How to use a sauna:
Sit in an oversized oven and bake yourself for a little while until you’re tired of stewing in your own sweat and are on the verge of a panic attack.
Just kidding. But unsurprisingly, that’s what most people think a sauna session is like.
I’ve been using traditional, Finnish-style saunas for nearly two decades, and I can tell you firsthand that a proper session need not feel like a near-death experience.
On the contrary, it should feel deeply relaxing and often exhilarating.
But more than that, saunas can reduce the risk of heart conditions and memory disorders, improve endurance, and increase muscle mass.
While new scientific studies are helping us better understand the benefits, humans have a rich history of bathing themselves in heat for various reasons, dating back thousands of years and seen across many cultures from the banyas of Russia to the sweat lodges of the American Indians and, most notably, the saunas of Finland.
The stress-relieving effects of sauna, or what is more appropriately termed hyperthermic conditioning, may seem obvious to some, but I would venture to guess those other benefits induced by heat stress — neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and cytoprotective adaptations — are less well known.
And that’s where plant-based athletes can experience the biggest performance or health boost. Today, I’m going to share more about those benefits, and show you exactly how to get started.
All Saunas Are Not Created Equal
Before we jump into some of the health benefits of heat stress, it’s important to understand the differences between sauna styles so we are all on the same page.
A traditional Finnish-style sauna is the most common type of apparatus you will encounter should you go looking for one at your local fitness center or spa, and it is the style used most often in the research literature. An electric heater is used to raise the air temperature between 158 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
An infrared sauna, which uses either far or near infrared wavelengths to heat your body directly, operates at lower temperatures than a traditional sauna (usually 113 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit). This style is very popular, but due to the lower temperatures employed, it may be less effective at inducing the heat stress benefits of the hotter, traditional style.
Many people think that steam rooms are similar to saunas, but they do not raise your core temperature enough to induce the same benefits. And just to fill you in on a bit of sauna snobbery, many serious sauna users have absolute contempt for steam rooms and the people that frequent them, due to their inferior heating capacity, so just be mindful not to mention steam rooms out loud while sauna bathing. No one wants to be assailed by sweaty, lobster red, sauna aficionados.
Even still, steam can play a roll in dry saunas as well.
Many dry sauna heaters have a section on top for hot stones. It is a sauna tradition to pour water on those rocks to create steam and moisten the air in the sauna a bit.
In Finland, this practice is called “Loyly” and it is taken very seriously. If you see a little wooden bucket and ladle inside the sauna, that’s what it’s for. Please keep in mind, however, that some electric heaters are not designed for loyly, so be sure to follow any posted signs asking you NOT to add water.
Pro-Tip: I often bring a small sports bottle of water with essential oils added to squirt on the rocks. Try lavender or eucalyptus oil. It will take your sauna experience to level 10, but be sure to ask other people in the sauna if they are ok with it first.
The Unexpected Health Benefits of Sauna
Over the last few decades, sauna bathing has become an important tool for increasing lifespan and improving overall health. This is due to compelling data published from observational, interventional, and mechanistic studies (much of it out of Finland, big surprise).
One of the most prestigious studies in the medical literature on this topic demonstrated that men who used the sauna two times per week were 27% less likely to die of cardiovascular related causes than men who didn’t sauna. If they increased their usage to 4-7 times per week, they were 50% less likely to die from those same causes and had a 40% reduction in all-cause mortality.
This same landmark study showed that men who used the sauna 2-3 times per week were 66% less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease compared to men who only went once a week, and were 77% less likely to develop a psychotic disorder regardless of their diet, socioeconomic status, physical activity level, or inflammatory status.
Further general benefits of sauna use are numerous and include improvements in congestive heart failure, cholesterol, high blood pressure, endothelial function, inflammation, mental focus, attention span, insulin sensitivity, and the detoxification of heavy metals and other industrial pollutants.
Which is why regular sauna use can also benefit your athletic training.
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
How to Start Your Sauna Practice
Those benefits sound pretty great, right? But then there’s the question of how to get started… And just like anything else in life, that hesitation around trying something new is often what keeps us from growing.
So I want to remove all the obstacles and lay out exactly what you need to know.
Below is a list of best practices and answers to many frequent newbie questions.
