Many people who regularly exercise have heard about the benefits of using a sauna in relation to working out. But often, the exact mechanics of it aren’t really spelled out so well. How should you use a sauna to improve workout performance and speed recovery? Should take your bath in the sauna before or after a workout?
In this article, I’ll look at how to best time your sauna use for maximum impact, and also discuss the advantages that can come from supplementing your workout with a visit to a sauna.
What is a Sauna?
Before we dive into the debate of whether you should use a sauna before or after you work out, let’s first discuss the basics. The word “sauna” is derived from a Finnish word meaning “bath.” Interestingly, it is the only Finnish word which has become part of the English dictionary.
A traditional Sauna is a heated wooden room which makes one sweat and rejuvenates the body.
The temperature of this hot room is about 70 degrees Celsius. This tradition was initially brought to America by the Finns and with time saunas have become popular globally.
Now, saunas are found all over the world, commonly in gyms and spas. Some are heated the traditional way, by burning wood in a stove. Others are heated by infrared panels that provide a dry heat.
Saunas have become increasingly popular in the home, as well. These types of saunas include portable, tent-style saunas, in-home sauna kits, and full-scale barrel-sauna outbuildings.
Why Use A Sauna at All?
Today, using the sauna before or after working out is a common practice and for good reason! There is a good deal of science being done on sauna use, and there are loads of claims out there as to their benefits. Many of these claims are heavily exaggerated, but there is still some good science being done on the benefits of saunas.
They’re also just really enjoyable places to spend 20 minutes or so!
Let’s look at a few of the major benefits that relate to workout and performance.
The first and most important benefit of a sauna is that it soothes and relaxes your muscles and reduces joint pain. This is why it’s so popular among athletes. Athletes often use saunas to relax after their muscles after intense workouts. As a result, they don’t feel as exhausted after their workouts or experience body soreness. There is a unique healing power in hot steam which helps people loosen up their tight muscles.
Reduces Mental Stress
Secondly, a sauna helps people relieve mental stress. A sauna is a perfect place to unwind and relax, and traditionally in Finland, the sauna is used as a refuge and a place to relax.
Taking deep, meditative, anxiety-reducing breaths in the uninterrupted silence of a sauna awakens a sense of well-being in a person. In this fast paced life full with never ending responsibilities, it is crucial to take out time for your mental peace every now and then.
Good for Your Heart
Using a sauna regularly is also good for the heart, and seems to strongly improve cardiac biomarkers. This is because the vessels of the heart become more flexible after using a sauna regularly. The blood vessels have to dilate constantly to accommodate the heating and cooling process of the body. This increased blood circulation is a mild exercise for the heart and is good for your health.
Sauna use also seems to be linked to fewer fatal heart problems and a longer life. Can’t argue with that!
Will Make Your Skin Glow
Another benefit of the excessive sweating from sitting in a sauna is flawless skin. The accelerated blood flow brings beneficial nutrients to the surface of the skin. This helps the skin by encouraging cellular growth. Furthermore, the sweat also creates an exit point for toxins and impurities to leave the body. This is why the excessive sweat is beneficial for the body as all the chemicals easily exit the body through the skin.
Helps Lose Weight
Last but not least, using a sauna when combined with exercise and a healthy diet can really speed up the weight loss journey. A person can burn up to 300 calories during a single sauna session. It is, however, important to note that saunas don’t really burn fat, they cause people to expel water weight. Saunas can’t replace exercise, but they can help you shed a few pounds in the short term.
Sauna Before or After Workout?
Now that we have looked at the benefits of using a sauna, the next question arises. “Should I use a sauna before or after working out?” Well, the answer to that depends on what your goal is!
For purely physical benefits, the science suggests that visiting the sauna prior to your exercise will provide the most benefit. However, if you’re looking for the stress-relieving, calming benefits of sauna, you will find those more present after a workout.
Most Finns visit the sauna after a workout as a place to calm down and relax, not before.
Let’s break down the arguments for using a sauna before and after working out.
Should I Use a Sauna Before a Workout?
It can be healthy to sit through a short sauna bath before you start working out. There is some science suggesting that using a sauna before exercise can help muscles relax and become more flexible for the workout to come. The sauna can also be a good way to warm your body up before the workout begins. By preheating your body, you will eventually sweat more during your exercise without having to put in the extra effort.
Some find it quite beneficial to sit in a sauna for 5-7 minutes before your workout. During this time, make sure you stretch your body, assuming you aren’t bothering any other visitors (see sauna etiquette for more information).
This will help prepare your muscles for the physical tension that will come with the upcoming workout. It will also reduce the chances of you straining a muscle.
Now comes the tricky part.
It is crucial that you only sit for a short time period in the sauna and not overdo it. Staying in the sauna for longer periods of time may make you physically and psychologically too relaxed to even work out. This can hinder your performance in your workout and is not good for you as you must be mentally alert while working out.
Furthermore, the excessive sweating in a sauna can exhaust you and make you feel dehydrated before you have even started working out. This can make you feel weak as your body has already lost so much fluid. So, make sure you avoid longer sauna baths before your workout.
Avoid the sauna becoming counterproductive to your workout session.
Should I Use a Sauna After a Workout?
This is the commonly practiced norm, and is the way most people use a sauna in relation to workouts.
While you can find all sorts of pseudoscience about how saunas will help you release toxins after exercise and all that, these arguments are generally BS. Toxins are handled by the liver and kidneys, not sweat. This is not the reason to sit in a sauna after a workout.
Yes, many find that the sauna will soothe their muscles and give them greater flexibility. But the main benefits to the post-workout sauna are mental, not physical.
As mentioned above, the sauna is a place to relax, recover, and rejuvenate the body in a quiet, heated environment. It is calming and centering, and will help you lose stresses and restore your mental balance after a stressful workout. This is why the heat of the sauna will be therapeutic for you after your workout.
Most Finns use the sauna this way, and are mainly seeing the traditional stress-relieving, relaxing benefits of the sauna.
As cardiologist Dr. Thomas Lee of Harvard-associated Brigham and Women’s Hospital put it, “exercising and then taking a sauna seems like a very healthy routine.”
Just remember to stay hydrated. Some will feel worse after sauna bathing, usually due to dehydration.
If you’re looking for purely physical benefits, you will likely see some gains by a short visit to the sauna before you work out. But most of the core benefit of the sauna is in its relaxation capabilities after your workout is complete.
Think of the post-workout sauna bath like the end of a yoga class. At the end of a yoga class you lay down, typically in corpse pose, and take some time to quietly meditate and reflect on the workout. You melt away some stress, relax, and restore after vigorous exercise.
This is the source of the greatest benefit of the sauna, and is where you will get the most advantage to its use. After your workout is over, spend some time in the sauna for mental recovery.