Pros and Cons of Saunas for Runners

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If you think about it, it’s kind of strange to be stepping into a small, blazing hot room and just… Doing nothing for a while.

But that’s exactly what many athletes do after a hard workout, and it’s reputed to have some excellent benefits.

What are the pros and cons of saunas for runners? If you aren’t yet using a sauna regularly, should you be?

We’re answering these questions today to help you decide if this form of hot recovery therapy is worth trying.

What is a Sauna and How Do They Work?

A sauna is a small area in which the temperature is significantly raised. It can hover anywhere between 160 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit.

Spending time in this kind of heat increases the core body temperature. The skin’s surface temperature can get to around 104 degrees, and you’ll most definitely find yourself sweating as your body attempts to cool itself down.

Your heart rate will also increase as your body tries to balance itself out. These physical changes in the body can have some particular health benefits, which we’ll discuss later on.

Types of Saunas

Saunas come in a few different types. First, you can get huge, built-in saunas such as the types you might find in a gym.

Then there are home saunas that only accommodate one or two people, which you can install right in your own space.

But they’re usually split into different types according to how the heat is created.

Wood-Burning

Wood-burning saunas produce a dry heat that has low levels of humidity. Usually, these use a wood-burning stove to heat up sauna rocks, which results in a high temperature but keeps those moisture levels down.

Electrical

These kinds of saunas use an electrical heater panel, usually on the roof of the sauna, to heat up the space. Like wood-burning saunas, they provide high temperatures with low humidity levels.

Infrared

Infrared saunas may not be considered true saunas, as they don’t heat the room up to steaming levels. But, despite the fact that the room remains cool, these kinds of saunas heat up the body, often up to temperatures of around 60 degrees.

This is achieved by the use of infrared light rays, rather than heat waves. They’re considered to be safer and more beneficial than conventional saunas.

Steam Rooms

Steam rooms (also called Turkish bath houses) keep the temperatures on the lower side but the humidity up. In many of them, the humidity hits 100%, making this an unsafe choice for anyone with lung issues.

Can a Sauna Help Running Performance?

The short answer is yes. Regular use of a sauna, whichever type you choose, can have a positive impact on your running performance, for a variety of reasons.

The benefits seem to outweigh the cons, but in the end, it’s up to you if you choose to incorporate sauna sessions into your fitness routine.

Benefits of Saunas for Runners

Heat Adaptation

Do you come from an area where the temperatures are naturally cooler? You may struggle to adapt to running in the heat.

Regular sauna sessions can help your body adapt to the dry heat. Spending time in the sauna as part of training for races in hotter climates helps your body to get used to experiencing and pushing through these kinds of conditions.

After a few sessions in the sauna, you’re likely to find that your tolerance to the heat and dry air increases.

Increased Lung Function

Athletes who suffer from asthma or other respiratory conditions will be happy to learn that regular sauna time can increase lung capacity.

The heat acts as a bronchodilator, opening the blood vessels in the lungs to receive more oxygen. It should be noted, though, that steam rooms may increase lung problems due to the high levels of moisture in the air.

Improved Circulation

Warmth increases circulation, which is fantastic for keeping your muscles loose, limber, and filled with oxygen-rich blood. This can have excellent recovery results, preventing stiffness that comes with tight muscles after a workout.

But take note that spending too much time in the sauna can cause the blood to rush away from the internal organs and to the skin. This can have adverse effects rather than positive ones, so you should take care to limit your time in the heat.

Reduced Blood Pressure

Research also suggests that spending time in a sauna can help to improve cardiovascular health. As arteries and veins dilate, blood pressure decreases and the organs and cells are bathed in blood that’s rich in oxygen and nutrients.

The same research also indicates that the increase in heat can help to circulate and metabolize certain lipids (fats) in the blood more effectively.

Loss of Water Weight

You’re going to sweat in a sauna – probably quite a lot more than you expect your first few times! This is beneficial, though.

Firstly, it can actually help to lower body weight by reducing the amount of water weight you’re carrying. You may be surprised at how many pounds and inches come from retained water and not fat!

However, it’s important to stay hydrated. Contrary to what logic may suggest, drinking more water can help keep that water weight from sticking around.

Also, take note that once your excess water has gone, you won’t lose any fat. The sauna is not a weight-loss tool – but when you’re new to it, you’ll most likely see that flushing of water weight.

