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Sauna for Sports Performance and Recovery

5 Oct 2020
Randall Cooper
When I first started out as a physiotherapist, I worked in practice that was attached to a gym that had a large sauna. I used it often – I loved the sense of relaxation that the sauna gave me, and it was always full of boxers, footballers and jockeys who were using it for all sorts of reasons from enhancing immunity, to sweating out impurities, to accelerating recovery, to losing weight. I did wonder whether this was all true, or just a great excuse for athletes to spend hours in the sauna every week. The evidence is now starting to emerge.

Sauna is a form of heat therapy, and for many it’s used as form of relaxation to reduce the stresses of everyday life and improve general health, and there’s emerging evidence that it does. Finnish sauna bathing has been shown to help reduce the risks of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, neurocognitive diseases, the common flu, some skin conditions and pain associated with rheumatic diseases and headache (1).

However, athletes have been using sauna to get an edge in athletic performance, generally for two reasons – heat acclimatisation and recovery.

With regards to heat acclimatisation, recent evidence suggests that post-exercise sauna is an effective strategy. A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2) subjected well trained cyclists to post training sauna sessions (30 mins, 87 °C, 11 % relative humidity).

Compared with baseline, peak plasma volume expansion increased after only 4 exposures and a decrease in resting heart rate was noted. This study supports other research that passive heating can improve heat acclimatisation for athletes. If you’d like to dig a little deeper Storme Heathcote and colleagues published an excellent review article (3) on the topic (click here for the review).

The relationship between sauna and recovery is also an interesting topic. There is a perception that sauna boosts recovery from exercise. For example, when asked about the importance of various recovery strategies, sports science professionals in Germany ranked Finnish sauna as the third most important strategy for recovery in athletes (4). Recent research on swimmers however has indicated this may not actually be the case – in fact it may negatively impact recovery.

The study published in the International Journal of Sports & Physiology Performance (5) had 20 highly-trained competitive swimmers and triathletes conduct an intensive training session followed by either a sauna bathing session (3x 8 minutes at 80-85 °C) or a placebo alternative (athletes applied massage oil and simply sat in place for the same time interval).

Before each training session the athletes completed 4 x 50-metre sprint swim efforts, which were repeated the following morning. Researchers also conducted subjective assessments of the athlete’s fatigue and recovery levels.

The findings are stark - the swimmers performed significantly worse in their swim tests the morning after sauna bathing than those who underwent the placebo procedure. For the swimmers that were in the sauna group, they reported higher subjective levels of stress following the sauna session.

It may be that the sauna places additional load and stress on the thermoregulatory and circulatory systems after an intense training session, something that may hinder recovery.

As it stands at the moment, sauna appears to be beneficial for general health, well-being and heat acclimatisation in athletes, however may negatively affect recovery. The boxers, footballers and jockeys were right about most of it all those years ago. 

 

References

  1. Laukkanen, Jari A., Tanjaniina Laukkanen, and Setor K. Kunutsor. "Cardiovascular and other health benefits of sauna bathing: a review of the evidence." Mayo clinic proceedings. Vol. 93. No. 8. Elsevier, 2018.
  1. Stanley, Jamie, et al. "Effect of sauna-based heat acclimation on plasma volume and heart rate variability." European journal of applied physiology115.4 (2015): 785-794.
  1. Heathcote, Storme L., et al. "Passive heating: reviewing practical heat acclimation strategies for endurance athletes." Frontiers in physiology9 (2018): 1851
  1. Meyer, Tim, et al. Regenerationsmanagement im Spitzensport: REGman-Ergebnisse und Handlungsempfehlungen. Sportverlag Strauß, 2016.
  1. Skorski, Sabrina, et al. "Effects of Postexercise Sauna Bathing on Recovery of Swim Performance." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance1.aop (2019): 1-7.



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