Sauna Benefits for Athletes
Sauna Heat Acclimation might as well be a PED (performance enhancing drug). While sauna use for athletes is not a new practice, many people haven’t completely grasped how to use the sauna correctly to maximize its performance enhancing benefits, especially since prolonged sauna use done wrong can cause extreme dehydration. I live in Boulder, CO at an altitude of around 5500ft and there are a few disadvantages to living here that sauna heat acclimation can actually help with aside from heat/humidity acclimation. I did a little digging around before one of my races in Puerto Rico and, as it turns out, quite a few professional athletes and coaches who claim that sauna sessions are the way to go when preparing to race in the heat and/or humidity.
A word of caution – don’t be stupid about doing sauna sessions for too long. Don’t do it drunk or hungover. It’s strongly recommended you do it with a friend, especially if you suffer in the heat. And make sure to hydrate at least for the next few hours after your session. -This is for informational purposes only! Use at your own risk.
Three ways sauna sessions can improve athletic performance:
- Sauna sessions increase blood plasma/volume and flow to the heart. So for a given workload your strain will be easier thus increasing performance. Greater amounts of blood are able to flow to working muscles and skin. Increased levels of blood have been linked to greater endurance and VO2 max.
- Sauna sessions help reduce the dependence on glycogen stores, thus further preventing you from bonking. By reducing your reliance on glycogen, the body becomes better at using fat for energy and conserving those precious glycogen stores. This is huge in longer events, but also very important in short and intense events. In addition, lactate has been shown to be reduced as well from regular sauna use.
- Sweat rate and thermoregulatory control is improved with regular sauna sessions and blood flow is increased to the skin. Everything is about keeping your body cool. Whether you’re going hard or its hot, the increased blood plasma levels allow for greater heat dissipation through the skin.
For example, if you do just 2 x 30min sauna sessions a week for 3 weeks post-workout you may see up to a 32% increase in time to exhaustion. See references below.
Protocol: 3 Weeks Out From Race:
1. At least 3x per week up to 25mins in dry/wet sauna after the last workout of the day.
2. No Fluids during sauna to increase blood plasma volume (dehydration increases blood plasma).
3. Weigh yourself before and after each session. Re-hydrate 1 bottle per hour after each session until normal weight is reached with OSMO(1-scoop p/bottle). Other options include Skratch hydration, Clifbar and First Endurance.
Watch this video, it’s 13 mins but it’s good.
Want more? Tim Ferris on 4 Hour Work Week has an excellent post and 48 references for you to soak up if you want.
- Michael N. Sawka, C. B. W., Kent B. Pandolf. Thermoregulatory Responses to Acute Exercise-Heat Stress and Heat Acclimation. Handbook of Physiology, Environmental Physiology (2011). This is a good review article that covers many of the mechanisms that underly the endurance enhancements as a consequence of heat acclimation
- Garrett, A. T., Creasy, R., Rehrer, N. J., Patterson, M. J. & Cotter, J. D. Effectiveness of short-term heat acclimation for highly trained athletes. European journal of applied physiology 112, 1827-1837, doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2153-3 (2012).
- Kirwan, J. P. et al. Substrate utilization in leg muscle of men after heat acclimation. J Appl Physiol (1985) 63, 31-35 (1987). The findings in this study reinforce the data in ref #3. Both small sample sizes but multiple studies showing the same effect makes the argument stronger
- Ricardo J. S. Costa, M. J. C., Jonathan P. Moore & Neil P. Walsh. Heat acclimation responses of an ultra-endurance running group preparing for hot desert-based competition. European Journal of Sport Science, 1-11 (2011). The sample sizes in both studies referenced here and in #4 have small sample sizes but they are two independent studies that compliment each other. This study also reinforces the endurance enhancements in #5.
- Scoon, G. S., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S. & Cotter, J. D. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of science and medicine in sport / Sports Medicine Australia 10, 259-262, doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009 (2007). This study shows the effect of preconditioning the body to heat stress by using a sauna for at least 30 min directly after after training session.