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Sauna vs. Ice Bath – Which Is Better For You?

Taking an ice bath or sauna are two of the most popular wellness and recovery tools right now, and for good reason. Usually, people have a preference for hot or cold temperatures, and the same goes for recovery modalities like ice baths and saunas.

While some people enjoy the feeling of a cold plunge, others might be far more inclined to sweat it out in a steaming hot sauna. Whether you like it hot or cold, the reality is that both ice bath and sauna therapy has amazing and scientifically supported benefits for athletic performance and recovery, mental health and mood, weight loss and metabolic health, skin health, sleep and resilience.

But which is better? In the ice bath vs sauna debate, it is important to understand that while a hot sauna produces more blood flow around the body, ice baths produce the opposite effect causing a vasoconstriction of the blood vessels and blunting of the inflammatory response.

This is important to understand when considering if you should be using a sauna or ice bath for your needs, as they produce different outcomes in terms of recovery and physiological response. In this article, we will explore the ins and outs of both cold exposure and heat exposure and which you should lean towards depending on your goals. 

What is a Sauna?

For some, a sauna is simply a place to go and sweat and have some peace and relaxation. This is great and definitely a benefit – but there is a lot more to a sauna session than just sweat.

A sauna can be anything from a small compact sauna blanket to a large cedar clad room with hot rocks to pour water on which produces steam. A sauna can come in many shapes and sizes, with common varieties being traditional saunas and infrared saunas.

In general, a sauna is a space that produces heat to a range of somewhere between 60-120 degrees Celsius (140F-248F), depending on the type of sauna, with traditional Finnish type saunas getting the hottest.

Although we predominantly talk about the use of cold exposure, we regularly use and love a hot sauna used in conjunction with an ice bath – known as contrast therapy. A sauna causes the bodies core temperature to raise, through ambient temperature you are using a traditional sauna, or through infrared light waves if you are in an infrared sauna.

This heat energy causes vasodilation of the blood vessels and increases blood flow throughout the body, also increases breath rate, heart rate and sweating. This hot environment also causes the release of heat shock proteins and lends sauna to being an adaptive practice for body, which we will talk more on later. For these reasons, sauna is a safe and effective recovery tool that can be used after most types of physical activity for a reliable benefit, provided adequate hydration and safe time protocols.

What is an Ice Bath?

Admittedly, an ice bath is not so much of a relaxing practice as a sauna. However, some people do find a hot environment much more challenging. When we are not sweating in a sauna for post workout recovery, we are taking an early morning ice bath for a sure fire way to wake up without coffee and take advantage of the huge boost in focus, energy and mood that you get from cold exposure.

An ice bath is a cold body of water that is used deliberately to submerge the body and create a cold stress that produces mild shock and shivering. An ice bath can be loosely categorised as putting the body into cold water and is called many other things – like cold plunge, plunge, cold water immersion, cold therapy, wild swimming, cold dip, cold shower, cryotherapy and other terms.

The most used version of an ice bath is either a small upright tub or bathtub filled with ice or a purpose built tub with automated cooling – like the Ritual Recovery Plunge Tubs.

While cold exposure is largely an individual experience as people have differing levels of cold adaptation, the accepted measure of an ice bath temperature is anywhere between 0 degrees C to 15 degrees Celsius.

In general, when practicing cold water exposure in an ice bath, the widely accepted timing for an ice bath is between 2-5 minutes, depending on the temperature, with the latest science indicating that 11 minutes of total weekly exposure is all that is needed to gain some benefits.

Hormesis, Stress Response and Shock Proteins 

While a sauna produces a different set of physiological responses to an ice bath, both of these practices provide a strong stimulus for adaptation in the body and mind.

The stress of the cold or heat on the body, when used deliberately in the correct dose, cause a positive stress, or eustress, that builds a stronger and more resilient system, less prone to disease, illness and injury.

In a review article on sauna use by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, she states that “This exposure elicits mild hyperthermia, inducing a thermoregulatory response involving neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and cytoprotective mechanisms that work in a synergistic fashion in an attempt to maintain homeostasis. Repeated sauna use acclimates the body to heat and optimises the body's response to future exposures, likely due to the biological phenomenon known as hormesis”.

What we find incredible, is that through this adaptive stress response, sauna use of 4-7 times a week has been shown reduce the risk of death by cardiovascular disease by 50% compared to men who only used sauna once a week.

Similarly, taking an ice bath or exposing the body to the cold produces cold shock proteins and similar adaptive responses to sauna use. While a sauna causes vasodilation of the blood vessels, ice baths cause vasoconstriction of the blood vessels and an initial fight or flight response that leads to a 250% increase in dopamine and a 530% increases in norepinephrine, as well a 350% energy expenditure increase. 

