*Disclaimer: The written article is based on a summary of existing literature on the topic of infrared saunas. The article is for educational purposes and the information provided below cannot be taken as a promise to help with acute health problems or diseases. 79 scientific references back the claims in the article. All references are numbered. You can access the text of the reference by clicking on the number.
In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how long you should use a sauna for muscle recovery. Other topics will be covered as well, such as using saunas to increase athleticism, make your muscles less sore, and even to detoxify to help athletic performance.
This blog post is part of a series on the infrared sauna health benefits. If you’re interested, you can read about health benefits such as heart and blood vessel heatlh, diabetes support, stress-reduction, and others.
But the topic of today is muscle recovery. I’ve written earlier blog posts on this topic, such as:
I’ll cover parts of these topics in this blog post, but from the perspective of the optimal time to spend inside a sauna.
Benefits Of Sauna After Workout: When Should You Or Should You Not Use A Sauna?
The Sauna After A Workout Benefits
Below I’ll consider the benefits of using a sauna after workout. I’ll consider several domains, such as blood vessel health and circulation benefits, workout recovery, increases in heat tolerance, and more.
How Long To Sauna For Better Post-Workout Circulation And Blood Vessel Health
Blood circulation is vital for athletes. Without proper circulation, waste products cannot be removed from cells while nutrients won’t end up there (1; 2; 3: 4; 5; 6). But exactly how? Let me make a detour:
“Hyperthermia”, or overheating, causes so-called heat stress on the human body. Heat stress, in turn, activates your “heat shock proteins”. These heat shock proteins are like thermometers of your cells. Once they measure a very low or high temperature, the alarm bells go off and a physiological cascade is put in motion to deal with that heat.
The body thus considers that heat a threat to itself. When humans lived in nature, outside our warm or air-conditioned houses, excess heat or cold could be the end of you. And hence, an evolutionary pathway exists to prevent you from freezing to death or to die from heat stroke.
Now here’s what happens when you put that heat stress on your body:
Your tissues will develop a higher density of “capillaries”. Capillaries are the smallest of blood vessels. These tiny blood vessels are the final step where waste products are removed from your cells and nutrients are moved inside.
The good thing is that the more frequently you use a sauna, the more capillaries are created. These capillaries not only offer better blood flow but also improved oxygenation of your entire body.
Another thing that happens when you activate your heat shock proteins is that Nitric Oxide (NO) is released in your blood vessels. As a result of that NO, blood vessels all across your body expand.
The problem with ageing and sedentary behavour, or a poor diet, is the opposite: eventually our blood vessels and arteries get clogged by a process called atherosclerosis. NO prevents that and frequently releasing NO keeps your blood vessels healthy. The same, moreover, is directly true for the heart - blood flow around the heart improves the more sauna sessions you engage in.
Studies show that using a sauna for just 30 minutes already triggers the creation of new blood vessels and better circulation. For the best results, repeat this proces three to four times weekly.
How Long To Sauna For Quicker Muscle Recovery And Workout Recovery
Lots of studies have investigated the effects of saunas after a workout (7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12; 13; 14; 15; 16). I’ll summarise these studies below:
First of all, spending time inside a sauna is very psychologically relaxing. When comparing the stress levels of athletes if they’re going through an intense workout or whether they’re spending time inside a sauna, the sauna results in far lower stress levels. That fact alone makes the case that after a hard workout, a sauna is a great way to cool down in a psychologically relaxing way.
Saunas still place physiological stress on the body nonetheless. So if you use a sauna before a workout or competition, or an intensive sauna session just before your competition day, expect your performance to go down. That result is exactly what happened in research on swimmers, where three eight-minute sauna sessions the day before a swim reduced their performance.
Moreover, saunas are also the most frequently-used interventions for quicker recovery, next to massages and a long night of sleep. These outcomes have been found in questionnaires with endurance athletes. I do want to emphasise though that you cannot expect quick results here. The reason here, again, is that saunas tend to increase stress in the short term.
For you that means that workout recovery will be impeded in the short term, but enhanced in the long-term as the body adapts. For this very reason many sauna studies show short-term detrimental effects - if you use a sauna once and then test performance it tends to go down. Over time, performance increases though.
Now here’s the deal:
Far infrared light has a benefit over heat alone. With heat I mean heating up the air around you as happens in a traditional sauna. Infrared works very differently. Infrared light penetrates the human body and acts as a type of nutrient to your cells. For instance, infrared light can literally increase energy production in your cells by affecting so-called “mitochondria”. Infrared light can also charge the water in your cells (17).
Infrared light can penetrate the body by up to several centimetres. And, because many systemic effects are triggered by that infrared light penetrating a few centimeters, it can also affect deeper tissues of the body
For that reason, spending 30 minutes in a far infrared sauna with temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius has been proven to increase performance. Far infrared saunas are often deemed much more relaxing and less stressful on the body by users. One reason for being less stressful is that you don’t have to breathe in very hot air during your sessions.
