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Sauna is traditionally used as a heat relaxation therapy process, where individuals are required to enter a confined, wooden enclosure with temperatures raised by dripping water over heated rocks. In fact, other than its stress relieving effects, studies have shown that athletes can benefit from the use of saunas as one of their avenues for performance enhancement and recovery purposes.
In 2006, a study placed a small group of runners through sauna post workout therapy research.
Their 5k treadmill run to exhaustion records were later tabulated and revealed that incorporating post workout sauna therapy resulted a 30% increase in their time to exhaustion, this is said to have an equivalent translation of about 2% improvement in actual race conditions.
This result can likely be explained by sauna’s positive effect in enhancing the body’s aerobic capacity through increasing haemoglobin production. This means that, oxygen can now be more effectively carried from the lungs to the rest of the body, thereby facilitating greater endurance and also VO2 Max.
Adapting to the Heat
Regular sauna use helps the body handle workouts in hot weather better – also known as heat acclimation.
The heat primes the body to sweat more efficiently, helping the athlete sustain lower body temperatures throughout the workout session.
Enhanced Cardiovascular System
An approximately 20 minutes sauna exposure is said to put the body through similar stresses akin to a short, moderately intense exercise session.
Research has shown that blood pressure and heart rate are heightened inside the sauna and gradually decrease back to normal once out of it, this is similar to the effect of having exercised.
However, this does not mean that physical exercises can be entirely stopped and replaced. A sauna setting might be good for the heart, but its inherent sedentariness does nothing for muscle and physical function development.
During exercise, the strains placed on the muscles create micro tears or “microtrauma”, which is the main cause of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). DOMS usually occur a day after the bout of exercise, as it can have impeding effects to daily function.
Some studies have claimed that sauna helps to relieve muscle soreness through increasing blood circulation around the body.
Points to note when using the Sauna
- Always seek medical advice if in doubt or if you have underlying medical conditions that might be aggravated through sauna use
- Limit your sauna time, a 15 to 20 minutes session (maximum of 2 to 3 times a week) will be adequate, however, do listen to your body and exit the room if feeling unwell.
- Keep yourself hydrated before and after the session
- Avoid any form of alcoholic beverages before the session
- Do not overstress your body by drastically cooling down after session. Make sure to let your body cool down gradually.
- Try to use a sauna with one or more companions and make sure you are aware of the location of the emergency switch.