The sauna is traditionally used as a way of cleansing the body and mind after a workout or a long day; although, it also holds many benefits for people who like to run. It’s a great detox for the average Joe, but is the sauna really good for runners?
Yes, the sauna is good for runners due to heat acclimation, lipid profile and hormone level improvement, and increased lung capabilities. A 2006 study showed runners achieved a 1.9% increase in speed after infrared heat exposure. Stay hydrated and use the sauna 2x per week with cold therapy and stretching for optimal results.
Keep reading to learn if and how runners should use the sauna, about benefits provided to endurance athletes, and if saunas can help you lose weight!
Should runners use the sauna?
The benefit of sauna use for runners is a topic that has been hotly debated in the running community for years. Some say it helps you recover; others say there’s no point. So, which one is it?
According to a 2006 study, physicians recommend that runners use the sauna to increase time to exhaustion by 32%. Additionally, they saw a 1.9% increase in overall speed.
A famous Ethiopian runner from the Rome 1960 Olympics, Abebe Bikila, credited his twice per week sauna sessions for his improved endurance and speedy muscle recovery. Now, Olympians across all sports use saunas for increased lung function and heat resilience.
What does the research say about runners and the sauna?
Sauna use has become more popular over the years as a means for athletes to boost their performance, but what does the science say?
The principle behind using a sauna is that it increases blood flow throughout the body by raising core temperature (which can also help with inflammation). This increased circulation will make muscles more flexible and reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
The sweating you do also helps clear lactic acid build-up in muscles while boosting immune function. This can help prevent injury while running.
Additionally, a 2015 study from Finland proved that infrared sauna exposure after a 35-minute moderate-speed run reduced athlete heart rates to an average of 71 BPM.
Sauna benefits for endurance athletes
There are few main benefits the sauna provides to athletes, resulting in increased overall endurance.
The sauna helps improve endurance through:
- Heat Acclimation
- Better Lung Capabilities
- Lipid Profile and Hormone Level Improvement
- Elevated Growth Hormone Production
- Heart Rate Lowering
- Increased Blood Flow
The more your body is exposed to something, the better it adapts- this also applies to heat.
Repeated exposure to the average 150° F of a sauna will help your body acclimate better to heat, enabling an athlete to run farther and faster (especially in hotter climates).
Better Lung Capabilities
Lung capacity is a big factor in endurance. The pulmonary vein takes oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and dumps it into the heart’s left atrium, enabling you to breathe better and recover more efficiently.
A 2018 study out of Mayo Clinic showed that long-term sauna use could increase a long-distance runner’s lung function by up to 10%.
The heat from a sauna also improves sinuses- this gives runners that use them a leg-up on the competition.
Lipid Profile and Hormone Level Improvement
Lipid panels are tests taken to measure a person’s fat molecule levels within their blood. Generally, they’re a good indicator of overall health.
During a 3-week study that exposed young males to saunas every 1-2 days, total cholesterol significantly decreased. Blood plasma volume increased after about two weeks of sauna sessions, which resulted in greater cardiovascular strength.
Additionally, after sauna use, cortisol levels decrease by about 25%. Insulin sensitivity is heightened, allowing our body to regulate blood glucose better. This, in turn, allows testosterone levels (responsible for building muscle and strength and RBC production) to rise.
Elevated Growth Hormone Production
Growth hormones (hGH) are the proteins in charge of enlarging your muscles. The higher your muscle percentage is, the faster and longer you can run.
Using a sauna after a run, 2x a week, for around 20 minutes at a time, has been shown to increase an athlete’s hGH by 150%.
How’s that for beneficial?
Increased Blood Flow
When you work out, you break your muscles down; then, they recover and build back up stronger. Constant blood flow is essential for muscle recovery, and saunas speed up this process.
Infrared heat therapy stimulates circulation and increases blood flow to damaged areas, helping them heal faster. Saunas are a great place to get a stretch in while allowing muscles to detox lactic acid.
Is sauna good for other sports recovery?
Now that we know saunas produce killer long-term benefits for endurance athletes and distance runners, what about other sports?
The effects on muscle recovery, hormones, heart rate, and lungs make the sauna a beneficial practice for any athlete. This specifically applies to football players who have seen an increase in VO2 Max after using saunas for an extended period of time.
Additionally, cyclists and swimmers can use the enhanced levels of blood plasma to up their game and rejuvenate their muscles more quickly.
Can a sauna replace cardio?
