Most people associate saunas with relaxation and detoxification. While they can help with both, there’s a reason why so many gyms are incorporating saunas into their amenities lists: they help improve recovery, athletic performance and even weight loss.
There are many benefits to using saunas after a workout.
How Saunas Can Improve Your Athletic Performance
Sauna bathing can do more than just help you relax – it can also boost your athletic performance.
#1 – Better Endurance
According to research published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, sauna bathing can improve endurance in runners. Researchers believe that this effect may be due to increased blood volume in the body.
People who used a sauna after exercise were able to run 23% further before reaching exhaustion than those who did not use a sauna. Cyclists have seen similar results.
Post-exercise sauna bathing increases blood plasma volume, which is a good indication of endurance performance. It also increases blood flow to the heart and muscles, which may help improve overall health and well-being.
Saunas may help with endurance because they train the body to adapt to a higher body temperature and to better regulate your internal temperature. Regular trips to the sauna may help reduce the strain on your body while improving aerobic endurance.
#2 – Enhanced Muscle Growth
Sauna bathing triggers the release of heat shock proteins, which may aid in muscle growth. In one experiment on rats, heat treatment caused the release of heat shock proteins and also helped the rats regrow more muscle than the control group that did not receive heat treatment.
In this experiment, rats saw a 30% improvement in muscle growth compared to the control group.
That muscle growth may be partly attributed to higher levels of human growth hormone (HGH). We still have a lot to learn about HGH, but we do know that HGH levels play a crucial role in the growth and repair of body tissues as well as protein synthesis in muscles.
One study in 1989 found that sauna use improved HGH levels.
HGH levels are just one piece of the puzzle here. Earlier, we talked about how saunas trigger the release of heat shock proteins (HSPs) and how that may contribute to muscle growth.
The body uses HSPs to counteract harmful stimulus. When our cells are exposed to a hostile environment, parts of our DNA start to separate and uses our genetic code to produce stress proteins. HSPs are highly beneficial because they repair and prevent damaged proteins.
HSPs scavenge free radicals, but they also help the body maintain glutathione to support antioxidant capacity in cells.
#3 – Improved Injury Recovery
Injuries can stop your training dead in its tracks, but sauna therapy may help prevent the detrimental effects of prolonged rest periods.
When you suffer an injury, you may be immobilized for an extended period of time, and eventually, your muscles begin to atrophy.
Hyperthermic conditioning, which is what sauna use helps you achieve, has been shown to slow muscle atrophy during rest periods by up to 32% in an animal study.
So, if you’ve suffered an injury, sauna bathing will help slow muscle atrophy while helping regrow muscles (thanks to the release of HSPs) when you’re ready to get back to training.
#4 – Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin has many functions in the body. It triggers the release of protein that moves glucose out from your cells, and it’s also part of the Mammalian Target of Rapamycin (mTOR) mechanism. mTOR helps create protein and build muscle.
Muscle growth cannot happen without the help of the mTOR mechanism. If your insulin receptors aren’t sensitive, like with type 2 diabetes, you will almost inevitably suffer muscle wasting. For successful muscle growth, you must keep your insulin receptors sensitive.
Sauna use is known to improve insulin sensitivity, which, in turn, may improve muscle growth and performance.
#5 – Enhanced Muscle Recovery
Whether you’re focused on strength training or cardiovascular exercise, muscle recovery plays a crucial role in your athletic performance.
Exercise causes microscopic tears in your muscles, which can cause inflammation, tightness, soreness, cramps and increased sensitivity. When your body heals these tears, your muscles grow stronger.
Sauna bathing can improve the recovery process by increasing blood circulation and the distribution of oxygen-rich blood to your oxygen-depleted muscles. The heat also causes the muscles to relax, alleviating uncomfortable tension.
Should You Sauna Before or After Workouts?
All of the benefits we’ve discussed are associated with post-workout sauna use, but what about pre-workout sauna sessions?
Is it better to sauna before or after a workout? Does it really matter? Yes!
The Risks of a Pre-Workout Sauna
Using a sauna before your workout can do more harm than good. Using a sauna before you hit the gym can:
- Lower your energy levels. A trip to the sauna can drain your energy, both physically and mentally. If your mind is too relaxed going into a workout session, you may have a hard time staying focused and finding that drive to push harder. Keeping your mind alert and active is key to maximizing your workout.
