Who doesn’t love a sauna session after a workout?
Okay, I admit, it’s me--after a tough workout, I usually prefer a cold shower over a hot, sweaty sauna. But even I can appreciate a sauna’s ability to slow me down, relax the muscles and introduce a meditative state of mind.
And as it turns out, a post-workout (or pre-workout, or anytime) sauna session can do a lot more for athletes than simple relaxation. Sauna heat can initiate changes in the body that amplify and seal in the effects of working out. For these reasons, every athlete should consider adding a bit of sauna time into their workout routine.
Muscular Recovery + Growth
In your sauna, your body experiences heat stress and adapts physiologically to protect itself. Part of this adaptation involves surges in heat shock protein, which repairs damaged proteins (muscles), and human growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth. Because of this surge in these two substances, researchers have discovered that athletes who sauna post-workout experience greater muscular development than athletes who do not.
These effects are strongest when you sauna within 30 minutes of your workout and remain slightly dehydrated, since dehydration adds to heat stress. However, it’s also important not to push your body too far--skip to the end of the article for recommendations on how to sauna safely.
Sauna bathing, whether independent or paired with exercise, can increase your endurance significantly. One study found that runners who sat for a post-workout sauna for 30 minutes 4 times per week increased their time to exhaustion by 32%. Those researchers also found an increase in plasma and red blood cells over the study period, which might explain the improved performance.
Improved endurance from saunas might also be explained by measurably improved thermoregulation in test subjects. Athletes who sat in the sauna for 20 minutes the day before a running trial experienced less heat stress and less perceived fatigue during the trial.
The sauna session itself can burn a few calories: sitting in the heat elevates your heart rate in a manner similar to low-to-moderate exercise.
However, a sauna’s real weight loss power is in its effect on insulin. Just three sauna sessions per week could increase insulin sensitivity in your body, helping with blood sugar regulation. Women who successfully lose and keep off weight tend to have higher insulin sensitivity than women who have not lost weight or have lost weight and relapsed. By using your sauna session to achieve this marker of metabolic health, you are priming your body to achieve your weight loss goals.
If you are one of the many people who value the mental clarity and mood regulation that comes from regularly working out, you’ve probably been wondering whether saunas enhance brain health as well. And they do! Among other hormonal changes listed above, hyperthermia also increases the production of norepinephrine, which can help you stay alert and focused.
Saunas also increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a key molecule in the growth and development of neurons. That means that regular sauna use can improve your learning and memory.
Immunity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the gym or the sauna, but truthfully that immune boost is one of the biggest benefits that either activity gives you. Even better, this is a case where the sum is greater than the parts: one study found that sauna usage increases the number of white blood cells in the body, and the increase is greatest in athletes.
How do I incorporate the sauna into my fitness routine?
Pre-workout: The heat of the sauna can loosen up muscles and release tension, which will increase the flexibility and efficiency of your workout. Sit for 5 minutes--just enough to warm up--before starting your workout, but don’t replace your regular warm-up with the sauna.
Post-workout: Sauna within half an hour of finishing your workout 2-5 times per week. Start out with 5-10 minute sessions, then build up to 30-minute sessions once you’re acclimated. If you experience a headache, lightheadedness, dry skin, or any other symptom of dehydration or heat-related illness, exit the sauna and begin rehydrating immediately.