Should you use a sauna before or after a workout?

People have basked in hot saunas for recreation and relaxation for thousands of years. Now, a research roundup published last year in Mayo Clinic. Proceedings shows that “sauna bathing” is more than just a good way to chill while you sweat: Many sauna benefits are in fact the same health benefits that you get from exercising.

That’s because a sauna tricks your body into responding the same way it does when you’re working out, potentially leading to a whole cascade of physiological changes that can help protect your body from a bunch of chronic diseases, the researchers believe.

Here’s what’s going on: When you hang out in the sauna—which is generally a small wooden room heated to high temperatures by a pit of hot rocks—your body responds much as it would if you were churning up a climb. Your heart rate elevates into a training zone of 120 to 150 bpm; your temperature rises; you drip with sweat, and your body pumps out hormones like noradrenaline and growth hormone. Most people spend five to 20 minutes basking in the heat, though experienced bathers can hang out there a bit longer.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who goes to a gym with a sauna, you’ll probably see people relaxing in it after their workout and may even partake yourself. Maybe you use it as a reward for a workout well-done. But if we’re honest, the heat won’t do anything to prevent sore muscles or help you recover. In fact, the best time to use the sauna is before your workout.

Physical therapist Patrick Walsh tells Outside Online:

“When you recover from exercise, your heart rate should come back down to normal,” he says. “Sitting in a sauna for more than five minutes is going to keep your heart rate up—it’s essentially a form of passive exercise—so it’s really going to delay your body from starting its recovery process.”

Spending a few minutes in the sauna before your workout is a better idea, he says, and may indeed help you feel warmed up and relieve some immediate muscle pain.

Warming up is, in part, about literally warming up your body, so a sauna can help get that process started (although it doesn’t completely replace your exercise-based warm-up).

And according to Harvard Health Watch, the average person will lose a pint of sweat during a brief visit to a sauna and should drink plenty of water when they get out to help replenish. So if you’re already dehydrated after a workout, sweating out another pint probably isn’t the best idea.

Why use a sauna?

There are many reasons to use a sauna in the first place. The two main reasons are the physical and mental benefits that they promote. Mentally saunas relax you. They allow you a moment of time where all you have to do is sit, think, and relax. In combination with a warm and inviting environment, sauna bathing can be very therapeutic.

Physically saunas have many benefits. First, they relax your body. Allowing your muscles to become loose and flexible. They cleanse your skin, they remove toxins, they strengthen your heart, they boost your immune system and also promote weight loss (they do this by forcing your body to cool itself down, which in turn burns calories).

In addition to this, some studies suggest that using a sauna promotes human growth hormone. This allows your muscles to grow bigger, recover faster, and simply work more efficiently.

With all these benefits, it’s a no brainer to use saunas regularly. They can greatly enhance your mental and physical well-being.

man and woman running on treadmill

How to use sauna bathing to boost your workouts?

Are you interested in giving it a shot? Here’s how you can gain these sauna benefits.

Aim to hit the sauna for seven days in a row for optimum results. The first day, you may only be able to tolerate five to 10 minutes, but by the seventh day, 25 to 30 minutes should be attainable, Sims says.

Women may respond best to a “heat primer” when acclimating to the sauna since their hormonal cycles give them different thermoregulatory thresholds. So they may want to try to go into the sauna for five to 10 minutes; then exit for five minutes; then head back in for the rest of the session, up to that 30-minute mark.

Because your resting heart rate will be high during sauna time—about 140 bpm—try to keep your workouts less intense that week. Plan for more of a recovery or endurance week to prevent overtraining, Sims says.

Shoot for hitting the sauna within 30 minutes of completing a workout. Try not to drink during these 30 minutes—your protein recovery drink is okay, but no other fluid, since some dehydration is key to the adaptations of this technique, Sims says. You can pour some water over your neck to cool off instead.