The dramatic shift in the nervous system that is caused by cold water exposure, promotes the release of cold shock proteins and mitochondrial biogenesis. Common cold shock proteins found in humans are CARHSP1, Lin28, YB-1 and RBM3 which hold a multitude of known and potential benefits for humans which have previously discussed.

Mitochondrial biogenesis is another hormetic benefit of cold water exposure. Our mitochondria are the energy powerhouses and produce energy in the form of ATP. The production of new mitochondria can be activated by other factors like exercise, heat and fasting, and is beneficial as it “associated with greater aerobic capacity and performance and reduced risk factors for various diseases”, according to Dr Rhonda Patrick on FoundMyFtiness. 

So, which practice is the best to use?

Ice Bath vs Sauna – Which Is Better?

The question of whether sauna or ice bath is better, lays in the goals of doing such a practice. While both are difficult situations that place the body under intense conditions, the benefits vary and should be considered in the ice bath vs sauna debate.

In short, we like to use ice bath and sauna interchangeable but will tend to use them at different times of the day and dependant on the exercise that we have done and wish to recover from, as well as considering when it is that we next need to perform.

Let’s break this down further.

When To Take an Ice Bath

Ice baths are ideal as a morning practice and have been shown to be suited to employing prior to physical exercise.

There are a few key considerations when deciding whether or not to use an ice bath and if sauna may be a more beneficial recovery modality. Considering the type of training or exercise you have conducted and the goals of that exercise are a key thing to weigh up. Similarly it is important to understand if you expect a physical adaptation from your workout or session, or whether you need to perform in close succession to the previous bout of exercise.

For example, if you have engaged in a strength based program and your goal is muscular hypertrophy, then reconsider having an ice bath within a 4 period directly after this exercise, as cold exposure will attenuate hypertrophy gains by way of dulling the inflammatory process needed of this to occur.

Athletes will commonly use ice baths when the goal is to perform again maybe the next day or day after, meaning performance is the goal, not adaptation. If you have multiple races or athletic events over the course of a week, ice baths would be a suited practice to use between these events to limit inflammation, swelling and pain.

There is new research suggesting that a suitable use for ice baths is pre exercise. A ‘pre-cooling’ ice bath session has been shown to significantly boost testosterone and luteinising hormone. These effects of ice baths for a workout “results in greater exercise endurance with enhanced heat storage rate and less stress on metabolic and cardiovascular systems.”, according to a 1995 study.

Ice baths are not just for athletes. In fact, there are masses of people using cold exposure more for the mental benefits. Indeed, taking an ice bath on the daily as an effective coffee replacement is highly recommended. Cold plunge causes a huge boost in focus, attention and energy as an effect of the flood gates opening on adrenaline and noradrenaline, and the hormones like serotonin and dopamine cause very positive and lasting effects on mood.

With this being said, ice baths are not an ideal evening or night time practice. While the reduction in cortisol and a shift to a parasympathetic state that comes from an earlier ice bath will help with promoting sleep later on, immersing the body in cold water has a rebound effect on core body temperature, causing it to rise past base levels as it reheats. Because science tells us that a drop in core body temperature is essential for a fast transition in the sleep, this means ice baths are better left out within a few hours of sleep.

And what about sauna?

When To Take a Sauna

Saunas are an ideal evening practice and have shown very reliable efficacy as a post workout or post exercise recovery tool.

Saunas have been used by athletes for recovery for decades in competitive sports, only now the gravity of the benefits are being properly understood.

Saunas post exercise have a dramatic benefit for increasing blood flow and actually promote similar physiological responses as moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise. Having a sauna post exercise has been shown to dramatically increase growth hormone levels and testosterone. For example, “two 20-minute sauna sessions at 80°C (176°F) separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline, but two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone”, as mentioned by Dr. Patrick.

Saunas are recommended when an adaptation from exercise is the goal. Saunas would be the best recovery tool to use post workout, race or game day when the goal is not to perform again the following day. Unlike ice baths, sauna is relatively safe to employ after any type of training type and will help improve the flow of blood to heal and repair damaged tissue, help flush out waste metabolites from exercise and boost growth hormone to aid in repair and adaptation.

Conclusion on Ice Bath vs Sauna

Both ice baths and saunas are undoubtedly reliable and effective recovery modalities that also hold many benefits for other areas of health and longevity.

Having access to a sauna and cold plunge is most definitely a performance advantage for athletes and a huge benefit even for those who live an active lifestyle or are seeking optimal health.

We have hopefully explained the benefits of both of these hot and cold practices and which is more suitable for you in the ice bath vs sauna question. As a recap, we recommend ice baths mostly in the morning, before exercise, or after exercise when a physical adaptation is not the goal. And on the other hand, we recommend sauna as an evening practice, and used directly after physical exercise to increase blood flow and encourage an adaptive response to exercise.

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