Sauna and sport belong more and more firmly together. For many recreational and professional athletes, sweating in sauna is an important part of the training program. Combining sauna and exercise is more beneficial than you might think. In addition to the obvious fact that relaxing in a steam room after exertion is simply pleasant, scientific studies confirm that regular sauna use increases endurance, performance and helps the body recover after exercise.
We will explain how sauna sessions affect your body’s physical condition and why it is worth adding sauna to your exercise routine. We highlight the benefits that have been scientifically proven through various studies.
#1 Sauna helps muscles recover from exercise
A hot sauna after exercise improves muscle metabolism and helps them recover faster.
What happens in our body: Our body is most affected by the heat experienced in the sauna. Due to its effect, the blood vessels expand, pulse rate increases and blood circulation accelerates. As a result of good blood supply, a larger amount of oxygen circulates in the body, which helps muscle cells to break down nutrients and get the necessary energy. Due to heat the level of the steroid hormone cortisol in the body increases, and the amount of glucose, the main source of energy for cells, increases with it in the muscles. An active metabolism occurs in the muscles, which helps to recover from post-exercise exhaustion.
Some studies also confirm that sauna air contributes to recovery. When ladling water on the stones, the proportion of useful air particles, negative ions, in the air increases. These have been found to affect the composition of our blood plasma when they reach the blood through the lungs. Among other things, these particles reduce the content of lactic acid in the blood, which makes muscles painful.
#2 Muscle tension and soreness decrease
Sports doctors recommend taking a sauna after training, as the heat helps to relax the muscles and accelerates recovery from injuries.
What happens in our body: As already mentioned, the blood vessels dilate and the blood flow increases when you are in sauna. It stimulates cell metabolism, helps to remove metabolic residues and carbon dioxide accumulated during the day from the muscles.
The heat of the sauna lowers inflammatory reactions and has a relaxing effect on the joints, blood vessels as well as the nervous system. Muscles become more elastic and less painful. Sauna is also recommended, for example, for the treatment of joint inflammation, arthrosis, and rheumatism, for the relief of soft tissue pain (fibromyalgia) and headaches.
#3 Regular sauna increases endurance
Sauna has a similar effect on the body as light exercise.
What happens in our body: The blood vessels of the person sitting on the sauna bench expand, blood pressure drops and heart beats faster. The heart rate rises to 100 and even 180 beats per minute when staying in a hot sauna for a very long time. Although we are sitting still, calories burn and the load on the body is comparable to brisk walking or jumping rope. If you are just starting your workouts, regular sauna sessions will definitely add an extra boost to your endurance and getting in shape.
However, it should be remembered that sauna alone is not enough to achieve athletic fitness. Do not overdo it by sitting in the hot steam room and be sure to drink enough water.
#4 Sauna helps improve athletic performance
Sauna trains the muscles to tire less and exert intensively even after the body temperature rises.
What happens in our body: When we exercise, our body temperature rises and after a while we feel like we’re running out of steam. The brain signals to the body that it is time to stop exercising, as there is a risk of overheating. The electrical signals in the muscles slow down and the energy supply decreases.
However, regular sauna trains the body to better tolerate both the heat coming from the outside and the heat accompanying physical activity. The temperature does rise, but the muscles can continue to strain. The same applies to both the internal heat of our body and the heat from the external environment.
For example, before going to compete in a tropical climate, athletes should undergo about a week of sauna therapy to better adapt their bodies.
Frequent and regular sauna sessions also increase general physical endurance. More oxygen flows to the muscles, and the energy generated by burning it helps the muscles work harder and longer. The effect of the sauna remains in the body for a longer period of time and improves the body’s athletic performance.
#5 Lung volume and overall lung capacity increase
Sauna relaxes the muscles of the respiratory tract, increases the lung volume and general capacity of the lungs.
What happens in our body: Studies have shown that the hot and humid air of steam room reduces oxidative stress and lowers inflammatory reactions. It has also been found that sauna heat reduces bronchial swelling, has a good effect on lung tissues and dilates pulmonary tubes. We are forced to breathe deeply and calmly when sitting on the sauna bench. It contributes to relaxation, exercises the lungs and helps increase the body’s oxygen reserves. For a healing sauna experience, it is important that the steam room has good ventilation and fresh, oxygen-rich air.
This is especially important for runners who want to strengthen their endurance or develop their pace.
#6 Sauna contributes to weight loss
Regular sauna helps burn calories, reduces appetite, and improves sleep quality.
What happens in our body: We probably weigh less when we leave sauna than when we enter it, but unfortunately losing weight in sauna is not that easy. We lose weight because we sweat out mostly water. After sauna, however, we drink it back. However, sauna contributes to weight loss. That being said, sitting on the sauna bench affects the body in the same way as moderate exercise. We burn calories and our metabolism is activated.
It has also been found that sauna can help reduce appetite. In warm temperatures, the amount of tyrosine, the hormone that gives a feeling of fullness, increases in the blood. This is the reason why we don’t have much appetite on a hot day. We also sleep longer and deeper after sauna. When we are exhausted, we eat less and do not reach for snacks as easily.
Sitting on the sauna bench affects the body in the same way as moderate exercise.
Should you take a sauna before or after training?
Although some sources suggest that taking a sauna before a hard workout can help prevent muscle soreness, it’s best to reserve a sauna session for post-workout relaxation.
Sitting in a hot sauna raises the body’s core temperature and just before exercise, it has a rather exhausting effect on us. Our central nervous system becomes burdened, the muscle’s ability to exert itself decreases, and we can’t exert ourselves intensely.
However, after training, sauna helps the muscles recover and speeds up recovery from possible injuries. The time spent in the warm sauna room is good for doing light stretches and reaching a pleasantly calm and relaxed state.
Good advice for a pleasant sauna
Although scientists are in the common opinion that sauna has a good effect on our muscle recovery, no exact recipe has been found for how long and at what temperature one should stay in order to have the greatest effect. Thus, we can only provide those guidelines that we are convinced are correct:
- Regular sauna (e.g. 2-3 times a week) is more efficient than individual sauna visits. However, every single visit to sauna also guarantees a good tone and pleasant relaxation. Go to sauna as often as you like and whenever you have the chance!
- Prefer sauna after training. Then the sauna will help you recover and will not tire you before effort.
- Always drink enough water in sauna! Mineral water is especially good for balancing the minerals that leave the body with sweat.
- Choose sauna temperature according to how you feel. From the point of view of health, scientists agree that a steam room with a temperature of no more than 100 degrees is most suitable for our bodies. As for you, listen to your body. The heat in the steam room and how much someone can stand the heat is not a competition. It is important that you enjoy the sauna.
- Do not underestimate the importance of fresh air! This makes sauna sessions healthier and more pleasant. If you are still planning your sauna, make sure that the ventilation is good. If there is no ventilation, open a door or window for ventilation.
Sauna and exercise are designed to complement each other. Both are great on their own, but together they form an unbeatable whole. Separately, however, I would like to point out one particularly pleasant effect of the sauna, the importance of which cannot be underestimated. On the contrary. Through the ages, it has been perhaps even the most important for sauna lovers. Namely, sitting on the sauna bench helps us to relax, divert our thoughts from worries and switch off from everyday stress. It has been found that frequent sauna users are more vital and optimistic than many others. By the way, exercise also has a similar effect. So there is no other advice to give than to recommend taking your time and going to sauna as much as possible. It will make you a healthier and happier person.
Hõbepappel, Urmas; Hõbepappel, Liisa; Nellis, Silja; Nellis, Siim. Suur sauna raamat. Tartu, (manuscript)