Are saunas the new steroids?
We’ve known for a long time that saunas have amazing health benefits.
But one of the recent discussions around saunas, relates to it’s potential to improve athletic performance through hyperthermic conditioning.
So, are saunas the new performance enhancing drug for endurance athletes? Could they be a legal way of enhancing your performance?
What is hyperthermic conditioning?
Here’s the science part.
Hyperthermic conditioning is the scientific term for what happens to your body when you put it into extreme heat conditions (such as a sauna). There are a few physiological changes that happen when your body is exposed to this level of heat:
1. Plasma volume increases (plasma is the substance that carries the white and red blood cells + platelets through the body). This improves blood flow. So the heart doesn’t have to work as hard BUT still delivers the same volume of blood ie. lowers heart strain.
2. Increases blood flow to your muscles. This delivers essential nutrients to them more effectively. Allows you to recover faster by disposing of lactic acid. And it allows you to run/train for longer before running out of ‘fuel’.
3. Improves ability to gain lean muscle. There is evidence to suggest that exposure to the heat triggers a response which helps protect protein from being broken down. At the same time Human Growth Hormone (HGH) production is triggered and insulin sensitivity is improved.
There is increasing evidence to show that these processes could help to increase endurance, lower the heart rate and increase the ability to gain lean muscle.
But what does the science really say?
Our expert, Colin Thomas, The Marathon Guy, took a look at the evidence on saunas and endurance training to see what the data showed.
Can a sauna really make you run faster?
Could it be the next performance boosting drug?
Many elite endurance athletes rely on saunas as part of their regular training programme. Is this a wise use of their time? Or should they be focussing their efforts on something else?
What the research says on saunas and performance enhancement...
There is limited but positive evidence to support the benefits of saunas to endurance training.
The most well reference study was by Scoon et all, 2007. The small study involved 6 male distance runners and took place in New Zealand. It concluded that 12 sauna sessions of 30 minutes each over three weeks, increased endurance performance by 19%. This was put down to an increase of 3.5% in red blood cell count and 7% plasma volume. Red blood cells are required to carry Oxygen around the body. So, the more red blood cells you have, the more Oxygen that gets from your lungs to your working muscles.
This study supports the predicted physiological changes that happen during hyperthermic conditioning.
Another study, King et al. 1985, concluded that the hyperthermic training increased blood flow to working muscles. This in turn, increases the delivery of glucose, which is muscles primary source of fuel.
Ricardo et al, 2011 also noted an improvement in thermoregulatory control. Acclimatising to the heat in the sauna increased blood flow to the skin. And increased sweat rate, which lowered the core body temperature. Therefore the exercise was more sustainable without the body overheating.
There is certainly some evidence which positively supports the use of saunas as part of an endurance athletes performance. But just how much it affects overall performance is still lacking.
There is certainly no harm in adding it in as part of your training routine. Just don’t give up the exercise yet.