TORONTO — The death of a Russian contestant in the World Sauna Competition in Finland is providing a cautionary tale for more casual users of the centuries-old heat therapy designed for relaxation and other health benefits.
Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy, an amateur wrestler in his 60s, was pronounced dead Saturday after he collapsed alongside reigning champion 40-year-old Timo Kaukonen of Finland about six minutes into the competition’s final round. The winner would have been the contestant who withstood the sizzling ordeal the longest.
But reports said the men, the last two remaining in the searing 110 C heat, were pulled from the sauna disoriented and bleeding from what appeared to be severe burns. Kaukonen, who has won a slew of medals in various sauna competitions over the years, was reported to be in stable condition in hospital.
“I think it’s deeply unfortunate to hear about somebody dying under circumstances like this, which so easily could have been avoided,” said Rob Duncan, health and safety co-ordinator for Goodlife Fitness Canada.
“One thing that will maybe, hopefully come of it is that it will provide people with a better understanding of the fact that you do need to use some caution,” said Duncan, who is based in Toronto.
Saunas are just one form of heat therapy, used to relax muscles and to create perspiration that helps open the pores with the aim of releasing toxins from the body. The enclosures can use dry heat or wet heat, the latter typically achieved by pouring water on rocks to create steam. Hot pools are also used to obtain similar results.
While considered beneficial if used properly, experts say people need to follow a few simple rules when using saunas or other forms of heat therapy to avoid adverse health effects.
At those Goodlife Fitness clubs that include steam rooms or saunas, members are advised to limit use to five to 10 minutes, followed by a cooling-off period.
“Naturally, it’s going to raise the body’s core temperature as well as the skin temperature,” said Duncan. “That can result in a bit of an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.”
“And one of the concerns is if somebody is going to start feeling unwell as a result of having been in too long, they may not recognize the signs and symptoms quickly enough. And so it’s a safety factor to make sure people are getting out, get some cool air … and maybe have a cool shower.”
Staying too long in the intense heat of a sauna can lead to dehydration through sweating, leaving a person feeling dizzy, unusually fatigued or disoriented.
Duncan said people with heart conditions or blood pressure problems should avoid saunas, as should pregnant women and children. The company advises members with any underlying medical condition to get approval from their doctor before using a sauna, steam room or hot pool.
At the Scandinave Spa Blue Mountain, guests can take their pick of several “Scandinavian baths,” said Rob Cederberg, managing director of the site near Collingwood, Ont., northwest of Toronto.
The spa’s hot pools, steam room and a wood-burning sauna kept at 85 to 90 C are forms of heat therapy that give clients an “internal workout,” he said, noting that guests must abide by certain rules.
“We’re very specific on how people should use the spa itself, because our proscribed experience is that one would spend 10 to 15 minutes in any one of our sources of heat … and then two to 30 seconds in our cold plunge, which is either one of three cold plunge pools or a rain shower we have.”
“Then we ask the people to spend 15 to 20 minutes relaxing or sitting and recovering, so letting their heart rate and circulation come back to normal levels before they pick a new source of heat and repeat.”