The sauna has become a very popular practice among runners and athletes in general, and many say that its benefits are remarkable. However, if you've never tried a sauna before, you may find that some of the sauna benefits sound too good to be true.
Can a post-workout sauna session really have a significant effect on your running performance? What are the long-term pros and cons of the sauna for runners?
In general, the answer is yes: the sauna can improve sports performance. Sauna helps improve heat tolerance and lung capacity, as well as stretch muscles and detoxify the body (benefits of sweating), which can reduce post-workout stiffness. Also, because the sauna is relaxing, many runners prefer to use it to take their moment of peace.
In this article, we'll explore why post-exercise sauna can be beneficial for runners and how to use it to improve your running performance. We will also talk about how you can enjoy a sauna at home, without having to spend a fortune and take up the space that a traditional sauna needs (take a look at our infrared sauna blanket).
What does science say about sauna use after running?
There are a couple of very interesting scientific studies about the benefits of sauna after running:
A first study from 2006 on six male runners showed that post-run sauna use can significantly improve running performance. For 3 weeks, six runners completed post-training sauna sessions, while for another 3 weeks, they performed normal training without sauna sessions. There was a 3-week rest period between the two training periods. During the sauna week, the subjects sat in a sauna at a temperature of 89.9 °C immediately after exercise for 31 minutes in 12.7 times.
The performance test consisted of a treadmill run for approximately 15 minutes to exhaustion at the fastest speed the runners could maintain for 5 km. The test was performed on the first and second day after completing the sauna and control periods, and the times were averaged. Plasma volume, red cell volume, and total blood volume were measured immediately before the first run to exhaustion for each period.
Results showed that run time to exhaustion increased by 32% after the sauna compared to control, which equates to a 1-fold improvement.9% (1.3-2.4%) in an endurance race. In addition, the plasma volume increased by 7.1% and the volume of red cells 3.5% after sauna compared to control.
This study concluded that post-run sauna practice can significantly improve running performance by increasing blood volume.
This more recent (2020) study evaluated whether sauna post-exercise for three weeks improves heat tolerance and performance markers compared to resistance training without a sauna.
Twenty middle-distance runners participated in the study and were divided into two groups: the control group underwent normal training and the sauna group undertook the same training with 28 post-exercise sauna sessions at around 100°C three times a week.
The results showed that the sauna group reduced their maximum body temperature, skin temperature, and heart rate more than the control group after three weeks of sessions. Furthermore, the sauna group improved maximal aerobic capacity more than the control group after those three weeks.
This study showed that sauna sessions after running for three weeks are an effective and practical way of acclimating to heat and an effective method of improving performance in middle distance runners.
Why will a sauna after running help you improve your running performance?
Here are some of the reasons why a post-exercise sauna will help you improve your performance.
Helps improve blood circulation
The benefits of a sauna for blood circulation are indisputable. The heat inside a sauna helps dilate the blood vessels, allowing more blood to flow to the muscles. This increases blood flow and improves muscle recovery after running.
When you use the sauna regularly, your blood vessels dilate further, allowing more oxygen-rich red blood cells to flow into your muscles during your run. The dilated blood vessels also help remove toxins, such as lactic acid, from the muscles, reducing the sensation of post-workout soreness.
If you want to run more often or recover faster from injuries, well-planned sessions in the sauna can give your recovery a boost.
Improve your lung capacity
In addition to improving blood circulation in the muscles, a post-run sauna session also improves blood circulation in the lungs. This helps you breathe more effectively and increases the oxygen reaching your muscles and organs.
A session in the sauna also helps to decongest the lungs and airways, removing the buildup of mucus and germs in your airways. This makes breathing easier and results in a better quality of oxygen reaching your lungs and organs.
It will help you acclimatize to the heat
Are you preparing for a summer race or do you want to run in warmer climates than you are used to?
Since the sauna is set to a higher temperature than the natural environment, a post-run sauna session can help your body adapt to these conditions. This will help you adjust to a warmer running environment, improving your performance.
