3 Reasons the Sauna May Be Your Secret Weapon to Improved Performance
Most runners are familiar with Abebe Bikila, the great marathon champion from Ethiopia most famous for winning the 1960 Rome Olympic Marathon running barefoot.
While Bikila’s barefoot victory makes most people hearken back to visions of early humans covering long distances without any need for shoes, a different aspect of his training routine might have been years ahead of its time.
At the insistence of his Swedish coach Onni Niskannen, Abebe Bikila took twice-weekly saunas.
Paul Rambali’s 2006 biography Barefoot Runner details how Bikila used the sauna to boost his recovery from his demanding marathon training regimen:
“Over the years, [Abebe Bikila] had come to look forward to sitting in the wooden cabin full of hot steam at the end of a training session. The heat took away the aches that came of running, the pangs he tried to ignore as he ran but which grew more insistent with the years.”
While barefoot running became something of a craze, Bikila’s sauna habit, no doubt rooted in his Scandinavian coach’s beliefs about its health benefits, has not caught on.
Luckily, modern scientific research has uncovered several ways in which sauna bathing could be beneficial for your running.
Benefits of sauna bathing
#1 Heat Adaptation
Breathing in the hot, dry air of a traditional sauna, which can range in temperature from 160 to 212 °F, has a number of direct physiological effects.
A 2001 review study by Minna Hannuksela and Samer Ellahham summarizes the body’s response to the heat of a sauna.
Heart rate increases, sweat production increases, and blood flow to the skin rises sharply.
These changes are very similar to the kinds of adaptations seen when first acclimating to a naturally hot environment.
Because of this, regular sauna bathing might be a way to acclimate to hot weather, which could be very useful if you’re living in a northern climate but planning on running a winter or spring race in a hot location.
#2 Improved Lung Function
The heat of a sauna has a direct impact on the lungs as well.
As described in a 1988 review by three researchers in Helsinki, lung capacity and function increase by around 10% in the sauna.
According to Hannuksela and Ellhham, people with asthma and chronic bronchitis report that saunas clear up their lung congestion and help them breathe easier.
One small study even found that regular sauna bathing decreases the incidence of the common cold by up to 50%
However, be aware that saunas did not decrease the duration or severity of symptoms, and other researchers caution that you should not take a sauna while you have an upper respiratory infection like the cold, or any illness that produces a fever.
Hannuksela and Ellahham also cite five studies showing that sauna bathing increases growth hormone levels in the blood by 200-500%. Though this increase is transient, growth hormone has powerful and well-known benefits when it comes to workout recovery and performance increases.
#3 Direct Performance Improvements
Only one study has investigated the direct effects of regular saunas on running performance, but its results were impressive.
A 2006 study by Guy S.M. Scoon and other researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand measured the effects of post-workout saunas on performance over a treadmill run to exhaustion.
Over the course of the nine-week study, six male runners undertook a series of three 3-week training blocks: one where every training session was followed with a 30-min sauna, a “washout” period to eliminate any confounding variables, and a control period with the same training but no sauna use.
After each training block, the runners completed a treadmill run to exhaustion at personal-record 5k pace.
Regular sauna use resulted in a 30% increase in time to exhaustion, which, according to the authors, would translate to about a 2% improvement in time in an actual race.
You might be able to write off the results as artifacts from small sample sizes, but Scoon et al. were able to show a strong correlation between improvement in time to exhaustion and increase in blood volume.
Bonus: The ‘hot taper’
This change is particularly interesting in light of the concept of a “hot taper”—a phenomenon where training in the heat appears to improve exercise performance even in cool weather.
One proposed mechanism for this benefit is increased blood volume.
Could regular sauna bathing be another route to achieving a hot taper? Only more research can confirm this, but Scoon et al.’s study represents a promising start.
Even though sauna bathing is a tradition that’s hundreds of years old, research into its possible uses in runners is still in the early stages.
General research on the physiological effects of sauna bathing suggests that taking regular saunas can improve your heat adaptation, increase growth hormone levels, clear up congestion, and increase your resistance to upper respiratory infections like the common cold.
Additionally, one study even suggests that the sauna confers a performance-boosting increase in blood volume, similar to the effects of doing a stretch of training in hot weather before returning to cool weather to compete.
Unfortunately, even the basics of what constitutes “ideal” sauna usage aren’t hammered out: study protocols range from daily post-workout saunas that last 30 minutes to once or twice-weekly sessions that can be substantially shorter.
Ideal temperature and humidity are similarly unclear.
We’ll definitely report back when we know more about ideal protocols.
In the meantime, if you decide to incorporate sauna bathing into your routine, ease into it like anything else, and do be sure to rehydrate well afterwards!