As well as helping to reduce your body weight and keep that water weight away, sweating helps to eliminate toxins from the body, allowing the immune system the space to heal the body.

Muscle Relaxation

Another excellent recovery benefit, the heat of a sauna helps to loosen up tight muscles and prevent them from stiffening after heavy workouts.

As it helps keep up a healthy circulation, the muscles will be filled with nutrient-rich, oxygen-filled blood, helping them to repair and rejuvenate faster than ever.

Possible Disadvantages of Saunas

Dehydration

One of the most subtle but dangerous disadvantages of a sauna can sneak up on you suddenly. Dehydration can have devastating effects, and even a mild case can reduce your performance more significantly than you realize.

Typically, you won’t be allowed to have a drink with you inside the sauna. It’s important, then, to hydrate yourself well before you go in and when you get out of the sauna.

Remember, you’re going to be sweating a lot, so there’s no need to worry about needing to run out to the bathroom.

Overheating

If you’re not totally familiar with a sauna and how your body responds to it, you may be at risk of overheating. The biggest danger sign to watch out for is if you stop sweating.

When your body has no more fluid in it, you’re at dangerous risk of developing heat stroke, which can have severe consequences.

Take it easy when you first begin and work your way up to longer stints in the sauna. If you feel uncomfortably warm at any point, don’t be afraid to step out.

Worsening Existing Cardiovascular Issues

Those who have recently had heart attacks or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular conditions should take it easy in the sauna.

Even a slightly elevated heart rate can have detrimental effects, so it’s best to get the advice of your cardiologists before choosing to add sauna sessions to your fitness.

Can a Sauna Replace Cardiovascular Exercise?

No! Although the heat of a sauna will raise your heart rate a little, you won’t be getting anywhere close to the benefits of cardiovascular exercise.

A slightly elevated heart rate naturally burns more calories, but unless you’re sitting in the sauna the entire day (don’t), it’s not a noticeable difference from your average non-sauna day.

There’s no substitute for cardiovascular exercise. Getting your heart rate up as close as possible to its maximum has amazing benefits to the cardiovascular system and there’s just no way to cheat that!

Who Shouldn’t Use a Sauna?

Saunas are safe for most people. However, as we just mentioned, those with existing heart conditions should definitely seek the advice of a medical professional before even considering stepping into the sauna.

It may also be contraindicated for people with extremely sensitive skin, or allergies to heat. If you have or are recovering from a respiratory infection, it may be best to avoid the sauna until you’re breathing easier.

Although it’s said to be safe for pregnant women, we advise checking with your doctor first!

How Often Should You Use a Sauna?

As beneficial as it is, you shouldn’t use a sauna more than two or three times a week. It’s best used after a run or workout, to get full muscle relaxation and increased circulation benefits.

It can be tempting to get into the sauna after every workout, but we recommend splitting your recovery between 2 or 3 sauna sessions a week, a few foam rolling sessions, and using compression gear to keep that circulation going.

How Long Can You Be In a Sauna?

A typical sauna session lasts between 5 and 30 minutes, depending on the person. Those who are new to it should stick to shorter periods until they’re acclimatized and can slowly increase the amount of time they spend in the heat.

But there’s really no specific time frame that’s said to be the magic number. There’s no research to indicate that longer sessions may be detrimental, so you can technically stay in a sauna as long as you like, as long as you’re feeling good and not getting dizzy or dehydrated.

Sauna Dos and Don’ts

Do:

  • Hydrate before and after.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes in public saunas.
  • Combine the sauna with other therapies
  • Pay attention to how you feel and leave if necessary.
  • Cool down gradually.

Don’t:

  • Drink alcohol before getting in the sauna.
  • Sit too close to heaters or stones.
  • Get into the sauna if you’re feeling faint or ill.
  • Jump into cold water afterward!

Summary

Browsing through the pros and cons of saunas for runners leaves one conclusion – they can be an excellent supplemental training tool if used correctly.

Regular sauna use can have great benefits for runners, which could even lead to improved performance on the road or trail.

But in the end, it’s just one thing in an arsenal of tools. If you don’t feel that a sauna is right for you, there’s no pressure to try it out. There are plenty of other ways to get these benefits.

Whatever you choose is up to you – but keep in mind that you need to listen to your body and make decisions that will benefit you in the long run, not just now.

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AUTHOR

Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.