A couple of weekly sauna sessions will help your body and mind adapt to the high temperatures. In this way, you will not have as many problems to adapt and your performance in the race will not be affected as much.
Production of muscle growth hormones
When you use the sauna after exercise, the volume of blood plasma increases, which causes a drop in blood sugar and cortisol levels. As a result, testosterone levels, responsible for muscle growth and strength, increase. This increase in your testosterone levels will result in a significant improvement in performance.
Some studies suggest that a sauna bath can increase HGH (growth hormone) levels by up to 150%. Since stronger muscles mean better running and greater endurance, taking a sauna bath is a great way to start the process and work towards that extra strength to beat your personal best.
Sauna helps relax muscles
The benefits of post-exercise saunas are vast, but two of the most consistent are recovery and rehabilitation. While stretching is key to keeping muscles loose and preventing injury, a sauna session also helps loosen muscles through heat treatment. By regularly using a sauna, your muscles gradually relax, reducing the chances of injury while running.
In addition, saunas remove toxins from your muscles, which helps prevent muscle stiffness and fatigue. If you have an injury, saunas can also speed up the healing process due to their heat treatment effect. If you're serious about running, you already know that taking care of your body when you're not running is just as important as the miles you put on the road.
Slow down your heart rate
The benefits of a sauna go beyond simply helping you recover after a run. In fact, saunas can also have a positive effect on your heart rate. By improving blood circulation and putting stress on the body, a sauna can help lower your heart rate in the long run.
By lowering your heart rate, you'll be able to run harder without limiting blood flow and oxygen delivery to your muscles and organs.
Abebe Bikila's history with the sauna: double Olympic winner
The story of Abebe Bikila is that of an Ethiopian marathon champion who became known worldwide when he won the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome running barefoot (he won another gold medal in 1964).
Although this singular approach garnered a lot of attention, it was discovered that sauna sessions were also an essential part of his training: Bikila did post-run sauna sessions twice a week.
In her bio, Bikila explained how the sauna helped her recover from her rigorous marathon training routine. It also made him more resistant to the bodily aches that accompany regular running.
How does a post-run sauna help race performance?
If you are a runner, you should know that running performance does not only depend on the time you spend training. In addition, there are other factors that can affect your performance. Fortunately, one of the most effective ways to improve your running performance is by using the sauna.
A post-run sauna session can help improve your running performance by helping you acclimatize to higher temperatures, improving your lung capacity and blood circulation. These factors work together to improve your muscular endurance and running speed. Additionally, improved lung capacity and blood flow can actively increase your running performance.
A sauna session can help slow your heart rate and remove toxins from your muscles, allowing you to recover faster after an event. You will be able to recover sooner and return to training sooner while reducing the risk of runner's fatigue.
While a sauna session can't replace your cardio workout, it can be a useful addition to your cardio routine and improve your ability to recover between runs.
However, it is important to exercise caution when taking a sauna session, as dehydration and low blood pressure are common factors that can reverse any performance improvement you hoped to see.
How to use a sauna to increase running performance?
Experts recommend taking several sessions (3-4) per week for 10 to 15 minutes after training.
Most athletes prefer to use the sauna after exercise. You will get the best recovery benefits and your muscles will feel relaxed after an intense workout. Be sure to drink enough fluids, otherwise you may become excessively dehydrated.
If you don't have access to a sauna, consider an infrared sauna blanket instead, they provide similar benefits.
What if you could have a sauna at home?
After discussing the benefits of post-run sauna sessions, it's important to mention that not everyone has access to a sauna at their home or gym. However, there is a more accessible and convenient alternative: the infrared sauna blanket.
The infrared sauna blankets are a portable and affordable way to experience the benefits of a post-exercise sauna from the comfort of home. Using far-infrared technology, these sauna blankets can penetrate deep into your muscles and offer benefits similar to a traditional sauna.
If you don't have access to a sauna, we recommend you consider trying our infrared sauna blanket to experience the benefits of heat therapy in the comfort of your own home (try it for 30 days and if you don't like it, your money back). By supplementing your training with infrared sauna technology, you will be able to improve your endurance, lung capacity, recovery and overall running performance.