As a result, power output goes up, even in endurance athletes, after a far infrared session. The theory here of researchers is that the far infrared light offered better improvements in the neuromuscular system than a traditional sauna because of the properties of far infrared light. “Neuromusculuar” here means the nervous system and the muscular system, and their interaction.
Secondly, using saunas over time also increases blood volume. That blood volume, in turn, leads to improvements in endurance. The volume of the blood plasma increases, for instance, as does the volume of red blood cells. Remember that red blood cells carry oxygen through out the body and remove CO2 and thus directly affect endurance.
During a 3-week period of three to four sauna sessions per week, sports performance increased by a whopping 2%. You may think that 2% isn’t too much but just think about how much improvement a marathon runner or sprinter would be if they could shave off 2% of their personal best?
And, if these results keep increasing over time, the benefits are mind-boggling.
How Long To Stay Inside A Sauna For Performance Enhancement?
Generally I recommend staying inside an infrared sauna for 30 minutes at the very least, if you’re a healthy athlete. If you’re in poor health - if you have a health condition, for instance - then consult your physician first and take it very slowly. Start with 15 minutes per day and monitor very well whether you recover properly from your sauna sessions.
Also, as stated before, it’s by far best to use a sauna after a workout. Using a sauna before a workout or competition can impair your performance.
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How Long To Stay Inside A Sauna For Improving Heat Tolerance?
One other benefit of saunas is heat acclimation (18; 19; 20; 21; 22; 23; 24; 25; 26; 27). There’s an extreme amount of good evidence for this benefit, meaning that you get acclimated to the heat or increase your heat tolerance.
That benefit is very useful for people who have to exercise or compete in high temperature. Think about ultramarathon runners in the desert, or baseball players who play in a hot climate, or even soccer players during the summer. If you can tolerate heat better, you can perform longer at higher intensities. And thus, you’ll have a massive edge over the competition.
Just three week of sauna bathing after a workout incudes heat acclimation. As a result of that heat acclimation, the maximum oxygen update (VO2 max) increases, as well as workout performance and the way the body deals with lactate.
Lactate is the so-called “pump” that’s induced with very intense activity. That pump is really prominent in 400m sprinters, or 2,000m rowing, or working out in the gym. Breathing capacity (FEV) and resting heart rate also improves.
Blood flow in the extremities also improves, which better helps the body deal with overheating.
This increase in heat tolerance not only helps in hot environments though. Because the lactate threshold is improved, as well as resting heart rate, VO2 max, and breathing capacity, you should theoretically also see performance improvements in cold environments and those with a normal temperature.
For the best results, ensure you get at least three weekly sauna sessions in for three weeks. Use a sauna or infrared sauna as hot as you can stand - assuming you’re in great health to begin with as an athlete. If you have a chronic health condition or more, talk to your physician first and don’t try to build up heat tolerance - general health promotion is more important for you in that case.
So, basically, saunas are amazing for heat acclimation. Let’s move on to another under appreciated benefit:
How Long To Sauna For Better Sleep Quality At Night. And Why Sleep Quality Matters For Athletes
More than 80% of people report better sleep after spending time inside a sauna (28). Good quality sleep is also vital for peak performance, especially at elite levels of performance (29; 30; 31; 32; 33; 34).
Simply put, if you’re sleep deprived, your performance will suffer. And if you frequently don’t sleep sufficiently, both your recovery and performance will suffer big time in the long run. Being an athlete can be an intimidating job though, whether amateur or professional. Not only will you place lots of stress on your body through training, you’ll also have to travel frequently, follow a strict diet, and plan your relaxation.
That act of intentionally having to boost recovery such as through sleep is somewhat paradoxal. And that’s where saunas come in: saunas are an amazing tool to let go and get your body relaxed in a very natural way. Spending time inside the sauna helps release endorphins - natural opioids - which act as painkillers and make you relaxed (35; 36; 37; 38). As an athlete, you thus need to do nothing to become more relaxed in a sauna, and that helps sleep quality in turn.
And although I’d like to see more research on sleep quality and saunas in athletes, the current research is very promising. Athletes preferably use saunas for relaxation and recovery, and most of the human population uses saunas to feel better, so the connection between saunas and sleep quality is very likely.
Many athletes fail to get the recommended amount of sleep, in fact, thereby leaving performance gains on the table. Elite athletes need 8.3 hours on average to feel recovered but generally only get 6.7 hours of quality sleep per night. Only 3% of athletes gets sufficient sleep. If you’re an athlete, try to use an infrared sauna. Start slowly and for short durations, and focus on relaxation at first.
There’s more to the sauna for workout benefits though:
Why Fat Loss Matters For Athletes. And How Long To Use A Sauna For Fat Loss To Improve Athletics
An average sauna session burns about 500-600 kilocalories per session (39, 40). With those numbers, you can lose about 1 pound of body fat per week, assuming all other health strategies in your life remain equal.
