how sauna can help you become fitter?

we all love the feeling of being in a sauna, the relaxed, loose, euphoric smiley face we have inside there is not for nothing.

believe it or not, from old days we loved being in confined hot environments while sweating whether for relaxation purposes or excretion of toxins inside our body.

In a world full of stress in every corner of life, many continue to pile on added physical stress in a “go hard or go home” mentality (gainz, anyone?). While we know that training, especially quality needs-based training, is particularly useful and needed, we also tend to underestimate the importance of proper recovery. Simply said, the desired adaptations we all seek from the hours put in throwing iron and running like the wind won’t occur without rest and regeneration.

A Sauna is a nice addition to a residential home, to be used for relaxation, pain relief, healthcare and more.  In addition, there are countless sauna benefits for athletes well, and not just for post-workout muscle recovery. Rhonda Perciavalle-Patrick, Ph. D., explains that heightening your body temperature for short bursts, by spending some time in the sauna, may offer exaggerated improvements to an athlete’s performance. She calls this “hyperthermic conditioning,” which developing research suggests has many positive effects on your body, from boosted endurance to the growth of new brain cells.  There are various studies that have been done, specifically of how saunas assist in muscle pain relief, functioning endurance and athletic performance enhancement.

What is a Sauna?

You may have grown up viewing the sauna as an elderly destination for folks at your local gym. Typically, saunas are used for relaxation and stress reduction where sweating occurs (associated with detoxification) due to the high heat, which pushes the body into a relaxed, parasympathetic (opposite of “fight or flight”) state. The benefits of heat bathing have much to do with the self-induced fever that the sauna creates, which is why many try to get in the sauna when they start to feel ill. Other than that, saunas have shown to improve cellular health (due to increased blood flow), lower blood pressure, and promote muscle recovery and much more.

How sauna use will support muscle pain and recovery after an injury in athletes

If you have had a muscle injury and you are experiencing pain, discomfort and immobilization, your muscles will begin to weaken over time.  The use of a sauna benefits athletes with this type of muscle condition by using hyperthermic conditioning, as it slows muscle degeneration. An entire body heat treatment strengthens muscle regrowth and reduces the possibility of muscle atrophy.

Dr. Patrick explains; “During injury, you may be immobilized, but you don’t have to be very mobile to sit in the sauna a few times a week to boost your HSP (Heat Shock Protein) levels! This is a clear win in the injury and recovery department.”

The warm temperatures and periodic cooling off times in a sauna environment will aid in relaxing muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Sauna use benefits athletes, especially after a demanding workout as it relieves sore muscles.  It can also help to alleviate arthritis, asthma, physical and mental fatigue, and in may aid in flushing out toxins from the body.

How can sauna use boost an athlete’s endurance level and overall longevity?

If you’re an athlete, the benefits of increased endurance are clear, as your level of endurance serves as an accurate measurement for many aspects of your overall health, including your heart. 

Hyperthemic conditioning, or “acclimating yourself to heat independent of aerobic physical activity through sauna use,” also improves endurance because it encourages adjustments in your body that make it easier for you to perform when your body temperature is elevated. 

As your body is exposed to realistic amounts of heat stress, it will gradually acclimate to the heat, stimulating a number of beneficial changes to present in your body. These modifications come with heightened blood flow and plasma volume to your muscles and heart (which strengthens endurance) alongside increased muscle mass. A research study showed that individuals who sat in a sauna for 30 mins, twice a week for three weeks right after exercising escalated the amount of time it took to jog until physical exhaustion by more than 30%.

More sauna benefits for athletes include:

  • Improvement in overall cardiovascular health
  • Higher sweat rate as a function of increased thermoregulatory control
  • Increased blood flow to skeletal muscle and other connective tissues
  • Increased efficiency of oxygen transport to muscles

Research has shown that a person or in this case an athlete can theoretically use a sauna to heighten their heat shock proteins and can increase muscle growth.  According to Doctor Patrick, exposure to heat has been shown an increase of lifespan (by up to 15%) in flies and worms, a benefit that is attributed to HSPs.  One particular gene (HSP70) has also been associated with increased longevity, which suggests overall anti-aging benefits.

How can sauna use improve overall performance in athletes?

