Lukus Klawitter M.S

Oofta, hopefully if you are looking outside right now it is not dumping multiple inches of snow on your beloved running and cycling roads.  It is currently a balmy 28 degrees here in Fargo and the parking lots haven’t been plowed in two days.  But that is ok, thankfully endurance runs in knee deep snow can be fun at times, treadmills can pretend to be any mountain climb or any fast surface you want, and the world of bike trainers and power meters have become so advanced starring directly at three little numbers for multiple hours can still be fun…

The winter months are the building blocks of every race season.  This is the time we become more fat adapted, increase mitochondrial density, and increase the force capacity our muscles can generate.  Next post will discuss the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes but now I am going to focus on the absolutely freaking beautiful performance enhancing little room we have available at most fitness centers, the sauna.

The Finnish Sauna dates to ancient times.  The Finns have used the sauna for recovery in military training, recovery for Olympic athletes, child birthing, stress releasing, or just a social get together hour for years.  The typical Sauna is roughly 85 degrees Celsius and 15-20% humidity. Over recent years research has been done on the many benefits the sauna has in a clinical setting.  Sauna bathing has been shown to benefit patients with cardiovascular diseases or symptoms of cardiovascular disease, patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and a treatment for the basic cold.  Benefits have been reported by only adding a couple 15 to 30-minute sessions to a typical week.

The clinical benefits alone are enough of a reason to incorporate sauna sessions into a regular weekly routine.  However, the benefits on performance with endurance athletes are especially exciting.  When we swim, bike, or run our body temperature increases due to increased blood flow to the working muscles.  Additionally, our heart rate increases, the amount of blood pumped out with each beat increases, sweat rate increases, and our muscles produce force to drive the movement.  Well, sitting in a sauna has similar effects.  The sauna causes our body temperature to rise, more blood is being sent as we are trying to cool ourselves, sweat rate increases, and a few studies have shown that there are similar effects placed on the muscle similar too hypertrophy training BUT without the catabolic effects that takes place when stressing the muscle under load, like in cycling, running, or lifting weights.  Sauna bathing also elicits similar blood adaptations as living at altitude or training in heat.  Therefore, it can be a useful tool in preparation for racing at altitude or preparing for hot climates.

Alright, so now that we understand the benefits from sauna bathing.  There has not been much or any research to my knowledge on a proper training plan or intervention to supplement sauna bathing with training.  Researchers have stated that it is best to get into the sauna immediately after a training session due to the already elevated body temperature.  But nothing states what is recommended.  Understanding proper supplementation to elicit the greatest benefits in athletes has been my current research within my Ph.D. program.  I performed a fun case study with a buddy who is a former Division 1 defensive back and is now into power lifting.  I wanted to see the effects sauna bathing had on HRV in a resistance training athlete and an endurance training athlete (myself).  We measured out current HRV readings via a max pulse pulsometer, then performed four weeks of endurance or resistance training and immediately following three of those session we sat in a sauna for 15-minutes.  Now the sauna promotes dehydration and additional stress, so it can affect recovery.  Therefore, we kept it to three sessions for 15-minutes to prevent too much fatigue.  Following the four-week intervention we both had drastic improvements in our HRV, learning that our stress resistance greatly increased, and our sympathetic activity greatly decreased in a resting position.

More research needs to be done on the best utilization for incorporating sauna bathing with training (I’m working on it…) but the reported benefits alone are enough reason to start getting in a sauna after a few training sessions.  I mean it sounds pretty awesome to get greater training adaptations by just sitting in a hot room after a training session when muscle fatigue or soreness is too high to continue training.  OR just prevention of injury.  If anyone wants more detail or has more questions about sauna bathing feel free to email me any time.

Until next time, keep stacking bricks.