Regardless of your level of fitness experience, you likely have a set of tasks you need to complete before and after each workout session. For example, you may have a tradition of consuming an entire water bottle and fueling up with a carbohydrate-rich snack before putting on your sneakers or drinking a protein shake and using a foam roller on your quadriceps after completing a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout.
But should sauna bathing – a form of whole-body thermotherapy that involves sitting in a room with a temperature ranging from 113°F to 212°F for approximately 20 minutes – also be a part of your pre- and post-workout routine? Here, Heather A. Milton, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, breaks down the potential advantages of taking a sauna before or after exercising, as well as how to ensure safety if you choose to do so.
The Advantages and Dangers of Using a Sauna Before a Workout
When you are ready to begin a workout, it is usually recommended to start with a warm-up that gradually raises your body from a resting state to a state that is prepared for exercise. This process involves gradually increasing your body temperature, blood flow to your working muscles, and heart rate, explains Milton. By doing this, your working muscles receive more oxygen (which is necessary for energy production), and your workout may feel less challenging once you start.
In theory, spending time in a hot environment (such as a traditional or infrared sauna) with temperatures above 100°F can achieve the same “warm-up” effect. In these spaces, your body temperature rises and your blood vessels widen to improve blood circulation and increase blood flow to the skin, which helps regulate your body temperature, according to Milton. (By the way, infrared saunas generally operate at slightly lower temperatures and with less humidity than traditional saunas, although both exceed 100°F.)
The issue is that a sauna does not physically activate your working muscles and prepare them for exercise, she says. Ideally, a warm-up should include movements that activate all the muscles that will be utilized during the workout, allowing them to move through their full range of motion. For example, if you plan to run a 5K, you should perform gentle movements that activate the stabilizing muscles in your hips, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and quadriceps before using the treadmill, says Milton. “We want to go through a dynamic warm-up that incorporates movements similar to running and mimics the patterns of activation prior to engaging in the more intense version of it, which is actually running,” she explains.
We are aware that this not only aids in diminishing the likelihood of harm, but also contributes to the enhancement of neuromuscular productivity — or the degree to which you are capable of executing the exercise proficiently… so in the case of running, being able to maintain the same velocity, yet experiencing a greater sense of ease.
Safety Tips for Engaging in a Sauna Session Before a Workout
According to Milton, while [participating in a sauna session] can assist in raising your body temperature, it does not necessarily serve as a substitute for a dynamic warm-up before exercise.
One of the main safety concerns of using a sauna prior to a workout is the potential for excessive loss of fluids, as explained by Milton. “We are aware that physical activity causes dehydration due to perspiration, which depends on factors such as temperature, environment, and type of exercise,” she elaborates. “Therefore, by starting to sweat in the sauna, you are predisposing yourself to a state of decreased hydration.”
To ensure proper rehydration after your sauna experience, Milton suggests recording your body weight both before and after entering the sauna, and then replenishing that amount of fluid through water intake. For instance, if you lose 1 pound of sweat during the sauna session, it is advisable to drink 16 ounces of water upon finishing. When you are ready to engage in weightlifting or cardio exercises, it is important to perform a series of movements to activate and prepare your muscles for the upcoming workout, according to her recommendations.
The Advantages and Hazards of Using a Sauna After a Workout
At present, research on the benefits of utilizing a sauna after a workout is limited and has primarily involved small sample sizes. Therefore, it cannot be easily applied to the broader population, states Milton. Nevertheless, she explains that it has been postulated that [using a sauna after a workout] may contribute to relaxation, facilitate the transition from physical exertion to a state of rest, and potentially alleviate post-workout muscle soreness. However, this could potentially be attributed to a placebo effect, and the scientific effectiveness of these claims remains uncertain.
Using a sauna after a workout (and before as well) may also aid in heat acclimatization, which refers to the physiological adaptations that allow the body to cope with hot temperatures (e.g. increased sweating efficiency and elevated skin blood flow). According to Milton, individuals participating in endurance events and anticipating exposure to hot and humid environments can potentially enhance their heat acclimatization by gradually incorporating sauna sessions into their routine, restricting them to one to two days per week and limiting the duration to under 30 minutes before or after the workout. Consistency is key, and positive results may become noticeable within one to two weeks, she adds.
Similar to a warm-up, a brief sauna session does not fulfill the requirements of a comprehensive cool-down routine. In general, it is advisable to gradually transition back to a state of rest after engaging in physical activity, as abruptly ceasing your workout may result in dizziness, warns Milton. “If you go from exercising to simply sitting, even in a hot environment, you may actually increase the likelihood of experiencing lightheadedness.” To minimize these risks, consider dedicating a few minutes to perform gentle stretches (e.g.
- Utilize forward fold, upright quadricep stretch, and feline-cow poses to decrease your heart rate and revert to a state of rest before proceeding to the sauna, as advised by her.
Safety Recommendations for Using a Sauna After Exercising
If you’re more sensitive to temperature changes and suddenly transition from the chilly fitness center to the scorching sauna, you might experience vasovagal syncope, a rapid drop in heart rate and blood pressure that can result in loss of consciousness, according to Milton. “Usually, there is a precursor to it, which is a sensation of nausea or dizziness prior to the occurrence,” she explains. “So proceed with caution and try a small amount initially, perhaps using a sauna that is not extremely hot, and see how well you handle it.” Once again, it’s important to note your body weight before and after your sauna session and rehydrate with the same amount of water once you’ve finished.
Key Takeaways on Using a Sauna Before or After Exercising
To put it simply, the advantages of using a sauna before or after your workout are currently not well-supported. “I cannot provide you with a specific reason why you should incorporate this into your workouts,” says Milton. Using a sauna is generally not recommended if you’re pregnant, have cardiovascular disease, or have other medically significant health conditions that may be affected by increased fluid loss. Therefore, in these situations, make sure to obtain clearance from your doctor first, she adds.
If you don’t have any contraindications and want to try pre- and post-workout saunas, however, begin with shorter sessions, monitor your hydration levels closely, and continuously evaluate if you genuinely find it beneficial, suggests Milton. If you discover that sitting in the sweat-inducing room helps you begin your run on a positive note or relax afterward, feel free to incorporate it into your fitness routine (and make sure to shower immediately after your session).
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