Mind and Body A Complete Guide to Sauna and Cold Plunge Therapy for Runners

    A Complete Guide to Sauna and Cold Plunge Therapy for Runners


    As an athlete, recovery strategies are essential as you push your limits and strive to perform your best. Saunas and cold plunges have emerged as popular choices for enhancing recovery and optimizing performance, but where can Canadian runners get started? Presh Dineshkumar, founder of the GoPolar.app, and connected to the buzzy, expanding Othership brand, chimes in. He launched GoPolar just last week, a company to get people outdoors and connected to the earth. His app allows runners and athletes to search for cold plunge and sauna locations nearby. 

    Whether you run marathons regularly or jog once a week, rejuvenating tired muscles and reducing inflammation should be a vital part of your recovery regimen. 

    What Is Heat and Cold Therapy All About?

    Heat and cold therapy — also known as thermotherapy — involves various treatments aimed at using temperature to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, speed up recovery and promote healing. It’s all the rage on social media lately, particularly for those heavily invested in health and fitness. 

    Heat therapy involves putting heat on the body, typically through methods like hot pads, heating pads, warm towels or warm baths. The warmth increases blood flow to the affected area, which can help relax muscles, alleviate stiffness and soothe muscles. Heat is often used to alleviate muscle cramps, arthritis pain and menstrual cramps, among other common conditions. 

    Saunas like the ones at Othership are a popular choice as they involve exposure to dry heat in a sauna room, which induces sweating and relaxes the body. The temperature in traditional saunas ranges from 158-212 degrees Fahrenheit (70-100 degrees Celsius) with a relative humidity of 10%-20%. These high temperatures increase heart rate, promoting sweating.

    On the other hand, cold therapy — or cryotherapy — involves using cold on the body to reduce inflammation, numb pain and decrease blood flow to a particular area. Runners can achieve this by using ice packs, cold packs, cold baths or cryotherapy chambers. 

    Cold therapy is commonly used to treat acute injuries, such as sprains, strains or bruises, by reducing swelling and numbing the area to alleviate pain. Cold plunge therapy involves fully immersing your body in cold water, like a cold plunge pool, an ice bath or the ocean, to experience vasoconstriction, reduce inflammation and enhance recovery after intense exercise or injury. The water temperature is typically between 55-69 degrees Fahrenheit (12-20 degrees Celsius) — anything colder may be considered a health risk.

    Why Is Recovery So Important?

    If you’re wondering why you’re suddenly underperforming, it’s conceivably because you’re not giving yourself the chance to recover properly. When you feel your best, you can perform your best, prevent injuries and boost your long-term athletic performance. 

    Running places significant stress on the body, inducing muscle fatigue, microtears in muscle fibers and depletion of energy stores. Adequate recovery gives the body a chance to repair these tissues, replenish energy stores and adapt to the physiological demands of running. Without sufficient recovery time, runners may experience overuse injuries and compromised performance. 

    Recovery is so crucial because of injury prevention. Continuous high-intensity training without enough rest increases the risk of overuse injuries like stress fractures and tendonitis. Rest and recovery periods give the body the opportunity to repair damaged tissues and strengthen muscles, reducing the likelihood of injury. 

    Proper recovery strategies such as rest days, active recovery sessions, adequate sleep, nutrition and hydration are essential for maximizing the benefits of training and achieving peak performance. Mental recovery is equally important for runners, as it allows for focus and motivation, which are crucial for maintaining consistency and long-term running success.

    The Benefits of Sauna and Cold Plunge Therapy for Runners

    Runners constantly seek ways to boost their performance and optimize their recovery, and sauna and cold plunge therapy are great alternatives to the more traditional methods. Fortunately, the benefits of sauna and cold plunge therapy for runners are extensive. 

    • Enhanced recovery: Sauna therapy promotes muscle relaxation and alleviates soreness, speeding up the recovery process after intense training sessions.
    • Improved circulation: Increased blood circulation from the sauna can assist in delivering nutrients to your muscles, promoting faster recovery and reducing the risk of injury.
    • Detoxification: Sweating in the sauna flushes out toxins and metabolic waste products accumulated during exercise.
    • Stress reduction: Sauna sessions can reduce stress levels and promote relaxation, helping runners unwind mentally and physically after challenging workouts or races. 
    • Improved heart health: Regular sauna use may improve cardiovascular function, potentially leading to better endurance and performance during your runs.
    • Potential injury prevention: By promoting relaxation and flexibility, sauna therapy may prevent injuries such as strains or strains commonly associated with running. 

    The Benefits of Cold Plunge Therapy for Runners

    Cold therapy is a powerful tool for those looking to minimize post-run discomfort. Some advantages of cold plunges include:

    • Reduced inflammation: Cold plunge therapy decreases inflammation and swelling in muscles and joints, which can be especially beneficial after long or intense running sessions.
    • Faster recovery: Immersing yourself in ice-cold water constricts blood vessels, reducing blood flow to sore or injured areas. This can soothe sore muscles and speed up recovery for runners.
    • Pain relief: Cold water immersion numbs pain sensations, providing immediate relief for sore muscles and joints.
    • Improved circulation: Good blood circulation can prevent varicose veins and potential blood clots in the lower legs, which can eventually move to the lungs. Alternating between hot and cold treatments can promote vasoconstriction, enhancing overall circulation and aiding recovery. 
    • Enhanced muscle repair: Cold water may stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and promote the repair of microtears in muscle fibers, supporting muscle recovery and adaptation. 
    • Mental refreshment: Many people do cold plunge therapy regularly because of its invigorating effects on the mind. It provides a refreshing sensation, improving mental clarity and focus, which can benefit runners during training and competition.
    • Increased endurance: Regular exposure to cold water may enhance the body’s ability to withstand physical stress and improve resilience to fatigue, leading to better performance over time. 

    So, Hot or Cold? Which Is Better?

    If you’re trying to decide which one you should give a try, you first need to determine what you want to achieve. If you want to promote relaxation, increase blood flow and ease stiff muscles, it’s best to opt for the sauna. 

    Spending just 15-20 minutes in the sauna after your workout can improve chronic conditions like arthritis or muscle tension, as the warmth soothes discomfort and improves mobility. If you’re just starting out with heat therapy, begin by spending 5-10 minutes in the steam room until your body adjusts.

    On the other hand, cold plunges effectively reduce inflammation, numbing pain and decreasing blood flow to a particular area. If you have an acute injury like a sprain, cold therapy is a fantastic way to minimize swelling and reduce pain. It’s a great post-workout recovery method to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and speed up healing. Places like Othership in Toronto, and the newly opened Alter on College Street in Toronto, have both sauna and cold plunge. 

    Spend at least 5-10 minutes in cold water following a session for maximum benefits. However, if you’re new to cold plunges, begin with 30-60 seconds and slowly work your way up. 

    Ultimately, the choice between sauna and cold plunge therapy or runners depends on an individual’s specific needs and the desired therapeutic outcome.

    The Ultimate Recovery Routine

    It’s never too late to improve your post-run recovery routines. There are benefits of sauna and cold plunge therapy for runners, offering a holistic approach to recuperation and optimal performance. Whether you choose to enjoy a warm sauna, take a dip in a chilly ice bath or combine the two, you can unlock your full potential as a runner by prioritizing your recovery.

    Beth Rush is managing editor of Body+Mind, a health sciences blog. For more information, click here. Photographs shot on location at Othership Yorkville (the Canadian brand also recently launched in New York).