How to Find a Sauna
Call around to different gyms, clubs, and spas in your town to see if they have a sauna. Make sure you specify that you’re looking for a traditional (dry) or infrared sauna and not a steam room. If they say they have a steam room, drown them in your contempt and insist they immediately begin construction on a dry sauna, since you are now an official sauna snob.
Once you’ve located an appropriate sauna, consider a membership to that facility to gain regular access to it, especially if they have other services you are interested in.
If you can’t locate a sauna in your area and you are very motivated, you can build a cheap sauna in your home or backyard or buy a pre-fabricated one to assemble. There are many YouTube videos that will walk you through the building process, and reputable companies to explore include Finlandia, Sunlighten, Harvia, and LuxSauna.
What to Bring With You
For your first session, hop in the shower first to rinse off and wet your skin and hair (this makes the heat more tolerable).
Wear a bathing suit and sandals (clothing is often optional but erring on the side of modesty can shield you from some potentially creepy encounters with strangers… trust me). The sandals should be self-evident.
Bring a plastic (metal containers get too hot to pick up), Nalgene style bottle of water with you, and make sure you are well-hydrated before your session. Drink regularly throughout the session. You are going to sweat a lot.
Bring an old watch to keep time. Time can feel eternally slow in the sauna, so it’s helpful to know how long you’ve actually been in there.
Once You’re In the Sauna
You want to aim for a temperature range of 176 to 194 degrees F ideally. Some saunas allow you to control the temperature, but most are set to somewhere within the above range. If It’s too low, ask the staff if they can increase the temperature.
An ideal duration is 20 to 30 minutes at a time, although you can certainly go longer as long as you are comfortable. If at any point you feel faint or just extremely uncomfortable, get out. If you want to go back in after cooling off to complete your time, feel free to do so, but just remember that sauna is not supposed to be an exercise in pain tolerance so be reasonable about it. Work up to the 20-30 minute mark over time as your body acclimates.
When you are done, rinse off again in the shower to remove heavy metals and other industrial pollutants from your skin. Those compounds will reabsorb into your bloodstream unless you wash them off. There is no need to take an ice cold shower to cool off unless you want to.
Try to do this at least twice a week, ideally 4 to 7 times per week as tolerated.
Important Precautions and Considerations
Safe sauna use requires some critical thinking. Here are some important precautions and considerations to facilitate a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone:
1. Sauna use during pregnancy may carry some health risks to a developing fetus. The data on sauna use and pregnancy is mixed, but you should always err on the side of caution with this. If you are pregnant and want to sauna, please consult your healthcare provider first.
2. Children do not regulate their internal temperature as well as adults do, making them less than ideal candidates for very hot, dry saunas. If you insist on bringing them in, they must be supervised and the duration should be very short.
3. Anyone with a diagnosed chronic or acute illness and anyone on prescription medications should consult their healthcare provider before using the sauna. This is especially true for anyone with a diagnosed heart condition.
4. Do not consume alcohol prior to or during a sauna session.
5. Make sure to consume mineral rich foods after each sauna session, especially if you are on a fasting routine or are exercising regularly in addition to sauna. Whole foods rich in sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, and potassium are important for restoring the electrolytes lost while sweating.
6. It is normal for your heart rate to increase while in the sauna, so don’t be alarmed if it does. However, if you feel faint or extremely uncomfortable, get out immediately and call it a day. The next session will be easier.
Saunas Aren’t an Oven, They’re a Tool for Better Mental and Physical Health
Look, I get it. Anything that resembles an oven is something I typically try to stay away from as well.
But as I learn more and more about the real scientific benefits of regular sauna sessions — and as I see those benefits in real life — it has become an indispensable component of my overall health and fitness routine. These same benefits are why I regularly see professional athletes, like ultrarunner Timothy Olson, sitting in the sauna next to me.
Not only have I seen and experienced those benefits physically, but regular sauna practice has also become a surprisingly effective tool for improving my mental health.
My hope is that this guide will help clear misconceptions and concerns you have toward sauna, and who knows… Maybe you’ll feel empowered to book your first trip and experience the benefits firsthand.
About the Author: Aaron Stuber is a Registered Nurse, Health Coach, Board Certified Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner, athlete and father of two. He runs a private, Lifestyle Medicine and Health Coaching practice in Boulder Colorado. Learn more about him at aaronstuber.com.