Running Hot and Cold

The pleasure of a cold swim after a day in the outdoors

For ten years I never set foot in a sauna. An early attempt had almost resulted in disaster. It took place in a cheap motel, the sauna made from flimsy yellow fibreglass - two friends were taking bets as to who could stand it the longest. After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes I couldn’t take it any longer. My head swirled, I couldn’t breath and I felt nauseous. I stumbled out in a cloud of steam and collapsed on a wooden beach with my head between my knees.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I gave saunas another go. This time my flatmate introduced me to the post-sauna plunge pool. He showed me how to put my overheated head under cold water and enjoy the sharp intakes of breath as my body shocked itself into life. 'It doesn't work unless it's icy cold', he said. I woke up instantly and instead of being nauseous and tired afterward I felt invigorated. I had that strange sensation of being wide-awake and extremely relaxed at the same time.

Working or playing in the outdoors can bring about similar levels of sweat and body temperatures as a sauna, especially in the summer, so I try and make sure I’m near a river, a lake or a bay. Taking a dunk in an icy mountain river after a hard day’s tramp is like the New Zealand version of that sauna plunge pool combination.

And it’s the same with a trip to the beach on a hot summer’s day. It’s almost pointless without going for a swim. All that sweat and sand and hot-and-botheredness needs to be flushed away. The only way to do this is a swift plunge into the ocean followed by a drying off in the sun. Hot to cold, to hot again.

Humans have recognised the spiritual significance of this for a while now. John the Baptist invented baptism around the time Jesus was born. Eventually signifying rebirth and regeneration, he inspired a religious following and caused countless kids around the world to be named after him. ‘Wash away your sins’ was his message. I have no doubt that he’d approve of a sauna.

North America and Russia share a fascination with cold water dunking. 'Polar Bear Clubs' have sprung up on both continents where people get together in the depths of winter and fling themselves into the frigid waters of the northern seas. The Coney Island club say people do this for all sorts of reasons - invigoration, health, boredom or sometimes just because ‘they’re nuts’. And there are plenty of health practitioners around who promise extensive health benefits from cold water immersion, although some might label them nuts as well.

But there is some science to back all this up. When things get cold our bodies regulate temperature by reducing the amount we sweat and moving blood and adrenaline around the body. When we suddenly go from hot to cold, the effects are magnified, leading to a general feeling of euphoria and increased energy.

And when you go the whole hog and put your head under, there seems to be something extra going on. There’s no particular research on this that I can find, but the effect seems somehow stronger when it’s the face and head that do the dunking. Maybe the nerves are extra sensitive there or it’s the general proximity to the brain that stimulates us more intensely, but I like to think it is something to do with the sense organs as well. As we go under, the light changes, sound is deadened, a trickle of water reaches the nostrils. The world as we knew it is washed away.