You’re an athlete. You want to take your game to the next level.
Need. Not want.
The sauna can be your secret weapon. Most athletes don’t know about it.
You don’t have to be elite. Every athlete should use them. However, most people don’t know that frequent sauna use will increase your performance and recovery.
And by most, I mean 99% of your competition.
Out-working your competition will get you ahead of most athletes, but it will not last. We all have 24 hours in a day. Someone can work as hard, if not harder, than you.
Getting in one more rep or one more set, doesn’t guarantee better results. Sometimes less is more.
Overreaching is the result in a short-term decrease in performance capacity from the accumulation of training and/or non-training stress.
Overtraining is long-term performance decline, from weeks to several months, from the accumulation of training and/or non-training stress.
Let your opponents watch hype videos, get motivated, then go over-train and break down their bodies over several months. You just relax.
What is so special about the sauna is that while you are just sitting there, you are improving your cardio and recovering at the same time. Your body is essentially exercising while recovering.
And it doesn’t destroy your muscles. It builds them.
You don’t get sore. The course of a long season can leave your opponents with nagging injuries and sore muscles, giving you a leg-up.
While your opponent struggles in the heat, you don’t breaking a sweat.
They breathe heavy. You breathe easy.
Sauna use improves performance
Your body’s response to heat stress
Your body’s heat response is similar to moderate-intense exercise. Heat stress increase your body temperature, making you sweat to cool down. The heat from a sauna optimizes blood flow to your heart, skeletal muscles, and skin. During this process, your cardiac output increases by 60-70% along with your heart rate.
With frequent sauna use, your body becomes heat acclimated and more efficient at cooling itself. This is a huge advantage for athletes because it reduces cardio strain and lowers heart rate for the same workload. And it’s not just an advantage for competition in hot climates. It translates to all climates.
An athlete gets tired when glycogen stores are depleted. Being heat acclimated cuts your dependence on glycogen stores. Instead, your muscles are fueled with glucose, fatty acids, and oxygen. Heat acclimation reduces muscle glycogen use by 40-50% compared to before being heat acclimated. This allows you to more efficiently hold onto carbohydrates, burn fat, and reduce muscle glycogen usage during exercise.
It’s been shown that runners have improved their ability to run to exhaustion by 32% when using the sauna for 30 minutes at 194°F post exercise.
That same study saw plasma increase 7.1% and red-cell volumes 3.5%. Increasing blood plasma improves cardiovascular function. Red blood cells (RBC) bring oxygen from lungs to muscles during exercise. They also deliver carbon dioxide to the lungs. Increasing RBC eases this process, thus increasing your performance.
These benefits are similar to the illegal performance enhancing drug, erythropoietin (EPO), which increases RBC’s and plasma volume to increase performance. Saunas are legal performance enhancers.
Sauna vs. altitude training
Sauna use is better for athletes than altitude training. Heat acclimation is better at increasing Vo2 max and is better at preparing your body to handle hot and cold temperature than altitude training. Additionally, sauna use, or heat training, increases oxygen delivery to the muscles through increased left ventricular compliance and pressure.
“Heat acclimation provides more substantial environmental specific improvements in aerobic performance than altitude acclimation,”Santiago Lorenzo, physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. Former decathlete at the University of Oregon
Sauna use increases muscle hypertrophy
For muscle hypertrophy (growth), you need net protein synthesis. Net protein synthesis is when new proteins created to repair muscle damage and outweigh protein degradation. You achieve new protein synthesis by using muscles during exercise.
Protein degradation occurs both with muscle use and disuse. Heat acclimation reduces protein degradation, thus increases net protein synthesis, and muscle hypertrophy.
Muscle hypertrophy increases heat shock proteins, induces growth hormone release, increased insulin sensitivity so your muscles pull in nutrients more readily, and you delay muscle atrophy.
Heat Shock Proteins
You increase heat shock proteins when you exercise. Heat shock proteins help increase protein synthesis, increasing muscle growth.
Increased HSP’s help your muscles grow, repair damaged cells, and become more resilient in heat.
Sauna use releases growth hormone in your body. Human growth hormone release is important for fat loss, muscle growth, increasing exercise capacity, recovery, your bones, mood, immune system, and slowing aging.
17 men and women used the sauna for two 1-hour sessions at 176 F for seven days. The results showed a 16x increase in growth hormone levels by the 3rd day.
This has a great anabolic effect mediated by IGF-1, which is released in response to that growth hormone. This activates the m-TOR pathway and is responsible for protein synthesis.
It also inhibits FOXO activation, reducing protein degradation. Growth hormone and IGF-1 increase performance by enhancing growth and repairing muscles.
Exercise followed by sauna use is a potent stimuli for growth hormone release, thus an increase in performance.
Sauna use increases insulin sensitivity. Insulin regulates glucose homeostasis by promoting the uptake of glucose into muscle and adipose tissue. It also regulates protein metabolism by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing protein degradation. When you increase insulin levels, it suppresses muscle protein breakdown without significantly effecting new muscle protein synthesis.
Sauna for Recovery
Athletes need to recovery from training and competition. Recovery prevents overtraining and your body from breaking down. Sauna use increases blood flow in deep tissue, enabling athletes to recover faster.
There was a study with 10 national level athletes using far infrared heat for 40 minutes in the evening after intensive training. The results showed improved recovery of neuromuscular performance in power athletes when compared to passive recovery. “The accelerated recovery of far infrared can enable harder training and can further accelerate athletic development.”
Dan Gable is an Olympic Gold Medalist, NCAA Champion, and greatest American wrestling coach of all time. He used the sauna after every practice. It allowed his muscles to recover so he could train harder than his competition. As a coach, he had his Iowa Hawkeyes in the sauna. “[We] were able to train harder than the other teams.” This sauna use helped him to a 355–21–5 record, with 15 National Championships and 21 Big Ten Championships.
Sauna use is also great for recovering from injury. Muscles atrophy when not used, meaning they shrink. This is when your body is in net protein degradation instead of net protein synthesis. The heat stress in the sauna can be increase muscle hypertrophy and recovery.
How Athletes Should Use Sauna
Just get in for 20-30 min after your normal run. No treadmills, no extra clothes, no frills. That’s all you need. Running before entering the sauna reduces the timeframe you need to create necessary adaptations. It also interferes less with the training, thus allowing an athlete to continue to focus on developing fitness.Jason Koop
This strategy from Jason lines up with the research. Studies show that the benefits of sauna use are much greater after 20 minutes compared to 11-18 minutes. Additionally, you want the sauna to be hot. For a traditional sauna, the research again points to at least 174°f. Joe Rogan and many other frequent sauna users like it around 200°f.
Athletes should sauna post-training to athletic performance and recovery. It is optimal to use a sauna after a workout, when injured, or when you want similar effects of exercise without the strain of a workout.