Nowadays almost every new gym that opens has a spa section in it with a sauna, steam room, and probably a massage studio. This isn’t done just to increase profits but serves a major role in the recovery of the people that train there. Infrared light found in saunas has major benefits for our bodies and can help with a variety of conditions ranging from muscle soreness to muscle weakness and performance drops. But do saunas help with your post-workout recovery and are they beneficial if you use them directly after a heavy training session? Well, you are about to find out!
Heat & Muscle Recovery
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is one of the major disadvantages of going through an intense or unfamiliar training session. This fever-like sensation scares a lot of people and prevents them of giving their best when they are working out. Nothing feels worse than knowing that you won’t be able to walk properly for a few days after a dynamic leg workout, right? That feeling is hated by some and loved by others, who use it to determine how far they’ve pushed themselves but we can all safely agree that it isn’t fun.
The feeling during the DOMS is largely thanks to the muscle damaged which your muscles sustained during the said workout and the following inflammation of your muscles. There are a lot of methods used to treat, or at least alleviate this condition. The most common ones are stretching, massages, putting ice on the painful areas, or simply taking anti-inflammatory drugs.
What will probably come as a surprise to you is that none of these methods are scientifically proven to treat muscle soreness. Unfortunately, using the sauna falls into the same category. Now, that doesn’t mean that they won’t make you feel better, on the contrary – they will, but it is very unlikely that using any of those methods will decrease the likelihood of you having sore muscles in the next few days.
In sports medicine, heat is usually used to treat older injuries or chronic conditions like arthritis. Ice, on the other hand, is generally more effective when you want to relieve sports-induced muscle aches.
So, in short, the sauna shouldn’t be one of your main destinations directly after a heavy workout. Calmer and lighter workouts might benefit slightly from it, although the science leans towards the fact that an ice-cold shower will do a better job in the long run.
Short sauna sessions (below 5 minutes) can slightly enhance the short-term recovery process of your damaged muscles since that will increase blood circulation across your body and will carry oxygen-rich blood to the oxygen-depleted muscle fibers. The heat will also reduce the tension that has built up inside your muscles. If you stay for longer, though, this will prevent your heart rate from going back down and thus will delay the start of your recovery process.
If you want to transfer that whole experience to your own home, head over to my full Buyer’s Guide on some of the best infrared saunas you can install and use in your house.
Sweating & Weight Loss
Two other advantages in the sauna that are indirectly related to your recovery and well-being are sweating and weight loss.
Sweating is great for your body as it removes the harmful toxins away with the sweat that goes out of your sweat glands. This will help remove harmful substances such as alcohol, some metals, nicotine, and others. It will definitely help your body feel better and, as long as you stay hydrated, it will make it easier for your body to concentrate its healing efforts on your muscles afterwards.
When it comes to weight loss, I’ve compiled a whole separate article on the topic but in general, saunas boost most of your body’s systems, increase HGH (human growth hormone) production and lower your cortisol levels which actively promotes weight loss. Click here if you want to read more on this particular topic.
How to safely use the sauna after working out
After you finish your workout, your body will be a lot warmer than usual. It will also be tired of all the exercises, so staying in the sauna for long intervals will work directly against your goal of resting your body and muscles. As I already mentioned, staying for more than 5-10 minutes will keep your heart rate high and will effectively feel to your body as a continuation of your workout in a more passive form.
One very important thing to keep in your mind when using saunas is that you are losing water fast in there. This requires you to rehydrate almost immediately after the sauna unless you want to draw some of that water out of your muscles which really need it at this point. 2 to 4 glasses of water will help you hydrate and also help you flush out any toxins that have built up. As a whole, a good rest and a lot of hydration after the sauna is what will propel you into a healthy recovery period. Exercising later in the day will interrupt that process and just postpone the recovery.
If you are new to saunas and have never tried one before it is also best to keep your first few sessions really short. Concentrate on how you feel and how your body reacts to the change of environment and see if your heart rate goes really high, in which case it will be time to go out. If you have a chronic circulatory condition, make sure you consult your physician before using a sauna or a steam room.
