Sauna Benefits for Athletes – Protocol and Background

The use of a sauna after completion of a workout has shown to provide benefits to competitive athletes. In this article, we discuss the viability of using sauna within a cyclist’s (or any athlete’s) training routine.

A picture of a sauna that can be used by athletes to gain performance benefits.
Saunas are typically made of all wood and are usually quite small. Keep the door closed to try to keep the temperature up!

First things first, saunas can be dangerous. As I’ve noted, I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. This article is purely intended for educational purposes. When it comes sauna work there are a few safety items to note. This is not an exhaustive list:

  • Always follow the instructions posted in the sauna you are using. They are the best guidelines for health and safety for that particular sauna.
  • Overheating or even sudden death within 24 hours of sauna use are serious safety concerns. Check with a doctor to make sure you are healthy enough to engage in a sauna protocol
  • Saunas can cause serious dehydration and when a sauna protocol follows after a workout, the likelihood of dehydration increases. Be sure to rehydrate sufficiently after finishing.
  • You should never feel lightheaded, uncomfortable, or have excessively high heart rate during the protocol. Those symptoms as well as others indicate you should cut the protocol short.

All in all, practice caution and common-sense with sauna protocols and don’t be afraid to call it quits early. A sauna user should be at least old enough to tell when they are uncomfortable or overheating before using the sauna. Refer to the suggestions of your specific sauna for age requirements.

Sauna Protocol For Athletes

The protocol for post-exercise sauna use is fairly simple:

  • After finishing your workout, go in the sauna. You should try to minimize the time between the end of your workout and the start of the sauna use.
  • Try to stay in the sauna for 25-30 minutes as long as you are following the safety instructions above.
  • Do not drink water in the sauna, the goal is to heat up the body to produce adaptations. Drinking water reduces the heat stimulus and the resulting adaptations.
  • Re-hydrate slowly, but consistently after the sauna protocol. Try not to drink excessively directly after the protocol in order to allow your body to cool itself down.
  • Don’t take a cold shower directly after the protocol, it may wipe away the beneficial effects. Wait 5-10 minutes before showering (or drive home and shower at home like I do).

Sauna Benefits for Athletes

General Health and Well-being

There are many studies on sauna protocols because of their prevalence in a few societies with high health and wellness characteristics. Specifically, northern European countries like Norway and Finland culturally love saunas and the benefits for the general population are intriguing. One study showed that “moderate to high frequency of sauna bathing was associated with lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease” in middle-aged Finnish men. Another Finnish study showed decreased risk of stroke in “middle-aged to elderly men and women who take frequent sauna baths.” A third study showed improvements in arterial stiffness (decrease), blood pressure (decrease), and “some blood-based biomarkers.”

Remember, these subjects were middle-aged with no history of training . Even so, from just these studies, there may be a good argument for adding sauna protocols to most people’s weekly routines. With that being said, there are athlete specific studies on sauna use. Specifically, studies on the use of a sauna directly after a workout. 

Athlete Specific Sauna Studies

Study 1

The first example comes from a case report from 2014 on an elite junior tennis player. This athlete participated in 12 sauna sessions over 3 weeks. Each sauna protocol was directly after a “run to the sauna facility as part of her training”. The author noted that her run time to exhaustion increased by 9.7%, maximum oxygen intake increased by 8.6% and anaerobic threshold increased by 16.7%.

Of special interest are the last two items: 7.5% increase in plasma volume (non-red blood cell portion of the blood) and a 7.1% increase in red cell count. It may be difficult to discern how much of these adaptations come from the sauna work specifically. Even so, the results are impressive enough for the author to conclude “more research is needed”. Improvements in performance on the range of 7-10% are massive, especially for an elite athlete.

Study 2

Another study from 2018, focusing on changes in plasma volume, noted the following. After only four sauna exposures the peak plasma volume expansion was 17.8% and waking heart rate decreased by 10.2%. Plasma volume is an important performance metric for endurance sports. Higher total plasma volume correlates with improvements in athletic test performance. One study on untrained individuals showed some had unusually high VO2max values. From these subjects, researchers found a correlation between higher natural blood volume and higher VO2max.

Study 3

An older study from 2006 confirmed the benefits of sauna use for cyclists. Using a protocol focused on three week blocks, athletes participated in a crossover study. These types of studies involves half the group completing the control and the other half completing the experimental protocol. Afterwards they switch groups and complete the protocol of the opposite group. Directly following a workout, the experimental participants sat in a sauna for 12-13 sessions over three weeks for an average time of 31 minutes and the control group did not.

Their performance metrics were measured. After three weeks of de-training, they participated in the opposite group’s protocol. Although only six athletes participated, it was noted that time to exhaustion improved by 32%! The author commented that this improvement correlated with an approximately 1.9% improvement in time trial time. Plasma volume increased by 7.1% and red-cell volume increased by 3.5% as well.

Between these studies, it’s certain that sauna use provides benefits for athletes.

Personal Experience – The Benefits Are There!

I’ve used the sauna for periods of training. It is difficult to use the sauna more than 1-2 times per week due to the training stress of the protocol and the dehydration. On top of having to rehydrate after the protocol, total training time may increase by 45 minutes to an hour depending on sauna availability, travel time to location, etc.

From my personal experience, sauna protocols certainly provide performance benefits for not just cyclists, but for all athletes. On top of the ones mentioned in the studies above, riding on hot days becomes a non-issue. The feeling of fatigue also tends to decrease overall after a few sauna sessions. Using a sauna to improve your performance isn’t a make or break item on your list, but it can be a good way to get a small improvement over baseline and make your body more robust to the demands of cycling.

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