After you’re done in the sauna, slowly rehydrate over the course of two to three hours. Gulping down the fluid in large amounts after sauna bathing will cancel out the heat-stress response to the kidneys, Sims says. If you’re showering afterwards, making it a warm one, or wait at least 10 minutes if you want a colder one—sudden, dramatic changes in temperature can make you lightheaded.

Benefits of Sauna Before Workout

Some people prefer to schedule in a sauna session before exercising. A light sauna session before a workout helps to warm up the body and loosen up the muscles, which is important before starting your exercise.

While sauna bathing before a workout isn’t very popular, there are still some benefits that might help your body/workout. The main benefit is that saunas allow your body to warm up before actually working out. This allows your muscles to relax and be more flexible. Which will then help improve your performance when actually working out.

If you do use a sauna for this reason, then we recommend stretching your muscles while in there. This will allow for even more flexibility and better performance.

While there are some benefits to using a sauna before there are also some negatives if you aren’t careful, first, you don’t want to sweat too much before a workout. This can cause you to become dehydrated and will limit your bodies potential. So drink lots of water and don’t stay in the sauna for longer than 5 minutes.

Secondly, saunas can be very relaxing and are often a very spiritual and cleansing experience. They’re very good at relaxing one’s mind and body. So if you want to have high energy for your workout then it isn’t wise to relax your body too much before working out. This will limit your body/minds potential and will just make you tired.

A short sauna session before your workout can also be used to stretch the muscles, especially those that will be used most during your upcoming workout.

Sauna is a steam room where one can experience wet and dry heat sessions. It is a small enclosed room where steam is formed by pouring water over hot rocks. One is benefited in several different ways due to the steam and heat in the sauna. The following are the sauna benefits before workout:

Sauna helps in relaxing the body and loosening up the muscles. Therefore, it works as an excellent method of warm-up before any workout.

The hot atmosphere inside the sauna slightly increases the body temperature, which is also helpful in carrying out exercises.

Blood vessels also dilate due to the heat, which leads to proper pumping of the heart. Hence, a sauna is even considered as a mild cardiovascular exercise.

Exposure to steam in the sauna also enhances metabolism. This is also one of the reasons why the sauna is believed to help in weight loss.

Exposure to steam leads to excessive sweating. If you are aware, sweating helps in getting rid of the toxins from the body and hence, helps in rejuvenating the skin.

Lastly, the sauna is one of the best methods of relaxation for the entire body.

Find a Balance: It’s important that you find that perfect balance and don’t stay too long in the sauna before you start your workout.

A sauna session has a relaxing effect on both the body and mind. But when you exercise, you’ll need to be alert.

Using a sauna also elevates your heart rate, and it makes you sweat. This is great, but you don’t want to overdo this when you still need to exercise. Otherwise, you won’t perform very well.

In short, a sauna before a workout is fine as long as you keep it short. It should really only be done to help warm up the body.

And always drink water during and after your sauna session. Dehydration is one of the most important things to avoid when exercising.

How can saunas improve your performance?

Along with the health benefits of sauna bathing, there are also some performance boosts to consider, too—even if you are already well-trained. In one study, when a small group of well-trained distance runners sat in a sauna for 30 minutes after training four times a week, they improved their performance in a run to exhaustion test by 32 per cent and decreased their 5K time by nearly two per cent after just three weeks.

You can reap the benefits of sauna bathing anytime. But while some people like to pre-game their workout by warming up their muscles in a sauna—which helps you loosen up, but shouldn’t replace your regular warm-up—using the sauna after your exercise, when you’re still a little dehydrated, maybe even better.

When you’re a bit dehydrated, you have lower blood volume, explains exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, Ph.D. When you step into the sauna, your body responds to the hot environment by sending blood to your skin, so you can sweat and avoid overheating.

Because you have a limited amount of blood to go around, you have decreased blood flow and oxygen to your organs, so your kidneys stimulate the production of EPO (yes, the performance-enhancing stuff) and plasma volume, which boosts your blood volume and subsequent performance.