Other signals that your body might be giving you that it is time to go out are:
Those are usually symptoms of your body losing too much water or quickly overheating.
No matter the gym rules, there are a few universal rules of using the sauna that will make your experience and the one of the people around you far better. Let’s go through those now.
Whether you are using the sauna pre- or post-workout or just going to the gym specifically to go through a spa session, you will need to follow a few unspoken rules.
If you are heading into the sauna after your workout you will have to take a shower to wash away all the sweat, germs, and odor that has built up on your body. Taking a shower after your sauna visit is also a good idea to wash away all the excess sweat that you failed to mop up with your towel. If there is a perfect time for a cold shower it might be now.
Dress-codes are pretty wide but in general, you have to wear at least something, be it a bathing suit or just a towel. In other words, don’t go in naked. If the towel you use for your body isn’t enough, bring an extra one to sit on.
Sauna-time is sacred for most people and is their time to relax and concentrate on healing their bodies. For that reason, a quiet environment is best. Avoid listening to music, groaning, or stirring up conversations just because the minutes seem too long and boring inside. This is the perfect place to try to meditate and practice mindfulness.
Electronics also have no place inside the sauna, not so much for the distraction, but for the fact that most of them aren’t built to withstand the temperatures inside.
Be quick when entering and exiting as a prolonged door opening can cool down the sauna significantly quick and the time it will take to reheat will probably outlast the other people’s sessions inside. When it comes to how long to stay in the sauna, try to keep it below 20 minutes.
Lastly, it goes without saying that the gym’s sauna isn’t the place where you can resume your workout or train some hot yoga. It is, after all, a public place that is also quite small and you trianing can get in the way of a lot of people.
There are a lot of people that often use the sauna before they start training and an equal number of people wondering whether that is okay or not, so let’s briefly answer that question…
Should you use the Sauna before working out?
Pre-workout saunas and steam rooms have a lot of benefits and risks depending on whether you use them properly or not. This is why it is important to know how heat affects your body and use it to your advantage if possible.
In general, spending a little time in the sauna before your actual workout instead of after it might help your body warm-up and get to the necessary temperature in order to perform at its peak. It will also loosen your muscles and joints and allow you to stretch easier. If you are already dealing with muscle soreness and pain from the previous day’s workout, this will help you alleviate it slightly. However, make sure you don’t start training immediately after the sauna as your ligaments will still need stretching before you go all-in into your workout. Relaxed and loose muscles are one of the main reasons for trauma especially if you start applying intense pressure to them straight away. This is why you need to work your body in if you are really set on taking a sauna before your workout.
Saunas also help you loosen up mentally which might be a bad thing when heading into your training as you need to be sharp and alert when training. Keep in mind the water that you’ve lost before you even started training so that you can compensate it during or after the workout.
As you can see there are negatives and positives in going into the sauna before your workout and you are ultimately the one who decides what does your body need but the general consensus is that if you are set on using it, better reward yourself with a hot sauna after the workout.
If you are looking to get a portable sauna for your home to use it after a workout or a busy day out, I suggest checking out my Radiant Saunas Rejuvenator Personal Sauna review.
So, do saunas help with post-workout recovery? The answer really depends on the way you train. If you go through a heavy workout that involves a lot of high-intensity movements that are new to your body, then saunas will most likely only provide a temporary relieving effect after your workout. That won’t help your muscles recover faster in the long run. Taking a cold shower or an ice bath will, though, which is why I recommend doing that instead of chilling in the steaming hot sauna.
If your workout was mild, then you can safely spend 5-10 minutes afterwards in the sauna and top things off with a cold shower to help your blood’s circulation and kickstart your muscle recovery process. As with everything else, don’t overdo this and don’t take saunas daily as they can put a significant amount of stress on your cardiovascular system and excess use can also lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and loss of vital microelements from your body.