Sauna Science: The Benefits of Sauna After a Workout

Sauna Science: The Benefits of Sauna After a Workout

Looking to optimize the exercise benefits with post-workout sauna sessions?

From elite athletes to casual gym-goers, everyone has a goal. Some are constantly fine-tuning their strategy to improve their performance and results. Athletes use multiple recovery methods including sauna and cold plunge to relax and repair between intense training and competitions. But it’s important to know how and when to apply these therapies so you don’t hinder the beneficial gains. We’ll explore the benefits of sauna after a workout and how with repeated sessions, your body can perform better. Equipped with the right strategy, you can have a leg up on your competition or beat your own personal records.

Top Athletes Use the Sauna After Workouts for Recovery

The traditional Finnish sauna experience is thought to be why Finnish athletes are so successful [1]. In a survey among elite Russian track and field athletes, most of them engaged in sauna bathing for 30-60 minutes once or twice a week [2]. We’ve written about ultra runner Tory Grieves who uses sauna and cold plunge as part of her recovery routine. Top athletes like basketball legend LeBron James use ice baths and sauna as part of their recovery regimen. The NBA protocol for recovery and performance is three minutes in cold water (39-42°F) alternating with 15-minute infrared sauna sessions. With top athletes experiencing optimized performance while using sauna and cold plunge techniques, there must be something to it… let’s dive into the benefits.

Major Benefits of Sauna After A Workout

We’ve written extensively on the numerous benefits of sauna for overall health. There are also benefits specific to exercise and performance. There are long-term (chronic) and short-term (acute) impacts which may influence how and when you choose to sauna.

Many people exercise for weight loss. A common question that’s asked is how long to sauna to lose weight. The weight loss that happens during a sauna session is mostly due to sweating and water weight loss. A cold plunge, however, can help burn fat which you can learn about in our Søeberg Principle article. But sauna does enhance many mechanisms that can indirectly help your weight loss efforts – read on.

Sauna Benefits for Heat Acclimation and Improved Performance

Sauna Improves Performance in Endurance Exercise

After a workout, thirty minutes of sauna can induce adaptation to heat, so runners and other endurance athletes can better tolerate heat during competition. This effect was seen after a minimum of 6-7 post-workout sauna sessions. Adaptations include increased blood-plasma volume, lower core body temperature, improved cardiovascular stability, increased red blood cell volume, better blood flow to muscles delivering oxygen and fuel, and higher perspiration rate – factors that all boost performance [3,4,5].

Increased heat tolerance improves endurance performance. Runners who followed a sauna protocol after workouts saw a 1.9% improvement in time, which may not seem like a big number, but in competition, every second counts [3,6].

Heat Acclimation Training Takes Time

But it’s not for everyone – swimmers may not see the same benefits. One small study of competitive swimmers and triathletes showed worse performance the day after a post-exercise sauna intervention. The researchers concluded that swimmers should not sauna the day prior to a competition or high intensity training [7]. This study only looked at the effects of one sauna session – they were looking at the acute effects on performance. In the previous study we saw that it takes a minimum of 6-7 post-workout sauna sessions for the body to begin to adapt to the heat and to see improved performance.

Lower temperature infrared saunas may be preferred compared to higher temperature Finnish sauna following strength training. Higher temperatures can induce muscular fatigue which may impair performance for greater than 24 hours. You might want to give yourself a couple of days between a sauna and your next intensive strength training session or competition [8].

This begs the question of whether this reduced performance effect is unique to the sport of swimming or strength training, or does it apply to all high-intensity and strength exercises? Ultimately more studies are needed to answer this, but in the meantime, we recommend steering clear of the sauna the day before a competition or high-intensity workout no matter your sport.

Benefits of Sauna for Relaxation and Recovery

Sauna promotes relaxation and relieves stress. A workout or competition can be stressful physically and sometimes psychologically, so a sauna can feel like a warm welcome. While the muscles do relax immediately, it’s the effect of repeated saunas that leads to improved muscular function [9].

Oxidative stress and inflammation generated during workouts can damage muscle, cartilage and ligaments, delaying recovery. A post-workout sauna reduces oxidative stress and damage by enhancing built-in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mechanisms [10,11]. Endorphins are released which minimize pain and promote overall relaxation [1]. But contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence on sauna and immediate muscle recovery and repair [2]. One study showed that sauna does not prevent muscle soreness when compared to no heat exposure [12]. Another showed that an infrared sauna session did improve muscle soreness after resistance (strength) exercise training [13]. It can be common to find conflicting results in studies and ultimately more research will be helpful.

Sauna Benefits for Muscle Growth (Hypertrophy)

With repeated sauna exposures over time, sauna can improve muscle function and stimulate growth, or hypertrophy [9]. Muscle building happens as a result of resistance exercise. Researcher Dr. Rhonda Patrick explains in detail how sauna also increases muscle hypertrophy by inducing growth hormone, heat shock proteins, and increasing insulin sensitivity. These factors have an anabolic, or muscle building effect.

There are some rather extreme sauna protocols to enhance growth hormone. One study had volunteers sauna for 1 hour twice daily for 7 days at 176°F (80°C). By the third day, males had an incredible 16-fold increase in growth hormone [14]. The good news is that you don’t have to spend hours in the sauna to increase growth hormone. Two 20-minute sauna sessions at 176°F (80°C) separated by a 30-minute cool down period doubled growth hormone levels. The same protocol with the temperature raised to 212°F (100°C), resulted in a 5-fold increase in growth hormone. These protocols were not necessarily done after exercise. Sauna following running has a synergistic effect on boosting growth hormone [15].

Benefits of Sauna for Cardiorespiratory Fitness (Heart and Lung Health)

Sauna complements exercise as a lifestyle tool to improve heart health. Sedentary middle-aged men and women either completed a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise, or the same exercises followed by 15 minutes of sauna three times a week for 8 weeks. The group that exercised followed by sauna had greater VO2 max, meaning more inhaled oxygen for energy and physical fitness. They also had lower blood pressure and cholesterol compared to the group that only exercised [16]. Exercise is great for maintaining a healthy weight and heart health – exercise plus sauna is even better.

Have You Heard of Sauna Before a Workout?

We’ve all heard of doing a warmup before a workout, usually in the form of warm up exercises. Sauna also warms up the body, loosens muscles, and enhances flexibility, and might help you get a head start on the healing process. Fifteen minutes of sauna at 170 - 180°F (77 - 82 °C) prior to exercise can minimize exercise-induced muscle damage during strength workouts [17]. This study was looking at wrist muscles only, so we’d like to see more research on this method before making a solid recommendation. This strategy is not recommended for endurance athletes due to risk of overheating during the workout. People who perform endurance or aerobic exercise might actually benefit more from a pre-workout cold plunge.

Final Takeaways

Sauna is great after a workout as long as you don’t have a competition or intense workout planned the next day. Planning your workouts accordingly is important so you can experience the benefits of sauna after a workout without any disappointments. Be sure to check out our article on when to use pre- and post- exercise cold plunges to optimize your fitness routine.

This blog post was researched, edited and written by Dr. Christine Krall, Naturopathic Doctor (ND). See her bio here.

Citing our sources:

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May 28, 2024
By: Dr Christine Krall