The Benefits (and Drawbacks) Of Hitting the Sauna After Working Out, According to Pros
Our own clinic director, Shawn Houck, PT, DPT, spoke with Nike Blog on the benefits of using a sauna after a workout, read on below!
Saunas are a staple in high-end health clubs and gyms, as research and experts have touted the benefits of using one after working out. If you haven’t dropped into the sauna at your facility yet, now may be the time.
But before we dive into the benefits — and, yes, the potential pitfalls — of using a sauna for recovery, let’s first unpack the types you may see at different facilities.
Common Sauna Types
- Dry sauna. In this sauna, heat is created either by burning wood or by using an electric heater. The traditional Finnish sauna, which uses burning wood to heat the sauna rocks and sauna room, is a well-known member of this category. While Finnish saunas typically have dry air and high temperatures, many people throw water on the hot rocks to create steam, as noted by a 2015 study in SpringerPlus.
- Steam sauna. As the name suggests, steam saunas (perhaps better known as steam rooms) rely on steam from boiling water for heat. This creates a humid environment.
- Infrared sauna. This type of sauna uses infrared light for heat. Infrared heat penetrates deeper into the skin and neuromuscular system than warmed air, so people tend to sweat more at lower temperatures than they might in a traditional Finnish sauna, the authors of the SpringerPlus study wrote.
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3 Benefits of Using a Sauna After a Workout
Promotes Muscle Recovery
Perhaps one of the biggest boons to using a sauna after your workout is the effects it can have on muscle recovery. The aforementioned study, for example, found that 30-minute sessions in an infrared sauna decreased post-workout muscle soreness and boosted recovery. In particular, men performed better during a countermovement jump test (an exercise that measures lower body power) when they sat in an infrared sauna after their 40-minute endurance workout than when they sat in a normal room (no sauna). This suggests that infrared saunas help muscles and nerves recover more quickly after exercise.
“The biggest reason most athletes like the sauna is it improves recovery time,” said John Gallucci, Jr., A.T.C., D.P.T., CEO of JAG-ONE Physical Therapy and medical coordinator for Major League Soccer. The heat from the sauna enhances the circulation of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood throughout your body. This, in turn, helps muscles damaged by exercise repair, so you can get back on the saddle faster.
May Improve Heart Health
“Whenever you increase the circulation of oxygen-rich blood, you’re going to see improvements in cardiovascular function,” Galluci said.
In fact, a 2019 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that the changes that happen to your heart when you sit in a sauna are similar to those you get from a short, moderate-intensity cardio workout.
“We see overall heart rate and core temperature increase, as well as improved blood pressure and redistribution of blood throughout the body’s tissues,” said Shawn M. Houck, D.P.T., a board-certified clinical specialist in sports physical therapy and clinic director at Physical Therapy Central.
All of those effects may help lower your chances of heart disease and high blood pressure (hypertension). Findings from a 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study that included 2,300 Finnish men reveal that the risk of death from heart disease was 27 percent lower among those who reported using a sauna two to three times per week than those who said they used it only once a week.
However, it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before doing a sauna to ensure you’re not at a risk of any possible heart complications.
Helps You Chill Out
Well, not literally, but it does help you relax. Hitting the sauna after your workout gives you a chance to unwind before heading to your next destination. You get to hit “pause” on your whirlwind day and spend a few minutes sitting in a quiet, calm environment.
Sitting in a sauna is an ideal opportunity to practice stress management techniques such as deep breathing and meditation, said Houck.
If mindfulness or deep breathing don’t appeal to you, though, consider using your time in the sauna to do some light stretching or enjoy a moment of silence.
3 Drawbacks of Using a Sauna After Exercise
You lose plenty of fluids when you work out — even if you’re not dripping in sweat. So, if you don’t stay on top of replacing those fluids and electrolytes as you go, you could be in trouble if you hop in the sauna immediately afterward.
You could get dizzy, pass out or get severe muscle cramps. Worst case scenario, you could develop heatstroke, a life-threatening condition caused by your body overheating. Without immediate treatment, heatstroke can damage your muscles and organs and may be fatal, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“So it’s very, very important that, as a safety measure, athletes ensure that they’re hydrated before they enter the sauna,” Gallucci said.
It Can Stress the Heart — Especially for Those With Pre-existing Conditions
While a healthy dose of sauna-sitting is generally great for the heart, it’s not a good idea if your heart’s already stressed out. In particular, if you have high-risk heart disease, chest pain (angina), or hypertension, according to Harvard Health.
The reason? Heat causes your body to cool itself by shifting blood from major organs to underneath the skin. This causes the heart to pump more blood, which puts the vital organ under more stress, according to the American Heart Association.
In many people, this stress is good, like the kind of stress you get from exercise. But for hearts that are already dealing with more than they can handle, the added stress from heat can be too much.
However, it’s worth noting that saunas may be generally safe for people who have stable heart disease or even mild heart failure, according to Harvard Health. Though these people should still get checked by their doctors before using a sauna to be safe.
Lowers Sperm Count (Temporarily)
A 2013 study in Human Reproduction reveals that the high temperatures in saunas cause a temporary reduction in sperm count in men with otherwise normal levels. After attending two, 15-minute sauna sessions per week for three months, the participants reported a lower sperm count. Once they stopped using the sauna, their sperm levels returned to normal.
“The testicles are extremely sensitive to heat, and extended periods of high heat can reduce sperm function and motility,” said DJ Mazzoni, C.S.C.S., M.S., and a medical reviewer at Illuminate Labs. “This suggests that men actively trying to conceive should avoid saunas, though, for most men, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.”
3 Helpful Tips for Using a Sauna After Working Out
- Hydrate first. Drink at least eight ounces of water after your workout, as outlined by the American Academy of Family Physicians. Do this before stepping into the sauna. Then, sip as you sit, and replenish once you get out. Also, while you’re at it, consider making it a habit to drink 5 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during your workouts.
- Watch the clock. It’s best to hang out in a sauna for at least 10 minutes if you want to snag the benefits of increased circulation. “You need the body to become warm to elicit that circulatory response,” said Gallucci.But, for safety reasons, it’s not recommended to use a sauna for longer than 20 minutes, he said, so be sure to duck out by then. And if you’re new to saunas, note that it may take you a few tries to reach the 10-minute mark. Don’t force yourself to stick it out for longer than is comfortable. Take a seat outside the sauna if you start feeling uncomfortably hot or lightheaded.
Get cleared. If you have hypertension, heart disease or another serious heart issue, don’t use a sauna unless you’ve been cleared by your doctor.