Cryotherapy is currently all the rage. Cold showers and ice baths are part of many athletes’ and exercisers’ recovery routines. Cold therapy is thought to reduce inflammation, strengthen the immune system, and improve circulation.
According to proponents such as “the Iceman” Wim Hoff, exposure to extreme cold may even prevent and treat cancer and is the fountain of youth.
But what about the other end of the temperature scale? Can getting hot improve your health and fitness, and are post-workout saunas a good idea?
In this article, we examine the benefits and risks of getting hot and sweaty after your workout.
Post-Workout Sauna Benefits
Saunas have been popular for centuries, especially in the Scandinavian region. A sauna is an insulated cabin or room with a wood-burning or electric heater, creating a temperature of 150°F to 195°F (65°C to 90°C). Unlike steam rooms, which are very humid, saunas generate a dry heat, which means the temperature can be very high without burning you.
A sauna session usually lasts about 15-30 minutes and often ends with a cold shower or a plunge in a cold bath.
Needless to say, sitting in a room heated to 150°F to 195°F will make you sweat – a lot! The benefits of having a post-training sauna include the following:
Increased workout effect
A post-exercise sauna could make your workout more productive. Studies suggest that saunas extend the effect of whatever training you perform, so it’s like adding extra volume to your session.
This effect is strongest with cardio workouts, as the heat increases your heart and breathing rate, just like cardio does. However, post-workout saunas may also boost strength and muscle gains.
Faster recovery between workouts
Training takes a lot out of your body, and the faster you recover, the sooner you can get back in the gym and do it all again. All things being equal, the more often you can train and recover, the better your progress will be.
A post-workout sauna increases circulation, causing your blood vessels and capillaries to dilate or open up, allowing better blood flow to your muscles. This floods your muscles with oxygenated blood and speeds up the removal of waste products.
Enhanced muscle growth
A sauna after strength training could help you build bigger, stronger muscles. Intermittent hyperthermia, or using a sauna in plain speak, increases the production of “heat shock proteins,” which your body uses for muscle recovery, repair, and growth. This same heat may also reduce post-exercise muscle breakdown.
What does this mean? Essentially, intense workouts will be less catabolic or damaging if you have a post-training sauna, and muscle repair will occur more quickly. The result? You’ll be able to get back in the gym sooner.
Increased workout capacity
How often have you quit your workout because you can’t take any more? Needless to say, it’s often the training you DON’T do that could help you take your fitness and strength to the next level.
As the saying goes, winners never quit, and quitters never win!
According to research, regular saunas can help you train harder and longer by teaching you to cope better with extreme discomfort. How much harder or longer you’ll be able to train varies from person to person, but studies suggest you could see improvements of up to 32%!
Time spent in a sauna will also improve your heat tolerance, which is critical if you train or compete in a warm environment. Athletes getting ready for events in hot countries can ensure they’re better prepared by making saunas part of their post-training ritual.
More relaxed muscle and less post-exercise soreness
Spending time in a sauna after your workout can help ease your aches and pains and relax your muscles. The heat literally melts away tension, leaving you feeling rested and recovered.
More relaxed muscles, combined with increased blood flow and the removal of waste products, may also mean you experience less delayed onset muscle soreness, known as DOMS. DOMS often follows an intense or new workout.
Saunas can also help injuries heal faster and reduce things like non-specific back and joint pain by triggering the release of endorphins, which are nature’s painkillers.
Improved immune system function
Nothing undermines training like being sick. The duration and severity of an illness is often determined by your immune system. If it’s strong, you may be able to fight off an infection in a day or less. However, you could be ill for weeks if your immune system is weak.
Regular saunas have been shown to increase white blood cell count. White blood cells are your body’s first line of defense against illness and infection.
Long, intense workouts can leave you with a weakened immune system – there is often a fine line between being supremely fit and being ill. Ending your training with a 15 to 20-minute session in a sauna could help you avoid those workout-disrupting illnesses.
If you work out to look better, you probably care about having healthy skin. Sweating in a sauna helps rid your skin of the pore-clogging dirt and bacteria that can cause spots and breakouts. It can help prevent ingrown hairs and, by increasing sebaceous gland activity, can make your hair soft and shinier, too. All in all, once the sweating stops and you are no longer bright red, you should be much better looking after a post-workout sauna.
The Risks and Drawbacks of a Post-Workout Sauna
A post-training sauna offers many benefits, but there are a couple of risks and drawbacks, too. Consider the following before using a sauna after your next workout:
Depending on exercise intensity, duration, and the temperature of your environment, you can lose several liters of water during a workout. Of course, you should try to rehydrate as you train, but it can be hard to put fluids back in faster than you’re losing them.
As such, it’s quite normal to finish a training session in a state of dehydration.
Going into a sauna and sweating even more can make matters worse, turning mild dehydration into something more serious. Severe dehydration can result in dizziness, nausea, unconsciousness, heart and kidney problems, and death.
As such, you should avoid hitting the sauna if you are very dehydrated and should do your best to rehydrate as much as possible, even as you are sweating it out in the “hot box.”
A hot sauna can significantly increase your heart rate, stressing your heart and circulatory system. This stress is largely beneficial and one of the reasons that saunas are considered healthy.
However, and especially after a strenuous workout, it could be dangerous for people with an underlying medical condition, such as high blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, or coronary heart disease.
Speak to your doctor before using a sauna if you have a history of heart disease.
Heat stroke and acute hyperthermia
Spending too long in a sauna, especially when you are already warm and dehydrated, can cause your internal temperature to rise. Severe overheating can be very dangerous.
The symptoms of heat stroke include dizziness and nausea. If you experience these symptoms, leave the sauna immediately, rehydrate, and cool down under a cool shower.
Lower sperm count
Your testicles are on the outside of your body for a reason: temperature control. If they get too warm, they won’t function correctly. This is why men are advised to wear loose-fitting underwear; it helps keep your testicles cool.
Sauna use can lower your sperm count. Thankfully, this effect is only temporary, and your sperm count will return to normal within a few hours of leaving the sauna.
How to Sauna Safely
Enjoy all the benefits of post-workout saunas while minimizing the risk by following these guidelines:
- Do not use a sauna if you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs or taking any medication that may impair sweating.
- Only stay in the sauna for as long as you feel comfortable. Take frequent breaks to cool off.
- Increase sauna duration gradually and avoid very hot saunas if you are a beginner.
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Don’t wear metal jewelry in the sauna – it can become very hot and burn your skin.
- Don’t take a sauna if you feel unwell, are hungover, or are already hot and dehydrated.
- Speak to your doctor before using a sauna if you have a heart or circulatory condition.
The Benefits and Risks of a Post-Workout Sauna – Closing Thoughts
Cold therapy might be getting all the headlines, but saunas have been around for much longer. And, let’s be honest, relaxing in a sauna is much more enjoyable than plunging yourself into a bath of ice water. Of course, some crazy folk like to do both of these things!
Either way, a post-workout sauna can be very beneficial, boosting recovery, improving immunity, and even reducing delayed onset muscle soreness. It’s also a chance to chill out and hang with your training buddies before returning to the real world.
There are drawbacks to hitting the sauna after training, such as dehydration and a chance of heat stroke, but the risks are relatively low compared to the benefits.
But, if you are new to post-workout saunas, start slow and don’t do too much too soon. Spending too long in a sauna when you’re not used to the heat can leave you feeling dizzy and nauseous. Build up the heat and duration gradually, taking care to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.