What sounds more appealing, sitting under a tree with a cold beverage and a nice breeze, or sitting in a small room with hot steam? For many people, the idea of sitting in a hot steam room does not sound pleasant. You probably have seen saunas in the gym or at spas and thought of it as nothing more than a dark, hot room. You may have even wondered what the purpose of having them there is. Well, the benefits of sauna are more than just a cleansing hot bath. The hot steam created in saunas produce something called heat stress on your body. It turns out that heat stress is not only beneficial for your health, but it may also optimize athletic performance for athletes.
WHAT IS HEAT STRESS?
Heat stress is a general term that describes any situation in which your core body temperature rises. Your core body temperature can increase from various situations including sitting in a sauna, or through exercise. When your body temperature increases, this leads to physical symptoms of profuse sweating, and internally triggering cell chaperones and hormones . While being hot is not always the most comfortable thing, the benefits of sweating and short bursts of increasing your core temperature provides numerous health advantages and improves your overall athletic performance.
Deliberately acclimating your body to heat, whether it is through exercise or through the use of a sauna is referred to as “hyperthermic conditioning” by Dr. Rhonda Patrick, an expert in heat exposure and performance enhancement. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that heat acclimation whether through exercise or sauna use promotes physiological adaptations which results in increased muscle mass, endurance, and stress tolerance. Additionally, heat stress has shown positive results on improving focus, memory, learning, and growth of new brain cells.
HEAT STRESS BENEFITS FOR ATHLETES AND TRAINING
It is no secret that long, and intense workouts increase your core body temperature, and raises concern for body strain. For athletes who train hard, pushing your body to the limit and even straining your body to some degree comes with the territory. However, constantly straining your body will negatively affect your performance. So how can you maintain your intense workouts without diminishing your athletic performance? It is easier than you may think, acclimating your core to an increased temperature independently from aerobic exercise through sauna use will reduce strain and improve your endurance training performance. Hyperthermic conditioning (heat stress) promotes physical adaptations that improve athletic performance during endurance training, reduce cardiovascular mechanisms, and reduce the negative effects linked to elevations of core temperature.
The following physiological adaptations may occur with hyperthermic conditioning for endurance training:
- Reduces heart rate and cardiovascular strain
- Decreases overall core temperature when exercising
- Increases plasma volume and blood flow to the heart
- Increases blood flow to the muscles, which increases nutrient delivery
- Reduces glycogen store depletion
- Improves thermoregulatory control
Muscle hypertrophy or growth is one of the many benefits of exercise. However, did you know that heat could also induce muscle hypertrophy? Your muscles are constantly balancing the creation of new proteins and the degradation of existing proteins. For muscle hypertrophy, your net protein synthesis is what is important, not just protein synthesis. It has been found that hyperthermic conditioning actually decreases the amount of protein degradation occurring, resulting in an increase of net protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy [2, 3].
Does this sound too good to be true? Well, this theory was tested in rats and researches found that 30 minutes of hyperthermic treatment was correlated with 30% more muscle regrowth than the control group . Research has also found that muscle hypertrophy also increases due to a massive release of growth hormones, which increases protein synthesis and decreases protein degradation .
Hyperthermic conditioning may improve muscle hypertrophy through the following:
- Prevent protein degradation
- Cause a vast release of growth hormone
- Improve insulin sensitivity and decrease muscle protein catabolism through uptake of amino acids
HOW TO USE A SAUNA...
Heat stress whether provided through the use of saunas or intense physical stress should always be carried out with caution. Prior to engaging in any type of hyperthermic conditioning, knowing your limits is important. If you have never been in a sauna before, test it out for shorter periods of time so you can get a better understanding of how your body will react to extreme heat. Another important tip is to stay hydrated. Make sure to drink adequate enough of fluids especially if you are enjoying a sauna session post workout.
While research is still ongoing, many studies have found that using the sauna after workout and following these sauna practices provides the best results for athletes:
- Sauna use should be 20-30 minutes 
- Sauna sessions should occur at least 3-4 times per week 
- Utilizing the sauna after workout is the most beneficial 
- Cool your body off gradually
- If you have just undergone a very intense physical workout, do not do an extreme sauna session as it will be too much stress on the body
For most healthy individuals, sauna use is safe if used appropriately. With that being said, always use the sauna with someone else and never use it alone. If you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant, sauna use is not for you. Utilizing saunas to provide hyperthermic conditioning can provide great athletic performance benefits. However, use common sense, practice safe sauna etiquette and do not overwhelm yourself.
ARE SAUNAS GOOD FOR YOU?
Benefits of sauna can be achieved by regularly utilizing the sauna after workouts. The benefits of sweating and heat stress can greatly enhance your performance and provide you the extra strength needed for your sport. For athletes who participate in highly intense trainings or matches such as cross training, jiujutsu, and MMA, utilizing hyperthermic conditioning can be a valuable tool. As mentioned earlier, the use of saunas for hyperthermic conditioning may enhance endurance performance, and increase muscle hypertrophy. For especially physically demanding sports, increased endurance and strength can make a huge difference in training as well as performance.
While there are obvious physical benefits to hyperthermic conditioning, there is an additional benefit of relaxation and faster recovery. There is no doubt that as an athlete, you push yourself to your physical and mental limits. Therefore finding a way to relax, and clear your mind, as well as recover your body is essential. Saunas have been used as a relaxation tool for years, and now it is also being used to enhance sports performance. A growing body of evidence continues to show that hyperthermic conditioning is an effective tool that may improve your resistance to the stressors associated with the physical demands of fitness goals. The use of saunas and heat stress therapy may be the tool you need to push you to the next level.
THE FINNISH HAVE IT RIGHT...
You may be thinking that using the sauna 3-4 times a week is too much. However, in Finland sauna bathing is an integral part of their culture. For generations, Finnish athletes have been using saunas to improve their exercise performance. That’s right, the use of saunas to enhance athletic performance is not as novel as you may think. In Finland, the use of saunas is considered a regular national past time. Finnish saunas are different from Turkish baths because Finnish saunas are very dry . Majority of what we know about saunas have stemmed from Finland due to the popularity of this activity. Used first as a relaxation technique, it has now become an imperative tool for Finnish athletes to help in their recovery and maximize their athletic performance.
- Iguchi, M., Littmann, A. E., Chang, S., Wester, L. A., Knipper, J. S., & Shields, R. K. (2012). Heat Stress and Cardiovascular, Hormonal, and Heat Shock Proteins in Humans. Journal of Athletic Training,47(2), 184-190. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.2.184
- Selsby, J. T., Rother, S., Tsuda, S., Pracash, O., Quindry, J., & Dodd, S. L. (2007). Intermittent hyperthermia enhances skeletal muscle regrowth and attenuates oxidative damage following reloading. Journal of Applied Physiology,102(4), 1702-1707. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00722.2006
- Naito, H., Powers, S. K., Demirel, H. A., Sugiura, T., Dodd, S. L., & Aoki, J. (2000). Heat stress attenuates skeletal muscle atrophy in hindlimb-unweighted rats. Journal of Applied Physiology,88(1), 359-363. doi:10.1152/jappl.2000.88.1.359
- Leppäluoto, J., Huttunen, P., Hirvonen, J., Väänänen, A., Tuominen, M., & Vuori, J. (1986). Endocrine effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica,128(3), 467-470. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1986.tb08000.x
- Scoon, G. S., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S., & Cotter, J. D. (2007). Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,10(4), 259-262. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009
- Harvard Health Publishing. (n.d.). Sauna Health Benefits: Are saunas healthy or harmful? Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/saunas-and-your-health