Though it may seem like it at your local gym, saunas aren’t just for old guys to sit around in the nude and avoid their spouses for a few more minutes before they leave the gym. Saunas have real, practical use for cyclists of all ability levels.
Recent studies have shown that sauna usage can help with acclimation to hot temperatures¹, increase blood volume and time to exhaustion², and increase red-cell values³. If you’re not using the free one at your gym, you’re really missing out. All these studies have small sample sizes, but produced quite interesting results that show promise in their ability to assist endurance athletes.
The first study, designed to help with acclimation to hot temperatures, monitored seven well-trained male cyclists as they went through a course of exercise that included sauna usage during 10 of the exercise days. Immediately following normal training, they placed the athletes into blisteringly hot saunas (87 °C / 189 °F) for 30 minutes at a time. To assess the training effect, researchers took blood samples and measured heart rate variability daily, while taking sub-maximal cycling test values weekly. Overall, the cyclists saw an 18% increase in blood plasma volume expansion (90 % confidence limits, 7.4:29.2) and moderate reductions in waking heart rate [−10.2 % (90% confidence limits, −15.9:−4.0)].¹ It appears that sauna training can help lower recovery heart rates and increase blood plasma volume, two important components of heat adaptation.
The second study assessed a sauna’s ability to increase time to exhaustion in a workout scenario. This study took six male distance runners and exposed them to three weeks of post-training sauna bathing and compared it to 3 weeks of control training. The sauna was maintained at a slightly higher temperature, this time approaching 90 °C (194 °F). These runners increased their time to exhaustion by 32% (90% confidence limits 21–43%) and increased their blood volumes by approximately 7% (90% confidence limits, 5.6:8.7%).
# Should you get a sauna?
I mean, if you want to, sure, go ahead! If this is the one push you need to install some Finnish cedar, go at it. If not though, I wouldn’t bother.
These studies show some very interesting results and it seems that sauna training could definitely make a difference to endurance performance. But the studies are quite small and, even if they are perfectly accurate, the sauna probably won’t make a large enough difference to justify the cost. If you’re lucky enough to have one at your gym though, use it! Otherwise, you could be missing out on some free performance gains.