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Sauna Bathers Guide

This brief sauna bather’s overview is intended to provide basic sauna bathing tips and instruction for the novice user. It should not be relied on for health or medical advice. 


Sauna gives your cardiovascular system a workout. If you have any underlying heart conditions or other health concerns, please consult with your physician before beginning your sauna experience. 

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What is a sauna?
Getting ready to sauna
Basic sauna protcol
Cold immersion
Post Sauna

What is a sauna?


Sauna is the only Finnish word in the English language. It is both a verb and a noun. A typical sauna is a wood-paneled room with 2 or 3 levels of benches and an electric or wood-burning heater with rocks piled on top of it. The sauna is heated up to temperatures ranging from 80C-110C. The air is dry and humidity levels are temporarily increased by throwing ladles of water on to the hot rocks. The effects of the ambient heat and the steam are therapeutic and meant to be enjoyable. However, there is a learning curve. 


Saunas and sauna bathing have been an integral part of Finnish culture for over a millennium and produce best results when combined with intermittent exposure to cold, usually in the form of brief periods of cold-water immersion. This cycle is often called thermal bathing or contrast bathing.


In North America thermal bathing is currently experiencing a renaissance. Recent research has shown that both heat and cold exposure have myriad health benefits and when combined the potential results are amplified. However, to the Finns – and a growing cohort of non-Finns - the benefits of sauna and thermal bathing extend beyond the physical. Sauna is also a place of relaxation, reflection, and community, and it is at the nexus of all of these where the true spirit of sauna exists. 


One of the main things to know about sauna is that it is not an exact science with a defined protocol you must follow. Sauna bathing is a personal journey of discovery; there is no right or wrong way to do it. Over time your individual preferred sauna practice will reveal itself to you. 


Getting Ready to Sauna




A 30-minute sauna session can cause you to lose up to 1 litre of water, so it is important to hydrate during the day leading up to your sauna experience. Drink a few extra glasses of water in the hours before your sauna session is to commence. 


Eat (but not too much)


You should not sauna on a full stomach. Eat your last meal at least 2 hours before your sauna session and then have a light snack beforehand if needed. Try and avoid heavy foods laden with carbs. Opt instead for fruits, veggies and proteins. 


Getting into the sauna mindset


If this is your first time in a proper sauna, prepare for some discomfort and commit to working your way through it. Much like with resistance and cardiovascular training, the benefits and pleasures accrue to those who commit to a regular and sustained practice.  




Shower before you enter the sauna. Make sure to rinse off any makeup or lotions to avoid absorbing any of the chemicals as your pores open from the heat. 


 Basic Sauna Protocol


Allow for 10-20 minutes for each sauna round. Find a comfortable sitting position and relax into it. Breathe deeply and purposefully. Some discomfort is to be expected and welcomed. If it occurs within the first 5-10 minutes, try and push through it. Your body is adjusting to a new environment. However, if at any point you feel dizzy, nauseous, or short of breath, exit the sauna and rest. 


Note: the longer you extend your first round, the more your core body temperature heats up allowing for enhanced enjoyment of the cold water.




Sauna is a place of community. While it also has health benefits, historically it was a place to gather after a hard week’s work with family and friends to share the stories of the day. Although it is equally common and acceptable to sit quietly and contemplate, talking with your sauna neighbour is quite ok (unless there is a class underway). However, respecting others’ practices is paramount so please keep your voice low. 




Löyly is a Finnish word for both the act of throwing water on the rocks to generate steam and the effects of that steam as it washes over your body. It is an integral component of the Finnish sauna bathing custom and is normally incorporated as part of your sauna rounds. 


After you have acclimatized to the heat, try throwing a ladleful or two of water onto the rocks. If there are others in the sauna with you ask them if they mind first (This is more of a common courtesy than a necessity). After a few moments you will feel warm-to-hot steam wafting over your body. Embrace it. In Finland this is the spirit of the sauna speaking to you. The löyly experience can be repeated several times during each sauna round.    


Other things to keep in mind:


It might take a little while for someone new to sauna to learn how to appreciate and relish löyly. Don’t give up if the first burst of steam feels uncomfortable.  


Löyly feels especially exhilarating immediately upon reentering the sauna after a cold plunge. 


It is common etiquette for the person doing the throwing to not exit before the steam settles or everyone else has left. Don’t throw more than you can handle yourself. 


Transitioning to Cold

Cold water is the balanced contrast your body craves after an extended sauna session. It is the Yin to Sauna’s Yang. Your sauna experience will be significantly enhanced if you complement it with cold water immersion after each round (except the last one).


