and circulation

Sauna vs Ice Bath: Making the Right Choice

Choosing the right therapy (heat/cold) option for you is influenced by different factors: time availability, cost aspect, therapy available in the area of residence, personal goals and type of workout you do.

Deciding between Heat and Cold For Post-Workout Recovery

For purposes of post-workout recovery, both heat and cold therapy are effective and great options. When a cold plunge is mentioned, the first thought that comes to mind is icy or cold temperatures, and a sauna evokes thoughts of warmth and relaxation.

An ice bath, though cold and freezing, works wonders on aches, soreness, pain and inflammation. Imagine how a soak in the bathtub leaves you feeling relaxed; that is what heat therapy does to your body post-workout.

Unlike cold water immersion, which slows circulation, heat therapy increases it, promoting muscle repair. The heat will leave you relaxed and reduce pain and soreness. After an intense workout, cold therapy is a welcome relief as it cools you down and reduces inflammation.

When to Opt for an Ice Bath

Ice baths are effective if they take place as soon as you’re done with intense workouts like HIIT, marathons or weightlifting; they help reduce inflammation. After an intense run, a short cold plunging session could help minimize muscle soreness and accelerate recovery.

When to Choose a Sauna for Recovery

Like an ice bath, a sauna session works best if it takes place after a workout; as a recovery option, it increases blood flow, helping with muscle recovery and repair. While in the sauna, your body will relax, and once you emerge, you’ll feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

Cold Plunge vs Sauna: Advanced Insights

Whether you choose to go with an ice bath or sauna, a constant factor for both practices is that they have an impact and can trigger certain functions and processes in your body. Let’s look at the effect they have on your body.

The Impact on Hormone Health, Nervous System and Cardiovascular Health

The exposure to extreme heat or cold stimulates your nervous system, which is the part of your body that controls how you feel and react to stimuli, which, in this case, can trigger your fight or flight response.

One of the most common effects of getting into a cold plunge is the release of endorphins; these hormones boost and elevate your mood, reducing feelings of anxiety, restlessness and stress.

The anti-inflammatory effects from sauna sessions and ice baths that help handle inflammation in your body also play a role in maintaining the right hormonal balance with the help of the thyroid gland, which is stimulated when exposed to cold or heat.

Both practices improve blood circulation, which not only ensures an adequate supply of nutrients and waste removal in the body but aids with the transportation of hormones. A proper blood flow is also tied to a better and improved cardiovascular system.

The Impact on Muscle Recovery and Athletic Performance

Research and studies have shown the positive effects of taking ice baths after intense workouts; they suggest that immersion significantly impacts muscle recovery and reduces soreness. Heat therapy also helps reduce pain by increasing metabolism, which in turn accelerates the healing and recovery of muscles.

Heat and cold therapy play a significant role in recovery and directly impact an athlete's performance. An individual who chooses to take part in recovery is better placed to perform better than another who doesn’t. Your body’s tissues and muscles are restored and repaired through recovery, leaving you refreshed and rejuvenated.

Infrared Saunas vs Traditional Saunas

Most therapy methods are advanced versions of methods that have existed for years, which is the case with infrared and traditional saunas. Infrared saunas are the modern version of traditional saunas as they use infrared technology to deliver rays of light to provide heat, while traditional saunas use other methods.

In the table below, we shall compare the two

Infrared Saunas

Traditional Sauna

Trigger production of HSP

Activate heat shock protein

Improve immune system

Boost immune system

Hormesis occurs due to one being exposed to infrared rays

Triggers hormesis

Improves blood circulation

Boosts blood circulation

Helps with detoxification

Helps with the removal of toxins

Works the cardiovascular system

Triggers a cardio workout


Integrating Recovery Methods into Your Routine

We’ve already ascertained the importance of recovery; it’s directly tied to your performance in the gym on other days or in any athletic activities you participate in, as well as preventing further injuries. 

You can incorporate these recovery methods into your wellness routine in the comfort of your home by getting ready-made, commercially available cold plunge pools, like the Ice Barrel, and/or one of many available saunas on the market. You can opt to participate in each form of therapy individually or take part in both in the form of contrast therapy. 

The Power of Contrast Therapy

In contrast therapy, you will be shifting from hot therapy to cold therapy or vice versa multiple times, which causes dilation and constriction of your blood vessels. That's right, combining your sauna and cold plunge routine into the same session. You'll want to have about 1 minute of cold exposure for every 3-4 minutes of heat exposure. This would look something like 10 minutes in the sauna, 2-3 minutes in the cold plunge, back to the sauna and then back in the cold plunge! 

These processes improve circulation, contributing to a supply of nutrients and removing waste from your body.

Other benefits of contrast therapy are:

  • Reduce pain and swelling
  • Soothe muscles, reducing inflammation
  • Improves immune system
  • Help with stress management

    Safety Considerations for Using Saunas and Ice Bath

    Despite their benefits, saunas and ice baths should be used with caution and care. Below are some safety considerations to keep in mind:

    • Avoid alcohol; when taking part in both therapies, ensure you are sober

    • Limit the time you spend in a sauna or ice bath. Listen to your body, and when the level of discomfort becomes unbearable, step out or exit

    • Start your session slowly and gradually, allowing yourself to acclimatize to the freezing and hot temperature

    • Focus on your breathing; slow and steady breaths are advised

    • Cool down gradually from your session and warm up gradually after emerging from the cold plunge

    Cold Plunge vs Sauna: Frequently Asked Questions

    What is the optimal sequencing of a sauna bath in terms of duration and frequency?

    There isn’t a set rule of thumb when it comes to using a sauna, as it might depend on factors like when you work out or availability of time; that being said, if your sessions aren’t based on your workout regimen, you can use the sauna 3-4 times in a week. The sessions should last 10-20 minutes

    What is the optimal sequencing of an ice bath in terms of duration and frequency?

    The use of ice baths is highly dependent on an individual’s perspective and can be based on your threshold and body limit when exposed to cold, your experience with ice baths or when you’ve engaged in an intense workout. For seasoned individuals who have been plunging for a long time, the duration they spend in the cold water can go all the way to 10-15+ minutes, depending on the temperature. However, the recommended duration for an ice bath is 3-10 minutes, with the sessions spread over 2-3 days a week.

    Do saunas and ice baths have an impact on weight loss?

    When your body is exposed to cold in an ice bath, it is forced to burn more fat to regulate its core heat, which can lead to weight loss. Saunas, on the other hand, help with shedding, known as water weight, which is temporary weight loss.

    Cold Plunge vs Sauna Conclusion

    There’s nothing wrong with looking for a way to provide your body with some love and care after an intense workout or alternative ways to elevate your overall well-being and health. Cold and heat therapies have been used for centuries; science and modern technology have elevated them, making us aware of the myriad benefits we can experience from them.

    As part of your wellness routines, you can incorporate sauna baths and ice baths to experience these immense benefits that have positive effects on your body and your mental health, skin, sleep cycle, and so much more.

    In addition to these therapy options, having enough rest, consuming a balanced diet, and proper hydration will also help with recovery and positively impact your journey to wellness.


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