And internal weight loss research of Clearlight® together with Birmingham University shows similar results. On average, study participants could lose 1% of body fat per month by using an infrared sauna for 30 minutes per day. If the participants used the sauna after 3 PM though, fat loss levels were doubled. Greater relaxation and activation of the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system were likely responsible for that.
These fat losses are potentially amazing for athletes. There’s a huge drop off in performance once athletes carry around extra fat mass (41; 42; 43; 44; 45; 46). Explosive power and endurance both go down once you carry around excess body fat. Even in high school students, there’s a linear drop off in performance for every percentage of body fat. In males performance declines after 10% body fat and 19% for females.
So if saunas can make you leaner, help you recover, and boost your workout performance, you’ve got a killer tool in your hands. For the best results, use a sauna 30-45 minutes per day, three times per week, to stimulate fat loss for athletic performance.
How Long To Sauna For Sore Muscles?
A few studies show that using a sauna either before or after a workout can reduce muscle soreness (47; 48; 49). Cold therapy generally works even better for the same goal but comes with its own downsides - such as killing long-term performance gains. I therefore recommend using an infrared sauna after your workouts or competitions as the best option.
Some animal studies even show that muscle gains can be improved by using heat after exercise. And, in some cases, heat can prevent the reductions of muscle mass that happen when you don’t use them for a while - such as during injuries.
Overall, I’d like to see some more high-quality studies in humans regarding saunas and reductions of muscle soreness, but current research is very promising. For the best results, use a 30-minute infrared sauna session directly after your workout. If you do the sauna session before your workout, soreness may also be reduced but workout performance likely will so as well.
Can You Stretch In A Sauna? And How Long Should You Stretch Inside A Sauna?
Hot yoga and “Bikram yoga” have become really popular, which is basically just yoga in a hot room. You can also perform that by yourself in a sauna. Bikram yoga has quite a few benefits, such as improving upper and lower body strength, the range of motion of your joints, balance, heart and blood vessel health, stress levels, and more (54; 55; 56; 57).
And, with Birkam yoga you’re killing two birds with one stone…
Why? Well, if you’re inside a sauna anyway, you may as well do something. Birkam yoga isn’t for everyone though, as some people just like to sit down and do nothing and just let go of their day - both approaches are perfect. But for people who don’t like to sit still and do nothing, hot yoga or Birkam yoga is the ideal solution. Of course, you can do that yoga after a workout as well, or just a plain stretching routine.
Your best option is our “Yoga” model - that model has been named that way because there’s plenty of space for doing yoga poses while using a yoga mat. The sauna is also named for its ability to let you do yoga in it - or simple stretching.
And then there’s this:
How Long To Use Near Infrared Light Therapy Or Red Light Therapy Inside A Sauna For Even More Benefits
So far I’ve only talked about either far infrared saunas or traditional saunas for boosting workout performance. However, there’s a method you can use to get even more athletic performance benefits out of your sauna sessions. That method is by adding near infrared light.
There are two main ways to add near infrared light to your sauna experience. Near infrared light has different benefits from far infrared that are totally independent from it.
The first way to add near infrared to your sauna experience is to use a full-spectrum sauna. Full-spectrum saunas combine near, middle, and far infrared for the ultimate therapeutic experience. Secondly, if you have a far infrared sauna or plan on buying one, you can add both red and near infrared light by getting the Red Light Therapy Tower add on. That Red Light Therapy Tower can be added to any of the far infrared Clearlight® saunas.
Here are the benefits of red and near infrared light for your workout performance:
Better workout performance and less fatigue (63; 64; 65; 66; 67; 68; 69).
Faster injury healing and recovery (70; 71; 72; 73; 74).
Enhanced energy production at the cellular level (75; 76; 77; 78; 79).
And other areas, such as sleep quality, well-being, stress reduction, pain, chronic inflammation, and more. All of these areas have huge effects on your sports performance.
Hence, a regular far infrared sauna gives you lots of science-backed benefits. And adding red and near infrared light to that equation such as with a Red Light Therapy Tower makes the benefits for athleticism far better.
Also, our Red Light Therapy Tower is one of the only red light therapy products that can be used while you’re in a sauna, meaning that you won’t spend any more time in your day even though you’re receiving both therapies at once.
Lastly, I briefly have to mention something about downsides:
The Downside Of Using A Sauna Before A Workout Or Competition
If you’ve got a chronic health condition then consult with your physician first before entering a sauna. In some cases, extra caution is necessary, such as with a heart condition or if you’re feeling unwell.
Moreover, if you’re ever dehydrated, or have drunk alcohol, or cannot stand heat for one reason or another, you’ll have to be cautious too.
And, for athletes, it’s important to start slowly with infrared sauna sessions, especially if you’re training really hard. Athletes will have to measure their recovery (such as the resting heart reate or heart rate variability) to ensure they don’t overextend themselves during these sessions. If you go really hard and long with your infrared sauna sessions, your recovery will be impaired. So more is not always better - aim for the Golden Mean.
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