Is the Sauna an Athlete’s Secret Weapon?

Maybe sitting around in a hot room doesn’t sound all that athletic, but that headline got your attention, didn’t it? So let’s get to it.

There are three primary ways hyperthermic conditioning in a sauna may improve an athlete’s performance. 

1. Increased Endurance

Who doesn’t want an edge endurance-wise on their competitors? It’s everything we train for, at least for runners, cyclists, and the like. An interesting study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that repeated sauna use, post-workout, in male distance runners increased the time it took them to run to exhaustion by 32%.

It also increased their plasma volume (the liquid part of your blood) by 7.1% and their red blood cell count (RBC) by 3.5%. More blood plasma and RBC’s means more endurance, folks!

That increased plasma volume also means more blood flow to muscles, which reduces their dependence on glycogen (the stored form of glucose). In fact, heat stress does such a good job of this that it has been shown to reduce muscle glycogen use by 40-50% and increase endurance in highly trained and untrained athletes.

Worried about bonking at your next ultra or just want to not have to eat as much when you’re mid race? Think about adding sauna to your training regimen.

2. Heat Acclimation 

Another study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that having female athletes sit in a sauna suit for 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week improved their thermoregulatory, cardiovascular, and perceived strain during exercise compared to a control group.

That means that heat stress triggered adaptations in their body that made them more efficient during exercise in hot conditions, which had the added psychological benefit of feeling better while doing it. If that’s not an edge for your next summer marathon, I don’t know what is. 

3. Increasing Muscle Mass 

Yes, you read that correctly. Roasting like a clay pot could make your muscles bigger. It turns out that when we undergo heat stress, our body ramps up production of growth hormone (GH) in a major way, and the hotter and longer we sauna, the more we make. Remember that GH is an essential component in muscle hypertrophy

Two 20-minute sauna sessions at 176 degrees F separated by 30 minutes of cooling doubled growth hormone levels in subjects, while two 15 minute sessions at 212 degrees F boosted GH five-fold.

Just to show you what’s possible, 17 men and women were exposed to two 1-hour sauna sessions a day at 176 degrees F for 7 days in a row (yikes!) and exhibited a 16-fold increase in GH by the third day.

Pro-Tip: Strength athletes who are up to speed on the effects of heat stress know to do their sauna session right after a workout to maximize the benefits of these hormonal changes


Further general benefits of sauna use are numerous and include improvements in congestive heart failurecholesterolhigh blood pressureendothelial functioninflammationmental focusattention spaninsulin sensitivity, and the detoxification of heavy metals and other industrial pollutants.

Which is why regular sauna use can also benefit your athletic training.

Article Source: How the Sauna Can Help You Live Longer and Make You A Better Athlete by Aaron Stuber, RN, BSN, DipACLM

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Garth Reynolds, MSTCM, L.Ac.
Licensed Acupuncturist and Clinical Herbalist | Schedule Your Appointment
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