Benefits of Sauna After Workout

Most people though prefer to use a sauna after they’ve done their workout. This makes sense because a tired mind (and body) naturally want to relax and a sauna can help with this.

But does use a sauna after exercising have any benefits? Here are some of the claimed benefits of using a sauna after a workout.

There have been many studies conducted pointing to the fact that sauna bathing after a workout can be very beneficial to one’s mind and body. Specifically, one of the strongest benefits that saunas have is that they make you sweat profusely. With this sweat comes tons of wastes and toxins that your body naturally gets rid of.

Sauna bathing acts as a natural way to cleanse your body. This is very important because after a workout your body builds up metabolic waste in your muscles and joints. If you simply just stop your workout and cool down, your body will deal with those wastes by sending them through your blood, eventually leading to your kidneys.

If you want to be as healthy as possible, then it’s wise to take a load off your kidneys by sweating out those toxins instead. When you sit in a sauna for a long period of time, your body will begin sending that blood to your skin to keep you cool. This waste then gets transferred to your sweat that then cools your body as it leaves your skin.

Along with this saunas have other benefits to your body. They relax your tense muscles so you won’t get cramps after working out (which also helps with after-workout soreness). They increase your heart rate, which strengthens your heart while also improving blood flow. They also promote weight loss so you’ll burn even more calories just by sitting down.

Overall using a sauna after a workout is a very wise choice as it can help your body in many ways. We recommend doing this after every single workout.

According to the research roundup, the more people visited the sauna, the lower their risk of fatal heart disease and general mortality. Those who hit the sauna at least four times a week also had a 66 per cent reduced risk for dementia than those who went once a week. What’s more, regular sauna use also appeared to help alleviate inflammation and the pain associated with arthritis.

Another plus? The benefits of sauna bathing maybe even better if you already exercise. The researchers conclude that the combination of good fitness levels from regular aerobic exercise plus frequent sauna bathing provides extra cardiovascular protection.

Muscle Relaxation

A sauna session not only relaxes the mind, but it also helps the muscles to relax after an intense workout.

This benefits the overall recovery process for your muscles. You warm up the body before your workout.

Going into a sauna prior to workout helps condition the body for your eventual sweat session. In an infrared sauna, the infrared rays directly heat your body, jumpstarting your circulation and easing your transition into an active state. The more warmed up you are, the more in the condition you’ll be to do the real sweating afterwards. You set yourself for a tighter calorie burning session in the process.

Remove Toxins

Sitting in the heat for a while leads to more sweating. This helps to further break down that lactic acid in your body.

It also helps to remove other waste that the body has built up in joints and muscles during exercise.

A Prolonged Workout

The heat in a sauna also keeps the heart rate going. In a way, this prolongs your workout as it simulates a light cardio session.

The main reason why many people would advise against using a sauna after a workout is that the heart rate should gradually go back to normal after finishing a workout.

A sauna session typically does the opposite.

While this may be true, it needs to be put in context. If you’ve had a super intense workout and your heart rate is very high, I wouldn’t recommend using a sauna for another hour. In that case, a very short sauna session would help to relax the body and mind.

Recovering from a workout and lowering the heart rate back to normal levels can be seen as a gradual process. A short sauna session can help in that process.

So instead of going from super intense to normal, it may be a good idea to squeeze in a short sauna session after your (intense) workout to help your body (and heart rate) to gradually recover.

According to Dr. Lawrence Wilson, MD, it is recommended initially to spend no more than 20 minutes in a sauna. After using a sauna successfully a few times, this can be increased up to 40 minutes. You should never use a sauna more than once a day. It is most beneficial to use a sauna first thing in the morning or right before bed. Your exercise can happen either before or after sauna use, but not immediately following.

Use of a sauna after exercise increases endurance. A three-week study conducted by the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, discovered after long-distance runners spent 30 minutes in a sauna after exercising their blood volume was increased. This lead to greater endurance for the next workout session. However, athletes were used for the study, which is already in top physical condition. This should be considered with your exercise regime.

