By Hilary Brueck /
February 11, 2019
Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on

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.

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.

Here's a feel for what the race is really like, minus the chilly Estonian air.

Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

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.

To enter the competition, participants have to gather up a team of four people, and pay the entrance fee of 70 Euros.

Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

The majority of the competitors are Estonian, but others hail from as far away as Mexico, New Zealand, and Japan.

Then, at the stroke of noon, it's off to the races. 185 teams visit 19 different sauna stations in the area around Otepää.

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.

Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

And at least one team member must brave the waves of a cold water plunge at every stop.

Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

After that, it's off to the next sauna.

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!”

Credit: Raigo Pajula/AFP/Getty Images

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.

People who tuck into saunas on a regular basis tend to have better blood pressure readings and lower rates of heart disease than others.

Cold plunges can be good for the body too.

Cold exposure can help our bodies activate more brown fat, which is the "good" kind that keeps us warm.

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."

"I already have one business meeting arranged with another competitor that I met during a sauna at the marathon," Rang added.

Food and drink are important too, and sauna "masters" will offer live music, free beer, and warm snacks to their guests.

This year, sauna marathoners voted for their favorite sauna stop on a special app.

"The real competition is between the saunas," Rang said. "The winning sauna had a great leiliruum (hot room), hot tub, and ice hole, but it was the bar serving smoked meat that helped them clinch the prize."

"Estonians would traditionally use their saunas to smoke meat," Rang said. "But modern hygiene rules forbid you to serve meat that has been smoked in the same sauna that people bathe in!"

"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.

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.

The Chicago Estonian House is considering hosting a first American Sauna Marathon in 2020.