Sitting in the sauna makes you feel like you just completed a run- your heart rate goes up, you sweat a lot. However, can a sauna replace cardio?
A sauna can enhance cardio, but it definitely can’t replace it. Many unfounded studies have suggested that 30 minutes in the sauna is equivalent to 30 minutes on the treadmill. While the sauna can provide an elevated heart rate or increased lung capabilities, it does nothing to strengthen your muscles.
That’s why it’s important to combine cardio with infrared sauna use to build your endurance AND increase muscle strength and function. Going to the sauna alone can’t help you beat last year’s half-marathon time.
Cardio and sauna for weight loss
Cardio is an efficient way to burn calories. If your hormones are at appropriate levels, being in a calorie deficit is the only way to lose weight.
Any weight loss seen directly post sauna is likely water weight. However, the combination of cardio and the sauna is more effective than either alone. By regulating insulin sensitivity and increasing blood flow, saunas raise your metabolism and help shed fat.
As mentioned above, using a sauna regularly can also boost endurance and performance, allowing you to run longer and burn more calories!
Keep in mind that our body adjusts to discomfort. While the same cardio workout might help you lose a few pounds in the first four weeks, eventually, our bodies plateau. To avoid this, it’s necessary to switch up our routine every month.
How to use the sauna as a runner
There are a few simple guidelines to follow to ensure the sauna’s benefits are reaped to their fullest potential.
The guide to using the sauna as a runner is:
- To go either before or after running
- Only use twice per week
- Combine with stretching and cold therapy
There are benefits to using the sauna before and after your run, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
Like everything, overuse can be detrimental to your progress. Using a sauna twice a week, for 20 minutes at a time, has yielded the most optimal results for athletes. Going too often can result in dehydration or a performance plateau.
Lastly, stretching in the sauna is a great way to help your muscles recover and limit next-day soreness. Adding cold therapy into your routine (on days you don’t go to the sauna) can also help with tissue degradation and swelling.
Should you use the sauna before or after running?
We’ve covered a lot of ground on this topic so far but now we want to take a look at the best time to use a sauna for a runner – before or after?
Sauna before running
There are both pros and cons to using a sauna before going for a run; fewer athletes opt to go beforehand.
What are the pros of sauna use prior to running?
Visiting the sauna before your run is a great way to:
- warm-up your muscles
- get the blood flow going
- stretch lightly
Only spend a max of 10 minutes in the sauna if you’re going before your run so as not to dehydrate yourself. Load up on water beforehand and get out if you start to feel lightheaded.
Light stretching will also help your muscles perform at their best!
What are the cons of sauna use prior to running?
Visiting the sauna after your run can be detrimental because:
- sweating causes water-loss
- muscles can become too lax
If you spend too much time in the sauna or don’t drink enough water, you can dehydrate yourself before a cardio workout. Additionally, while light stretching is helpful, over-stretching can have an adverse effect.
If your muscles are too lax, you run the risk of pulling something during a run.
Sauna after running
Using the sauna after running or on rest days has become more popular in the athletic community.
However, there are still some possible cons.
What are the pros of sauna use post running?
Visiting the sauna after your run can be beneficial because of:
- relaxation and detoxification
- lower blood pressure
- muscle pain relief
- increased blood flow
After running, you’re going to be mentally and physically exhausted- the effects infrared heat has on cortisol levels and endorphins will help you wind down. Additionally, lactic acid builds up in your muscles during intense exercise. Sweating will help to release this.
Heat dilates blood vessels and lowers your blood pressure, helping you relax and catch your breath. Blood is also able to flow more quickly to tiny muscle tears.
Lastly, this is when you can perform a deep stretch. Your muscles will thank you tomorrow!
What are the cons of sauna use post running?
Visiting the sauna after your run can also cause harm due to:
- risk for dehydration
The main risk of using a sauna after a long cardio workout is dehydration. You lose a lot of fluids when you run (especially during warmer months) so hopping in the sauna after can multiply that.
Hydrate both before your run and before and after sauna use to eliminate the risk of feeling dizzy and dehydrated.
There have been mixed signals regarding if the sauna is actually good for runners. However, now the answer is clear.
According to research done by physicians in 2006, runners who used infrared heat therapy twice weekly increased their time to exhaustion by 32%. If you’re a runner and want to improve your performance, consider adding the sauna into your routine 2-3 times per week.
Be sure to stay hydrated, and don’t overdo the stretching before your run!