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Sauna: A Simple Proven Sports Performance Enhancer

High Performers Integrate Sauna For Marked Results

Sport performance comes from consistency and adaptation capabilities. Consistency is the discipline, dedication and repetitiveness to achieve a desired goal. Adaptation capability will be correlated to physiological and psychological factors. On the physiological side there are different methods to enhance sport performance, from periodization protocols to high-altitude training. On the same lines, the sauna method is as a simple-proved sport performance enhancer.

Consistency is the discipline, dedication and repetitiveness to achieve a desired goal.

The Science of Sauna Thermotherapy

Tolerance to heat exhaustion is one of those performance capabilities an athlete should have in their repertoire. Temperature is affecting our body in multiple unique ways, so it is important to understand how the temperature process occurs in our body. As well, blood plays a crucial roll in sport performance and is strictly related to temperature changes, so we will dig in that as well.

Thermotherapy entails various techniques like sauna, steam baths, infrared lamps and warm water immersion. It is believed that these methods can increase subcutaneous and cutaneous blood flow as a result of an increase in cardiac output and a lower peripheral resistance. This increase in blood flow increases cellular, lymphatic, and capillary permeability, which can increase metabolism, nutrient delivery, and waste removal from the cells. Much anecdotal and practical information can be found about the proposed benefits of thermotherapy, but still little scientific research exploring its use as a recovery-performance enhancer tool is available (Bompa & Haff, 2009).

Increasing your core temperature for short periods may offer dramatic athletic performance

According to Ph.D. Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick, increasing the core temperature for short periods, as is done by using a sauna, may offer dramatic improvements to athletic performance. Emerging research suggests that this hyperthermic conditioning has multiple positive effects on your body, from increased endurance to the growth of new brain cells.

This video breaks down the science of thermotherapy for athletes:

Temperature in the body occurs through the process of radiation, conduction, convection and evaporation. The most important of this heat removal process for the performance athlete is the evaporation of sweat (75%), which releases 580 kcal per liter of sweat evaporated in the skin. While as humans we are well evolved to perform strength, aerobic and endurance exercise, our high sweat rates mean that water is removed from our body at high ratio, and must therefore be replaced at appropriate proportion. Prolonged stay in a sauna may lead to the loss of electrolytes from the body, as after vigorous exercise. The risk of dehydration leading to heat stroke may be reduced by proper hydration. Read about easy hydration in my recent posts: part 1 and part 2.

Physiologic adaptations that occur from hyperthermic conditioning include:

Improved cardiovascular mechanisms: lower heart rate (Hannuksela & Ellahham, 2001)
Higher sweat rate (Costa, Moore & Walsh, 2011)
Increased blood flow to skeletal muscle (Costa, Moore, et. al, 2011)
Reduced rate of glycogen depletion (King, Costill, Fink, et. al, 1985)
Increased red blood cell count (Scoon, Hoopkins, et. al, 2007)
Increased efficiency of oxygen transport to muscles (Scoon, Hoopkins, et. al, 2007)

Research done by University of Otago in New Zealand, found that sauna bathing increased run time to exhaustion by 32%, which is equivalent to an enhancement of approximately 1.9% in an endurance time trial. Plasma and red-cell volumes increased by 7.1% and 3.5% respectively, after sauna relative to control. Change in performance had high correlations with change in plasma volume and total blood volume. So for a period of three weeks of post-exercise sauna bathing produced a worthwhile enhancement of endurance running performance, probably by increasing blood volume (Scoon, Hoopkins, et. al, 2007).

The indicated performance gains achieved just by getting into a sauna are far safer and superior to many other methods and practices common in elite sports. So from a cost-effective approach I would advise you to give it a try for a couple of months and measure any performance changes as a result of it.

Performance gains achieved just by getting into a sauna are far safer and superior to common

Sauna should be integrated as part of your regular high performance lifestyle, as you do with post-workout nutrition, foam-rolling or stretching protocols. Included on a regular basis, sauna could become just another performance enhancer.

My suggested protocol to start your sauna training and integrate it to your daily life:

Base line: Start with 10 minutes of infrared sauna (60-80ºC, 5-15% humidity) two times a week. Include this two sauna sessions right after your hardest trainings.
Hydration: Keep hydrated during training, during sauna and after training & sauna. (My articles on hydration cover this in Part 1 and Part 2.)
Increase of time and volume: Every week add 5 min to your two times a week sauna session until you reach 30 minutes. Note: I f you still feel really hard to move-up in time, stay another week with the same time of the previous week (up to 3 consecutive weeks).
Achieve performance: Once you have got to 2 times a week 30 min sauna sessions, add a third one. Remember try to perform them just after really hard training sessions!
Maintain performance: Get 2-3 times a week of infrared sauna (60-80ºC, 5-15% humidity) as part of your routine
Racing week, tapering or competition: Cut back to 1 session per week 2 weeks prior to your competition or race. And avoid any sauna 7 days prior to your race or competition.

Pro Tips to Play By
Remember that playing with body core temperature should be strictly correlated with hydration; otherwise sauna can play against you if you are not properly hydrated before, during and after the sauna sessions. Also be aware that you will take the best out of a sauna session with consistency and remember that it is always better if you go to sauna immediately after an exhaustive training session.

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