Sauna therapy has been long practiced in Scandinavian countries like Finland as a means of promoting well-being and overall health. Consisting of temperatures ranging from 140 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit with 10 to 20 percent relative humidity, in addition to improving your overall health, saunas can also improve your race performance.
Sauna and Exercise
When exposed to heat, the human body reacts the same way it responds to exercise -- by increasing heart rate, blood flow or cardiac output, metabolic rate and core temperature. Metabolic and cardiovascular demands placed on the body while in a sauna mimic those of a moderate-intensity workout or a brisk walk. A study published in the "Journal of the American College of Cardiology" showed that two weeks of daily dry-infrared sauna produced similar health benefits as exercise such as weight loss, reductions in blood pressure and fasting blood glucose and improvements in circulation.
Sauna for Runners
In addition to its clinical health benefits, a study published in the "Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports" showed more than a 30-percent improvement in run time to exhaustion in male distance runners using sauna therapy. In this study, the subjects completed three weeks of training without using a sauna followed by three weeks of training while incorporating sauna immediately after training runs four times per week. The authors concluded that improvements in performance were likely due to increased blood volume that also occurred in these subjects as a result of the sauna therapy.
Blood Volume and Performance
Blood volume is a key determinant of running or endurance performance given its effects on cardiac output or blood flow. The ability to maintain a high-intensity activity for prolonged periods such as a half-marathon is heavily dependent upon maximal oxygen consumption. Maximal oxygen consumption is usually tested on a treadmill or bike by gradually increasing the intensity -- speed, grade or resistance -- until exhaustion. Blood volume, among other factors, determines blood flow during exercise, which is a key influencer of maximal oxygen consumption. By increasing blood volume, using a sauna can increase running endurance and speed, both of which are important determinants of success in running a race.
Although sauna therapy is low risk for most healthy adults, contraindications to sauna include unstable angina pectoris, recent myocardial infarction -- heart attack -- and severe aortic stenosis. Additionally, hypotension -- a fall in blood pressure that could lead to dizziness or fainting -- arrhythmias or sudden death have also been reported, although infrequently, each of which were influenced by alcohol consumption while in the sauna. As with exercise, consult your physician prior to using a sauna especially if you have a preexisting condition.
- The American Journal of Medicine: Benefits and Risks of Sauna Bathing
- Alternative Medicine Review: Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicant-Induced and Other Chronic Health Problems
- Experimental Biology and Medicine: Clinical Implications of Thermal Therapy in Lifestyle-Related Diseases
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: Effect of Post-Exercise Sauna Bathing on the Endurance Performance of Competitive Male Runners
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: Physiological Determinants of Endurance Exercise Performance
Dr. Stacy D. Hunter is an exercise physiologist who received her Ph.D. in clinical exercise physiology from the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked as a personal trainer and has published multiple studies on the beneficial effects of exercise on physical health.