After finishing a workout, or a long day at your desk, many choose to relax in the heat of a sauna.  In addition to saunas being relaxing, there is emerging research that suggests that regular sauna use gives an athlete many health benefits, including improvement of muscular endurance and shortening recovery time after exercise.  As noted previously, one of the many functional variations that occur when sitting in a sauna is the release of heat shock proteins.  In an experiment involving rats, heat treatment produced a release of heat shock proteins, but surprisingly the rats were capable to regrow more muscle.  In the early 90’s Finnish researchers discovered that using a sauna would improve the amount of human growth hormone (HGH) produced by the body.  HGH plays an important role in the body’s growth and repair of tissue, including encouraging protein synthesis in the muscle itself.  In summary, the regular use of saunas has immense beneficial effects on life expectancy, exercise performance and post exercise recovery.

One of the things I have always believed is that there is no such thing as overtraining. There is only something I call “under recovery”. What does that mean exactly? Basically it means that as long as you are paying attention to recovery (i.e. taking care of yourself) you can train as much as you want. I have preached the value of getting a good nights sleep, managing your stress and in engaging in activities like massage and recovery walks but something I haven’t talked about is using the sauna as a recovery tool. 

The sauna can be an incredible tool to help take your training to the next level. Frankly, it is something I use on a daily basis. It has become a part of my ritual and has allowed me to increase my training volume and intensity. 

health benefits of sauna for athletes

There’s a lot of science to back up Sauna use but in “plain english” here are some of the specific benefits you can expect to see from regular Sauna use. 

1) Benefits Relating To Muscles, Pain, and Joints

Increased circulation may help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement, and ease arthritis pain. In the high heat provided by a sauna the body releases endorphins. These endorphins can help minimize the pain of arthritis and muscle soreness. In one study I found, the pain relief induced by a sauna was attributed to an increase in the release of adrenaline and growth hormones. This type of pain relief is especially important to me because of the injuries I have incurred throughout my fighting career. I often suffer from a sore back, hands, feet, knees, and shoulders. The sauna helps alleviate those symptoms. 

Because body temperature rises from the heat of the sauna the blood vessels dilate This increases blood circulation. The increased blood flow speeds up the body’s natural healing process allowing me to train with more intensity with greater frequency. 

Finally a sauna can also help reduce muscle tension and eliminate lactic acid. 

2) Immune Function

The less you get sick the more progress you make in regards to your fitness. Above and beyond that who likes being sick anyway? 

After a sauna session, the body increases the number of white blood cells which shows that use of a sauna stimulates the immune system. Curiously in one study, there seemed to be a greater benefit to the immune system in athletes when compared to non athletes. There are also Finnish and German studies which show that regular sauna use leads to a 30% less chance of getting a cold and influenza. 

3) Stress Relief

We discussed how heat in a sauna improves circulation. It may also promote relaxation. This can improve feelings of “well-being”. Saunas also encourage the body to go into a parasympathetic state which allows us to de-stress, rest, and heal. Saunas have been shown to help lower stress hormones like cortisol.

In addition saunas can induce a deeper sleep and also help battle chronic fatigue. Both help contribute to stress relief. 

4) Flush Toxins 

Deep sweating in a sauna can reduce levels of lead, copper, zinc, and mercury. All of these are  toxins commonly absorbed from interacting with our environment. Sweating also rinses out bacteria from the epidermal layer of the skin and the sweat ducts. Cleansing of the pores my also increase capillary circulation. So in essence you will have healthier skin, look better, and feel better. 

5) Cardiovascular Performance 

How does a sauna increase your cardiovascular performance or fitness? 

In very basic terms in the heat of a sauna your body core temperature rises. As a response to the increased heat level the blood vessels dilate and there’s an increase in cardiac output. It can raise as much as 70 beats per minute. Some people hit heart rates over 150 beats per minute. This helps train the cardiovascular system. 

There’s also lot of research out there that suggests that regular use of the Sauna can improve your cardiovascular fitness as well as endurance. The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport published research that found using a sauna after exercise resulted in an improvement in running performance, Researchers suggest this is likely due to increased blood volume in the body. There have also been similar results seen in cyclists. Use of a sauna after exercise increased blood plasma volume which is a good indicator of endurance performance. 

Research has also shown that 30 minutes of sauna use can cause an increase in oxygen consumption and red blood cell production. What does that mean? Better cardiovascular performance and better endurance. 

There are studies which suggest that sauna sessions can increase endurance performance by as much as 19%. 

We have talked about performance but when it comes to health Saunas have also been known to lowers the risk of sudden cardiac death and fatal coronary disease.