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Guest article from Velocity Sports Performance

In the pursuit of optimal health and performance, we should first focus on diet, exercise, and sleep. But deliberate heat exposure, specifically through sauna use, may help us achieve our goals. Its another powerful tool we can use.

Sauna use has been linked to a myriad of health benefits, from boosting growth hormone levels to enhancing endurance and promoting overall wellness.

So, in this article, we’ll explore specific sauna protocols for different goals, drawing on insights from recent research on sauna use and the effects.


Sauna protocols for heat acclimation have been extensively researched and used in elite sports.

Sauna Protocols for Heat Acclimation & Endurance

With the 2022 FIFA World Cup being played in the heat of Qatar and the predictions for a very hot 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the sports science community was interested in heat acclimation. Because of this, research increased on sauna for heat acclimation.

Passive heat acclimation through sauna use can help improve performance in both hot and temperate weather. Three weeks of consistent sauna use can give a slight boost to endurance performance.

Protocol: Spend 15-30 minutes in the sauna as close to after training as possible, followed by 5 minutes of passive rest or a shower. Repeat this for 1-2 rounds, 3-4 times a week for 3 weeks, aiming for a total of 30 minutes.

Scientific Evidence: There is a growing body of good evidence (1,2,3,4,18) . Studies have demonstrated that passive heat acclimation through sauna use can improve performance in both hot and temperate climates.

Explanation: Heat acclimation increases plasma volume and blood flow to the heart and muscles, improving cardiovascular efficiency and reducing the strain on the body during physical activity. Internal temperature regulation is related to fatigue and managing this may delay fatigue during any prolonged activity.


A large body of research indicates traditional sauna protocols can have a positive impact on wellness and healthspan

Sauna Protocols for Wellness & Longevity

Chronic sauna use has been linked to decreased cardiovascular risk and all-cause mortality. Therefore, it has significant potential to increase health and wellness. The benefits increase with more sessions per week.

Protocol: Spend 12-20 minutes in the sauna, followed by 5-10 minutes in a shower or cold plunge. Repeat this for 1-3 rounds, 2-4 times a week, aiming to accumulate at least 1 hour per week.

Scientific Evidence: There is strong evidence for these benefits with very large and long term studies. Chronic sauna use has been associated with decreased cardiovascular risk and all-cause mortality (5,6,7,8,9)

Explanation: Regular sauna use can improve cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure and arterial stiffness, and increasing heart rate variability. These effects, combined with the stress-reducing properties of sauna use, can contribute to overall wellness and longevity.


Saunas can be used to boost physical and mental recovery

Sauna Protocols for Muscle Soreness, Mental Health & Mood

Sauna exposure can decrease muscle soreness and reduce stress as indicated by Heart Rate Variability (HRV). Users also report higher mood and relaxation after sauna sessions.

Protocol: Spend 12-20 minutes in the sauna, followed by 5-10 minutes in a shower or cold plunge. Repeat this for 1-2 rounds as needed.

Scientific Evidence: There is a growing body of research for a variety of benefits (Sauna exposure can reduce physical stress and improve recovery (10, 12, 13, 14, 15) and improve mood and cognitive function (11,16, 17).

Explanation: The heat from the sauna can help to relax tight muscles and relieve soreness. Additionally, the relaxing environment of the sauna can help to reduce stress and improve mood.


Short term sauna use during injury rehab or heavy training may help boost growth hormone naturally

Sauna Protocols for Growth Hormone Boost

Sauna sessions can provide an immediate boost to growth hormone levels, which is particularly beneficial when healing an injury or during a hard training phase. However, the effects decrease with repeat use, so it’s best to use this protocol periodically.

Protocol: 25-30 minutes in the sauna, followed by 5-10 minutes of passive rest or a shower. Repeat this for 2-4 rounds occasionally, aiming for a total of 1-2 hours.

Scientific Evidence: The evidence is limited currently. Some research has shown that sauna use can lead to an immediate increase in growth hormone levels (19,20,21).

Explanation: The heat stress from the sauna stimulates the pituitary gland to release growth hormone, which aids in tissue repair and growth. This can be particularly beneficial during periods of intense training or injury recovery.


Additional Sauna Protocol Tips

Health Concerns

Remember, if you have health conditions or concerns, consult a health professional to see if sauna use is appropriate for you. Males trying to conceive should generally avoid sauna use and those with cardiac health issues or pregnant should consult their physician (21).

Hydration

Hydration is key when using the sauna. As you sweat, your body loses water and essential electrolytes.

To replenish these losses, it’s recommended to drink at least 16 ounces of water for every 10 minutes you spend in the sauna. Remember to hydrate well before and after your sauna session.

Timing

Your body temperature naturally fluctuates throughout the day in line with your circadian rhythm. To align with your body’s natural cooling phase, consider using the sauna during the afternoon or evening. This “post-cooling sauna effect” can aid in promoting restful sleep at night.

