Have you ever had a debate with a Scandinavian over whether or not to jump in the sauna after a hard workout?
Many gym-goers love the therapeutic effects of a sauna after exercising, or even just to relax after a hard day’s work. But the debate remains; even though it feels good, are saunas a healthy (or safe) idea post-workout?
The concept of sweat baths has been around for over 3,000 years dating as far back as the native tribes of North and South America.
The Mayans of modern-day central America are thought to be one of the first to use the technique, developing complex systems for cooling down the body, detoxifying and connecting to supernatural spirits.
The Romans came next, the evidence discovered in their exquisite bath halls frequented by the elite. “Heat therapy” is an umbrella term that can range from sweat baths to steam rooms, but a sauna specifically uses dry heat with minimal moisture in the air.
The humidity is normally kept as low as 10-20% and any water produced is drained through the bottom, leaving occupants to bathe in temperatures between 140 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
A sauna can be so dry that those sitting inside often have no idea how much they are perspiring, the sweat evaporating almost immediately upon release.
Health benefits of using a sauna have been shown to be immense, and we are going to cover them for you in detail in this article.
But a quick word of caution. As the body undergoes a significant rise in internal temperature, there can be added strain put on the heart.
Those that suffer from existing heart conditions should consult their doctor before prolonged exposure or post-workout heat therapy.
Sitting in a sauna has very similar effects on your heart as a short cardio workout.
The heat increases your heart rate immediately, which in turn increases the amount of blood being pumped through your arteries and blood vessels.
With this boost of blood flow, the cells in the arterial walls grow stronger, and over time improve cardiovascular health.
In an extensive Japanese study, increased frequency of sauna bathing was shown to correlate to a decreased risk of sudden cardiac deaths as well as fatal cardiovascular disease.
This was attributed to increased ventricular function and lowered blood pressure, both of which are effects of frequent sauna bathing.
However, saunas can put unwanted stress on those who suffer from chronic heart conditions, so consult your doctor if you think you might be at risk.
Following any sort of intensive workout, the muscles of the body undergo a certain amount of tightening and inflammation.
This should sound familiar, as it’s the main reason we do a cool-down stretch following a hard workout. The heat from the sauna induces blood flow and provides more oxygen to those demanding muscles in recovery.
It also allows for relaxation of any muscle contractions, providing relief of post-workout aches and pains.
It can also be a very effective way of preventing injury by allowing the muscles the proper oxygenation, relaxation and flex.
The heat therapy provided by a sauna softens and nourishes the tired muscles, speeds up recovery, and helps you to be ready for your next session- injury-free.
In a very interesting experiment which studied hormonal release during sauna bathing, it was found that adrenaline and cortisol- two hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response- either stayed the same or decreased in density during a sauna bathing session.
At the same time, endorphin production increased, leading to a more clear and relaxed mental state.
Endorphins help to minimize discomfort and promote a sense of comfort and well-being. It has also been noted that stimulating the skin with heat can trigger the brain to release serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood, appetite, and sleep cycles, all of which can be related back to overall feelings of happiness and content.
People who suffer from low levels of serotonin are often diagnosed with depression, seasonal affective disorder, or mild to severe forms of anxiety.
Heat therapy such as sauna bathing has been used as an effective treatment against some of these conditions.
Have you heard of free radicals? These molecules are often at the center of debate for sports doctors and fitness addicts, as they are the product of intense exercise and are thought to damage skin, cause cancer and lead to a whole list of other negative side effects.
Free radicals are released when we engage in heavy cardio training.
Good news for sauna lovers; as the heat increases our blood flow, these nasty molecules are carried to the skin’s surface and released through sweat.
This natural process is our body’s way of detoxifying, and studies have shown that sauna-induced detox can be used as a tool to regulate different toxic and autoimmune induced chronic health problems.
Increase Athletic Performance
When you put a few of the benefits mentioned so far together, you realize quickly why sauna bathing has often been termed a “performance-enhancing” activity.
It increases blood flow and quickens muscle recovery, leaving your body healthier and ready to go.
Short bursts of heat have also been shown to shock the system and raise the heart rate, leading to temperature acclimatization and internal benefits.
High-performance athletes often praise the “cold plunge”, a practice attributed to the Nordic cultures who would indulge in a heat sauna for 20 minutes before jumping through a hole in the ice. As extreme as it may sound, the benefits have been tried and tested.
There you have it, some proven benefits of sauna bathing after a workout.
Remember to practice safety and common sense when taking these recommendations.
Be sure to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and limit your time in the sauna to only 10-20 minutes.
Listen to your body and give it time to acclimate to the heat stress rather than pushing it hard at the beginning.
If you being to feel dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous, remove yourself from the sauna and cool yourself down.
Remember the benefits are there but in moderation. Happy bathing!
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.