You get a genuine cool down after the workout.

When you do the sauna session after the workout, you just heat the body more. It’s not a bad thing, but when you want to cool yourself down, heat is the thing you’d least want to experience. You’d be better off doing stretching to relieve your muscle and joint pains. Doing the sauna session beforehand and doing your workout and stretching right after will normalize your temperature, bring your heart rate back to normal, and give you a better relaxation. It also gives you a chance to test your recently purchased sauna for sale right away!

You get the benefits faster

Doing the sauna session in advance will allow you to get the benefits faster. You’ll be able to get rid of body toxins, improve your circulation, and get fair skin at once. Once your body is accustomed to the sweat, you won’t have any reservation about sweating afterwards. You also relieve some muscle and joint pains at that moment, getting you ready for an intense workout. You’re more in shape to do repetitions and adjust to an exercise rhythm in the process!

It’s important to enjoy the sauna after the workout – not before. The effects of the heat would interfere with your exercise. Although some people a brief visit to the sauna ahead of time, an extended session is counterproductive in several ways:

  • Excessive relaxation, physically and psychologically. Relaxed muscles are more likely to be injured by exercise. Emotionally, you want to be on heightened attention, not mellow relaxation, when you enter the workout.
  • Preheating. With the sauna’s head start, you’ll sweat more during the exercise, but without exerting any more of the effort that burns calories.
  • Dehydration. When you begin to sweat ahead of the exercise, your body is losing fluids. That will reduce your performance during the workout.

After your exercise, the sauna offers important benefits:  

  • Sweat. Wastes that build up in your muscles and joints during the workout can be carried by the blood to the surface of your skin, where they can be removed by sweat.
  • Heat. Now that you’ve exercised, your muscles have earned the relaxing benefits of the heat all over your body in the sauna.
  • Heart. Sitting in the sauna elevates your heart rate to levels similar to moderate workouts. That means the cardio benefits of your workout continue through your session.

Would you use a sauna to improve performance?

Plus, jumping in the sauna post-workout is actually an endurance athlete’s secret weapon for competing in the heat or at altitude, says Sims. It resets your thermoregulation thresholds, so hot temperatures feel less severe and helps improve performance at high-altitude events, where the mountain air is very dry and dehydrating.

“Because it’s similar to hard exercise, you need to use it wisely,” she says. “The general guideline calls for 25 to 30-minute sessions, where the temperature doesn’t exceed 165 degrees, but you should only stay in for as long as you feel comfortable. It’s not a competition!”

SAUNA BEFORE VS. AFTER WORKOUT

Overall, if you had to choose one option, then sauna bathing after a workout is the best choice. Reason for this is because you won’t overwork your body before your training session. Since you want your body to be in peak performance while working out then over-exhausting it beforehand isn’t a good idea.

With that being said, we still do recommend using a sauna beforehand if you’re smart about it. Meaning you’re only in the sauna for around 5 minutes to warm up your body and to stretch. If you keep it within this time frame, then you’ll be able to maximize your bodies potential without getting fatigued beforehand.

The bottom line is that saunas do come with health benefits—you just have to be smart about using them. The experts that spoke to Outside also emphasized that saunas can be great for relaxation, and even if they aren’t helpful, they probably won’t do any real harm, even after a workout. (The exception: if you’re pregnant or have a heart condition, talk to your doctor; they may recommend avoiding long sauna sessions.)

Sauna use before or after a workout depends highly on the individual and on the intensity and type of training session.

In general, though, using a sauna before a workout is fine as long as you keep it short and sweet. It helps with that initial warming up, but as soon as you start sweating, it’s time to leave the sauna and get ready for your workout.

Using a sauna after a workout helps to relax the body and muscles and to gradually lower the heart rate to healthy levels. It also helps to break down lactic acid and to remove other waste that the body has created during the workout session.

The best advice is to do what you feel works best for you, as long as you always listen to what your body is telling you.

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