If you’d told me upon arrival that I’d be plunging into the frigid Baltic Sea before leaving Helsinki, I would have laughed in your face. It was February, when the average temperature in the Finnish capital hovers around 30 degrees (-20 in the north in Lapland). Naturally, submerging myself in the ice-packed ocean wasn’t high on my agenda.
But a winter swim in Finland—a country that relishes outdoor winter activities—isn’t a crazy act of daredevilry. In fact, it’s common: these icy water immersions go hand-in-hand with a visit to a sauna, a ritual baked into Finnish culture.
Unlike in the U.S., saunas here aren’t reserved for post-workout recovery or indulgent spa treatments. The sauna is a daily experience. Considering the country is caked in snow for four months of the year, it makes perfect sense.
The hot wooden rooms—present in most Finninsh homes— are considered sacred spaces. Historically, they’ve been the sites of important meetings and even births (they’re extremely sanitary). But even beyond private homes, communal saunas are littered across the country. They aren’t a luxury, they’re a way of life.
Which is why I found myself thinking about them as I walked the streets of Helsinki one February day, so cold I considered ducking into a hair salon just to feel the warmth of a hair dryer on my neck. When I sheltered in a coffee shop, the barista looked at me curiously: “You should really come back in the summer.”
But there’s something magical about Helsinki in February, even despite the subzero temperatures and empty streets. Winter is such a distinctive season in Finland. Seeing the giant fishing boats parked in shards of ice, smelling the wafts of cardamom rolls escaping bakeries, and climbing into a sauna and defrosting amongst locals is all so quintessentially Finnish.
Going to Finland and not having a sauna and swim is like not having a pizza slice in New York. Which is why, a week later, I found myself removing my bath robe so I could (willingly) plunge into the Baltic on a cold night.
It all seemed like a good idea inside the sauna at Löyly, a sleek, world-renowned communal sauna house where locals and tourists alike gather on the waterfront.
I’d spent 20 minutes in a traditional steam room. I was ready, sweat dripping onto my towel as fearless Finns ambled out in search of a cold pool of water. But as I stood outside under the night sky wearing nothing but a swimsuit, clutching onto the metal railing and feeling the ice beneath my feet, I quite literally, well… froze.
The thing is, you cannot freeze. You absolutely have to dive straight in, or you’ll lose your nerve. So I took a deep breath and submerged my body in the 30-degree water.
I flailed around in the icy water for 30 seconds or so, yelping and trying to catch my breath. And while it was freezing, it was also unbelievably invigorating. By the time I climbed out, I didn’t feel cold anymore, I just felt numb and extremely energized. So much so that I worked up the courage to do it one more time (after another 20 minute sauna, of course).
That night, I fell into a brilliantly deep sleep.Research has shown that cold-water swimming can be extremely beneficial for the brain and body—it releases stress hormones and helps reduce tension (hence why we put ice on sore muscles). Coupled with a sauna—which is meant to assist blood flow, release toxins and ease stress—it’s no wonder the Finns are addicted to these sweat sessions.
I too have become somewhat addicted, and will climb into any sauna given half the chance. On a recent trip to Upstate New York, I had a sauna at the Livingston Manor Flyfishing Club, followed by a dip in the freezing river. It wasn’t as cold as a Finnish February, but once again felt invigorated and, I swear, I slept so much better that night.
When gyms reopen, I will no longer scoff at the sauna. In fact, I’ll finish off my sweat session with a very cold shower.
Mary Holland is a contributor for Thrillist.