Sauna use isn’t likely to be the culprit when it comes to pesky post-workout soreness. Though the jury’s still out on conclusive health benefits, there are a number of reported links between sauna use and decreased muscle soreness, according to Doug Linz, M.D., former medical director of the TriHealth Fitness & Health Pavilion in Ohio.
Saunas and Soreness
Saunas produce physiological responses, including dilation of blood vessels in the skin and increased circulation in the heart. The delivery of oxygenated blood to sore muscles, combined with the soothing heat of the sauna, helps them relax after intense physical activity. Linz said many individuals report that both immediate and delayed soreness of the muscles are eased by a post-exercise rest period in the sauna. A report published in the journal of “Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine” highlighted muscle relaxation, a leveling of neuromuscular activity and improved cardiovascular functioning as benefits of a traditional sauna session. And, according to the report, sauna sessions don't have to be long to be effective. In fact, experts advise limiting sauna exposure to 15 minutes or less per session.
If you’re combining a fitness program with even brief sessions in a sauna, it’s crucial to increase your fluid intake, pronto. Dehydration can be a direct cause of muscle cramps and spasms. It’s not uncommon to lose a pint of sweat while sitting in the sauna, according to the Harvard Medical School, whose experts recommend drinking two to four glasses of water after the sauna.
Traditional Sauna Benefits
Other studies support reports of improved blood circulation and subsequent fitness performance. Research published in 2011 and featured in “New Scientist” magazine found that saunas improved heart function in individuals with chronic heart failure. The sauna therapy helped the participants’ hearts pump more blood, which in turn led to a greater capacity for exercise. However, the study’s authors urged caution, noting that heat therapy should always be done under the care of a medical provider, particularly for those with underlying cardiovascular issues.
Mist Sauna Benefits
Mist saunas combine the heat of traditional saunas with a fine mist of condensation, and they are typically featured in spas and, increasingly, some homes. A 2012 study in the "Journal of Physiological Anthropology" examined methods of recovering from muscle fatigue through the use of warmth therapies, including a mist sauna. The study, which found that the rate of blood flow to the skin and oxygen concentrations were higher following a 10-minute bathing period in a mist sauna, concluded that the mist sauna could be an effective means of recovering from post-workout soreness.
More Sauna Myths
Saunas are sometimes touted as a means to rid the body of ominous-sounding toxins, which some trainers point to as a cause of muscle soreness. According to myth-busting medical writer Rachel Vreeman, saunas are an excellent way to induce sweating, but sweat itself is little more than water, salt and some electrolytes. In an interview with “Fitness" magazine, Vreeman noted that sweat glands in the skin are not involved in eliminating waste toxins from the body. And a healthy body can typically purify itself without any outside help.
- Harvard Health Publications: Sauna Health Benefits: Are Saunas Healthy or Harmful?
- TriHealth Fitness & Health Pavilion: Health Benefits and Risks Associated with Use of Steam Rooms and Saunas (PDF)
- Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine; Components of Practical Clinical Detox Programs: Sauna as a Therapeutic Tool; Walter Crinnion
- American Journal of Public Health; The Health Hazards of Saunas and Spas and How to Minimize Them; Edward Press
- National Institutes of Health: Muscle Cramps
- New Scientist: Saunas Could Heal Your Mood and Your Heart
- Journal of Physiological Anthropology: Physiological Functions of the Effects of the Different Bathing Method on Recovery from Local Muscle Fatigue
- Fitness Magazine: 8 Health Lies Trainers Tell
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