After you have been in the sauna for a while (10-20 minutes is only a rough guide, everyone is different) or whenever the idea of plunging into cold water is all you can think of it is time to leave. The key idea here is to listen to your body. We are all different, as are all saunas. Carefully step off the bench and exit the sauna. Try your best not to leave during a löyly: wait until the steam has subsided. Have a quick shower and then carefully enter the cold tub. 


For most people, the initial shock of the cold water might seem unbearable. This is normal. Your body can handle it. You just have to convince yourself that your mind can too. Slowly submerge into the tub until only your neck and head are above the surface. To fully appreciate the benefits and pleasure of cold-water bathing intermittently dunk your head below the surface of the water. In general, the more still you sit the easier it will be to handle the cold water. Breathe deeply and purposefully. Try and spend 2-4 minutes in the water before carefully exiting. Often people feel a sense of euphoria upon leaving the cold water. This is normal. 


For those new to sauna, if the cold water is too much to bear, an extended cold shower is a good substitute. However, it is important to cool the body down before your next sauna round and room temperature air won’t cut it. 




Before re-entering the sauna have a seat and take a few minutes to relax. Drink some water (with electrolytes if you have them) and give your body some time to calm down from the (positive) stressors it has just endured. When you start to feel a chill, re-enter the sauna and repeat the process 2-4 times. 


Other things to keep in mind:


Sauna rounds can vary in length based on how you feel. Your second and third rounds might be longer or shorter than the first one. Continue listening to your body and act accordingly. 


Average sauna sessions last between 90 minutes and 2 hours and one of the hallmarks of an optimal experience is to not rush it. Sauna is a time for you to relax and restore. 


Post Sauna 


When you feel like you have had enough (or when your timeslot is up), exit the sauna from your last round and rinse off in the shower. You will not want to experience the chills again so you can skip the cold plunge. If you really want to have a last plunge, make it a quick in and out as you’ll want to retain your body heat for the cool down process. 


After your shower you can either wrap yourself in a towel or robe or naturally air dry. The key here is to take some time before getting dressed to allow your pores to stop sweating and reacclimatize to room temperature conditions. Once you are dry and have stopped sweating you can get dressed and leave with a smile on your face. 


A comprehensive sauna session should leave you with an afterglow and feeling of vitality that can last for several hours. 


Eating and Drinking After Your Sauna


Continue to drink fluids: water, herbal tea, and electrolyte beverages are best. Try and consume at least 500ml after your sauna to replenish lost electrolytes and minerals.


Sauna can also make you hungry. You might be craving something salty as you have lost a lot of sodium during your session however try not to opt for a bag of chips. Instead eat nutrient dense foods like nuts, bananas, and fruits high in water content like watermelon or pineapple. If you are feeling indulgent mix in a nice piece of cheese with your snack. 




Can I sauna if I have underlying health conditions?


Sauna bathing gives your cardiovascular system a workout. If you have any underlying heart conditions or other health concerns, please consult with your physician before beginning your sauna experience. 


How do I prepare for my sauna session?


Drink plenty of fluids – ideally with electrolytes - in the day leading up to your sauna session. Get into a sauna mindset. If you are new to sauna, it can be uncomfortable at first. Commit to working your way through it. 


Do I need to shower?


Take a shower before and after your sauna session. Also, have a quick rinse between each sauna round. This will help maintain the cleanliness of both the sauna and the cold water pool(s). 


How hot will it be?


Saunas generally operate between 80 to 120 C however the temperature itself isn’t as important as how you feel in it. 


Is it ok if I pour water on the rocks?


Consult with your sauna facility operator but normally yes. The water evaporates into steam which washes over your body. This steam, called löyly in Finnish, is therapeutic and meant to be enjoyable and is an integral part of the sauna experience. 


How long should I stay?


Listen to your body. Average sauna rounds last between 15-20 minutes but this is only a guideline; they can be longer or shorter depending on how you feel. However, if you start feeling nauseous or dizzy, exit the sauna immediately. 


Can I bring electronics into the sauna?


You should leave all electronics with your personal belongings. Sauna is meant to be a place to disconnect from the modern world. Besides they will quickly overheat and can get wet.


How frequently should I sauna?


As often as you like. 


Can I talk in the sauna?


It is ok to speak with your sauna neighbour but key to the sauna ethos is to be respectful of others’ sauna practices so if you are the only ones talking, do so with quiet voices. 


Can I eat and drink in the sauna?


Normally you should hydrate before and after your sauna session or between rounds. However, if your sauna facility operator allows beverage containers in the sauna then feel free to do so. Water should be the only thing you drink in the sauna. Eating is not advised in the sauna nor is it sanitary.  

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