The Benefits of Sauna as a Post-Workout Recovery

Ever wondered if sauna bathing would make your post-workout recovery window quicker? Well, in this article, we are going to discuss the benefits of using sauna bathing sessions for better recovery and hence performance of an endurance athlete. Sauna bathing has been around for more than 2000 years; this ancient practice is continuously being used for health, pleasure, hygiene social and spiritual reasons.

Nowadays, there are many styles of sauna bathing such as the Turkish-style Hammam, Infrared Sauna and Banya, with the traditional Finnish sauna being the most studied and researched amongst all. This form of whole-body thermotherapy lasts for a short period of time, from 5-20 minutes at temperatures that can vary from 80-100C at a relatively low air humidity, only about 10 to 20% (Hannuksela and Ellahham, 2001).

Amongst other practices, sauna bathing is considered to be an inexpensive and practical recovery method which can be easily tailored to complement one’s post-training needs.

WHAT PHYSIOLOGICAL CHANGES DOES SAUNA BATHING CAUSES TO THE BODY AND HOW CAN THESE HELP YOU TO PERFORM BETTER?

During a sauna bathing session, the individual is exposed to a closed hot and dry atmosphere which stimulates a bunch of different systems throughout the whole body. Not only these reactions have been considered to be a reliable post-workout recovery for athletes but they have also been pointed out to help with the rehabilitation of individuals with chronic diseases such as fibromyalgia, rheumatic disorder, respiratory conditions and cardiovascular diseases (Eisalo et al., 1995; Ikeda et al., 2005; Saadat et al., 2009).

Below I have gathered some of the major physiological changes that may occur during a sauna session.

1. A rise in body temperature

When the body is exposed to sauna conditions, the skin temperature may rise up to 42C and core body temperature up to 39C. This has a profound effect on the body’s homeostatic system which in turn, activates thermoregulatory mechanisms to cool down the body back to its optimal temperature.

2. The effects on the cardiovascular system

An increase in cardiovascular output, heart rate and skin blood flow are some of the homeostatic processes mentioned above in response to the rise in the body’s core and skin temperature.

Several studies have pointed a significant increase in blood volume during a sauna session, indeed, Scoon GS, 2019 on Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners, has concluded that a 3-week post-workout sauna session is positively correlated to an enhancement in the performance of endurance athletes.

This is probably due to a higher blood volume that in turn is linked to an increase in VO2 max, aka, the maximal oxygen consumed during a high-intensity exercise. Better oxygenated muscles = increase in aerobic respiration and decrease in aerobic respiration = less prone to early fatigue during intense exercise.

3. Sweating

Sweating is certainly the most obvious body reaction to when exposed to high temperatures. When sweat evaporates from the skin surface it produces a cooling effect that facilitates homeostasis, in other words, it helps the body to bring its temperature back to the norm.

However, studies have shown that prolonged sweating from long sauna sessions decreases intravascular plasma volume hence, the reason why sauna bathing should be kept within a 5-20 minute range to allow the body to cool down and stop sweating (Pilch et al., 2010).

4. Metabolic changes

Studies have shown a significant decrease in reactive oxygenated species and inflammation pathway activities in the body after a sauna session.

In fact, a single Finnish Sauna can significantly reduce oxidative stress caused by a 30-min aerobic exercise in healthy man (Sutkowy P, 2019). Oxidative stress is the imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants in favour of the oxidants which can lead to damage and disruption of the body’s cellular activity (H, 2019) which may indirectly reduce the ability of the body fully recover from training and do better.

5. Stimulation of the immune system

For an athlete to keep up with heavy training schedules for long periods of time, he/she must prioritize the preservation of his/her immune system which is specialized in defending against infections and inflammation in the body.

A number of studies have pointed out positive adaptations that occurred due to the stimulation of the body’s immune system after a sauna session.

For example, the study done by Dayanc et. al. has shown an increase in lymphocytes and monocytes after exposure to thermal stress in athletes. An increase in these two white blood cells may imply a faster mobilization and prompt first line responses to infections and inflammation which is very likely to occur in post-exercise muscle damage. (Pilch et al. ,2019).

6. Analgesic effect & Relaxation

The stimulation of the endocrine system is one of the major body reaction mechanisms to thermal stress. Studies have pointed that a rise β-endorphins circulating in the blood can be linked to the effect of being exposed to short periods of intense heat followed by cooling intervals, which as a result, promotes a feeling of well-being and relief in the body (Laukkanen, Jari A. et al. 2018).

7. Muscle regeneration and hormones

According to Dr Mercola, the endocrine system is massively stimulated during a sauna bathing which causes glands to release huge amounts of hormones in the blood targeting different organs and systems throughout the whole body.

In one of her recent articles, Are Saunas the Next Big Performance-Enhancing “Drug”?, she points out some studies which have shown the increase in Human Growth Hormones to be positively correlated to a decrease in the rate of muscle loss and protein degradation due to aging.

Additionally, when an individual is exposed to thermal stress, the organism responds by inducing the synthesis of heat shock proteins, HSPs which play an important role in preventing cell damage by supporting cellular antioxidant capacity, proper protein synthesis and protection against cellular stress (Liz Z et al 2004).

It is wise to keep in mind the lack of research that provides exclusive evidence on how sauna bathing directly affects the performance of BJJ athletes and women in general. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that sauna bathing does have a positive effect on the human body, especially for relaxation and recovery.

What is your opinion on the benefits of sauna bathing on your body? How frequently do you take sauna bathes? And does it help with your post-workout recovery? Tell us more about your experience below!

REFERENCES

- Benefits and risks of sauna bathing https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002934300006719

- Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2018/1857413/

- Effect of a Single Finnish Sauna Session on White Blood Cell Profile and Cortisol Levels in Athletes and Non-Athletes - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24511348

 

- Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. - PubMed - NCBI Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16877041

-The effect of a single Finnish sauna bath after aerobic exercise on the oxidative status in healthy men. - PubMed - NCBI Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24304490

-Are Saunas the Next Big Performance-Enhancing “Drug”? https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/05/24/sauna-benefits.aspx

-The Immune System https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm200007063430107

 


Ines Silveira


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