The European Sauna Marathon includes 19 freezing ice baths, hot tub dips, and steamy saunas. It may support a key 'third pillar' of physical fitness.
- The European Sauna Marathon takes place during one of the coldest winter afternoons every year in Estonia.
- Teams of four compete for the grand prize: their own hot tub.
- The "SaunaMaraton" is not so much a sporting event as it is a chance to eat, drink, and chat in the midst of the dark, cold days of winter.
- There's also a growing pile of evidence that suggests the exposure to steamy hot saunas and frigid cold plunges is good for health.
Surviving cold, harsh winter temperatures is a marathon, not a sprint.That's certainly true in Estonia, where every winter people from around the world gather for the annual European Sauna Marathon in Otepää.Advertisement
The goal is to make some of the coldest days of the year a little brighter.
February is the coldest month of the year in the tiny Northern European country on the Baltic Sea. Temperatures during the competition consistently hover below freezing, at around -6 Celsius (in the 20s Fahrenheit.) This year was no exception. On February 2, thermometers in the tiny town of less than 4,000 people topped out around -1 Celsius (30 F).The Sauna Marathon is not a true 26.2-mile marathon; the only real running competitors do here is to and from the saunas.
Instead, it's a chance to bond with others who've braved the cold, often wearing little more than a robe."Many people think saunas are just hot rooms, but to Estonians they are so much more," marathon participant Adam Rang told Business Insider on Twitter. It turns out that saunas may also provide some measurable health benefits, which, coupled with diet and exercise, could be considered a "third pillar" of physical fitness. Advertisement
Here's a feel for what the race is really like, minus the chilly Estonian air.
People have been taking saunas for centuries in Estonia. In 2014, UNESCO even put the traditional Estonian smoke sauna on its list of practices of "intangible cultural heritage of humanity."
The Estonian sauna tradition dates back to at least the 13th century, but the "Saunamaraton" has only been around for 10 years.Advertisement
To enter the competition, participants have to gather up a team of four people, and pay the entrance fee of 70 Euros.
Then, at the stroke of noon, it's off to the races. 185 teams visit 19 different sauna stations in the area around Otepää.Advertisement
At each sauna stop, the teams must perform three tasks. They spend 3 minutes in the sauna.
They soak in a wood-fired hot tub.Advertisement
And at least one team member must brave the waves of a cold water plunge at every stop.
After that, it's off to the next sauna.Advertisement
But this isn't really a test of speed: teams use cars and vans to shuttle between the stops, though there is some jogging in and out of the saunas.
“I always thought people were running because it was a race,” competitor Adriano D’Ambrosio told Estonian World. “But I now realize that we have to run just because we are so very cold!”Advertisement
The "winners" of the competition are also selected at random, "to ensure no one breaks the speed limit when driving" in between the sauna stops, as Rang explained.
Scientists who've studied sauna-takers notice that the practice has some health benefits attached.Advertisement
Cold plunges can be good for the body too.
Cooling down and warming up is only part of this game. "It’s about bonding with people," Rang said. "Estonians can be quite quiet most of the day, but the sauna is where we really open up, and not just through our pores."Advertisement
Food and drink are important too, and sauna "masters" will offer live music, free beer, and warm snacks to their guests.
"Every dunk into the ice was like a shot of adrenaline, and warming up in the sauna afterwards helped keep the chill at bay," David Edwards, an English software engineer who lives in Estonia told the UK’s Echo News.Advertisement
The winning team is gifted with their very own hot tub. With any luck, it'll get filled like this one did with hot kvass, a traditional rye drink.
Next year may be the first time that the sauna marathon crosses the Atlantic.Advertisement
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