Before my breakout Western States 100 win in 2017, I spent as much time in the sauna as I did training on the trails.
The goal was to prepare for the 110 degrees of soul-scorching heat. However, the benefits of my rigorous sauna training may have contributed to my win in ways beyond heat adaptations.
Here are a few ways that sauna training can make you a faster, stronger, and healthier athlete.
The first and most obvious benefit is that the more time you spend in the sauna, the better you will be able to tolerate high temperatures.
A 2001 review study by Minna Hannuksela and Samer Ellahham summarizes the body’s response to the heat of a sauna. Heart rate increases, sweat production increases, and blood flow to the skin increases. These changes are very similar to the kinds of adaptations seen when first acclimating to a naturally hot environment.
Regular sauna bathing might be a way to acclimate to hot weather, which could be very useful if you’re living in a northern climate but planning on running a winter or spring race in a warm location.
Increased Lung Capacity
The heat of a sauna has a direct impact on the lungs as well. According to a 1988 study, lung capacity and function increase by around 10 percent in the sauna.
In a study done by Hannuksela and Ellahham, people with asthma and chronic bronchitis report that saunas clear up their lung congestion and help them breathe easier. However, it is essential to note that saunas did not decrease the duration or severity of symptoms, and other researchers caution that you should not take a sauna while you have an upper respiratory infection like the cold or any illness that produces a fever.
Blood Volume and Performance
A 2006 study by Guy S.M. Scoon and other researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand measured the effects of post-workout saunas on performance over a treadmill run to exhaustion.
Throughout the nine-week study, six runners undertook a series of three three-week training blocks: one where every training session was followed with a 30-minute sauna, and a control period with the same training but no sauna use. After each training block, the runners completed a treadmill run to failure at personal-record 5K pace.
The study showed an increase in red blood cell production for those who used the sauna, which resulted in more capacity for oxygen transportation to the muscles during exercise. Regular sauna use resulted in a 30 percent increase in time to exhaustion, which, according to the authors, would translate to about a two percent improvement in time in an actual race.
Hannuksela and Ellahham also cite several other studies showing that sauna bathing increases growth hormone levels in the blood by 200-500 percent, which has powerful benefits for workout recovery and fitness gains.
Unfortunately, even the basics of what constitutes the ideal formula of sauna usage aren’t agreed upon. The protocols in the studies cited range from daily post-workout saunas that last 30 minutes to once or twice-weekly sessions that are substantially shorter. Ideal temperature and humidity also haven’t been studied in-depth and remain unclear, too.