- Increase the risk of dehydration and overheating. Saunas increase your body temperature, which can lead to dehydration. Even if you rehydrate after your sauna session, exercise is only going to make you sweat more and put your body at greater risk of dangerous dehydration. Whether you’re doing a cardio workout or strength training, exercise raises your body temperature and can lead to overheating if you’ve already been in a sauna.
- Increase injury risk. Saunas relax the muscles, and that’s usually a great thing. But when it comes to exercise, relaxed muscles can be a liability and may even increase the risk of injury.
Also, if you use a sauna before a workout, you don’t get all of the recovery benefits that you would get with a post-workout sauna. Essentially, you’re increasing circulation and blood volume at the wrong time if you sauna before a workout.
Science Shows That Post-Workout Saunas are Best
It’s best to hit the sauna after a workout. This way, you get to enjoy all of the relaxation and recovery benefits without the risks of dehydration, overheating and injury.
Hitting the sauna after a workout also offers other benefits. Sweating is a great way to release toxins in the body, like alcohol, heavy metals and nicotine. If you hit the sauna after your workout, you can prolong the benefits of sweating and feel even better.
Just make sure that you’re rehydrating after your sauna session to replenish the fluids you lost during your workout and sauna.
How to Use Your Gym Sauna for Muscle Recovery
You want to reap the benefits of a post-workout sauna session, but you don’t know where to start. You’re not alone. Many people wonder how long they can safely stay in a sauna after a workout and the proper etiquette.
Gym Sauna Etiquette
Just like any other part of the gym, there are certain rules and courtesies that everyone should follow to ensure that all users enjoy their sauna experience.
- Always shower before entering the sauna to remove sweat and odors from your workout. Remember, you’re sharing a hot, steamy room with other people. Be courteous by entering the space fresh and clean.
- Wear a bathing suit or towel – never go in the nude. Come prepared with attire for the sauna. If you’re using a towel, lay another towel underneath you just to help keep the space clean and sanitary.
- Be quick and courteous. Don’t spend too much time in the sauna, and make sure that you enter and exit as quickly as possible. Leaving the door open for too long will only cause more heat to escape.
- Respect the silence. Don’t start talking to the person next to you or listening to loud music. Settle in, relax and enjoy the quiet. Try meditating to quiet your mind.
- Leave your phone behind. Electronics don’t fare well in a sauna because of the high heat. Texting, gaming and listening to music will only disturb the peace and relaxation.
- Don’t stretch or do exercises in the sauna. If you want to do hot yoga, find a hot yoga studio. Be respectful of everyone’s personal space, and avoid performing any kind of exercise in the sauna.
Following these unspoken rules will make the sauna experience more enjoyable for everyone. Remember that the goal is to relax and enjoy your time. It’s the perfect excuse to disconnect for a little while. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.
Also, pay attention to any posted rules that your gym may have. It’s important to follow these rules if you want to continue using the sauna and enjoying its benefits.
How Long to Stay in a Sauna?
In the etiquette list above, we talked about being quick and not spending too much time in the gym sauna. But how much is too much? More importantly, how much is enough?
If you’re entering a sauna after your workout, 20-30 minutes is more than sufficient. If you’ve never been in a sauna before, you may want to start with even less time until your body gets acclimated to the heat. Beginners may want to start with just 5-10 minutes and work their way up to a full session over time.
Always pay attention to your body’s signals. If you’re feeling dizzy, lightheaded or unwell, it’s time to leave the sauna, rehydrate and rest for a few minutes.
Saunas are a Great Workout Recovery Tool
If your goal is to improve your performance in the gym and continue pushing yourself to new heights, then you know the importance of recovery. Your actions during recovery will make or break your results. The last thing you want is to waste your time in the gym, and it’s important to have a variety of recovery tools at your disposal.
Fitness enthusiasts are always looking for new ways to improve recovery, boost muscle growth and increase endurance. A sauna is just another tool that you can use to achieve these goals. Just make sure that you’re doing it safely, at the proper time (after a workout) and following the rules. You’ll quickly realize and fall in love with the benefits of using a sauna after your workout.