Physiological Costs of Sauna Use

Sauna use is a form of positive stress on the body, known as hormesis. While it can lead to various benefits, it’s important to remember that it is still a form of stress and has a cost (22, 23).

That means your overall training plan needs to account for this added stress. After a sauna session, your body needs time to recover and return to its normal state so avoid use at least 48 hours before competition.

Sauna Protocols Can Be A Powerful Tool

In conclusion, deliberate heat exposure through sauna use can be a powerful tool in your health and performance arsenal.

By understanding and applying the right protocols, you can harness the benefits of the sauna to meet your specific goals. As always, remember to listen to your body, stay hydrated, and enjoy the heat!

TL;DR

Sauna use can provide a range of health benefits, including boosting growth hormone levels, enhancing endurance, and promoting overall wellness. Specific protocols can be used to achieve different goals:

Remember to consult a health professional before starting any new health regimen, stay hydrated, and enjoy the heat!

References
  1. M. Perez-Quintero, et. al., Three weeks of passive and intervallic heat at high temperatures (100±2 °C) in a sauna improve acclimation to external heat (42±2 °C) in untrained males, Journal of Thermal Biology, Volume 96, 2021.
  2. Pokora I, et. al, The Effect of Medium-Term Sauna-Based Heat Acclimation (MPHA) on Thermophysiological and Plasma Volume Responses to Exercise Performed under Temperate Conditions in Elite Cross-Country Skiers. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jun 27;18(13):6906
  3. Bartolomé I, et. al., 3-Week passive acclimation to extreme environmental heat (100± 3 °C) in dry sauna increases physical and physiological performance among young semi-professional football players. J Therm Biol. 2021 Aug;100:103048
  4. Heathcote Storme L. et.al., Passive Heating: Reviewing Practical Heat Acclimation Strategies for Endurance Athletes, Frontiers in Physiology, VOLUME 9, 2018
  5. Rhonda P. Patrick, Teresa L. Johnson, Sauna use as a lifestyle practice to extend healthspan, Experimental Gerontology, Volume 154, 2021
  6.  Hugo Gravel, et. al., Acute Vascular Benefits of Finnish Sauna Bathing in Patients With Stable Coronary Artery Disease, Canadian Journal of Cardiology, Volume 37, Issue 3, 2021
  7. Laukkanen, T., Kunutsor, S.K., Khan, H. et al. Sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and improves risk prediction in men and women: a prospective cohort study. BMC Med 16, 219 (2018)
  8. Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):542–548.
  9. Setor K. Kunutsor, Hassan Khan, Tanjaniina Laukkanen & Jari A. Laukkanen Joint associations of sauna bathing and cardiorespiratory fitness on cardiovascular and all-cause mortality risk: a long-term prospective cohort study, Annals of Medicine, 50:2, 139-
  10. Paweł Sutkowy, Alina Woźniak, Tomasz Boraczyński, Celestyna Mila-Kierzenkowska & MichałBoraczyński (2014) The effect of a single Finnish sauna bath after aerobic exercise on the oxidative status in healthy men, Scandinavian Journal of Clinical and Laborat
  11. Margarita Cernych, Andrius Satas & Marius Brazaitis (2018) Post-sauna recovery enhances brain neural network relaxation and improves cognitive economy in oddball tasks, International Journal of Hyperthermia, 35:1, 375-382,
  12. Ahokas EK, Ihalainen JK, Hanstock HG, Savolainen E, Kyröläinen H. A post-exercise infrared sauna session improves recovery of neuromuscular performance and muscle soreness after resistance exercise training. Biol Sport. 2023 Jul;40(3):681-689
  13. Mero A, Tornberg J, Mäntykoski M, Puurtinen R. Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus. 2015 Jul 7;4:321
  14. Ahokas EK, Ihalainen JK, Hanstock HG, Savolainen E, Kyröläinen H. A post-exercise infrared sauna session improves recovery of neuromuscular performance and muscle soreness after resistance exercise training. Biol Sport. 2023 Jul;40(3):681-689
  15. Ihsan Mohammed , et. al., Skeletal Muscle Signaling Following Whole-Body and Localized Heat Exposure in Humans, Frontiers in Physiology, VOLUME 11, 2020
  16. Chang M, Ibaraki T, Naruse Y, Imamura Y. A study on neural changes induced by sauna bathing: Neural basis of the “totonou” state. PLoS One. 2023 Nov 27;18(11)
  17. Laatikainen, T., Salminen, K., Kohvakka, A. et al. Response of plasma endorphins, prolactin and catecholamines in women to intense heat in a sauna. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. 57, 98–102 (1988)
  18. Kirby NV, Lucas SJE, Armstrong OJ, Weaver SR, Lucas RAI. Intermittent post-exercise sauna bathing improves markers of exercise capacity in hot and temperate conditions in trained middle-distance runners. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2021 Feb;121(2):621-635
  19. Foued Ftaiti F. et. al., Effect of hyperthermia and physical activity on circulating growth hormone. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2008 33(5): 880-887
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