Nothing compares to a relaxing session in the sauna room at the gym. There are plenty of benefits both for your overall well-being, body, and mind. However, depending on the results you expect, there might be an optimal time for you to go.
Should you use a sauna before or after a workout? While there are benefits for using the sauna both before and after a workout, it depends greatly on the goals you hope to achieve by using it. Pre-workout, the heat limbers your muscles for a successful workout. After, you’ll increase your overall athletic endurance.
So, based on the goals you have for your own fitness journey, we can determine where it’s better to hit the sauna before or after your workout, or even if you should enjoy a stand-alone sauna session. Let’s look at your options.
Using the Sauna Before Your Workout
Let’s start with how to use the sauna before a workout. The biggest reason you might consider sitting in a hot room before you get your sweat on is to pre-emptively loosen and “warm-up” your muscles and joints, but there are other benefits, as well.
Warming Up Your Muscles with the Sauna
Most gym-goers stretch before diving right into a straining workout. However, it’s not effective to stretch cold muscles as it can lead to injury. Instead, you should start your workout with a warm-up, followed by mild stretching, and then proceed into more rigorous activity. That said, most people don’t want to do a mile run before they work out.
As an alternative, you can sit in the steam room or sauna to increase your body temperature. Then, when you start your workout with stretches, your muscles will respond to the activity, and you’ll be less likely to suffer a careless injury. To maximize your flexibility, you could stretch while in the sauna. Be mindful and respectful of others in the room, though.
Ease Your Heart into the Workout
The heat from the room helps relax your muscles, and it also gets your heart rate up in preparation for your workout. As you warm-up, your blood begins to pump faster.
In this way, sitting in the sauna for a few minutes before you hit the gym floor can serve as a warm-up to your warm-up. For those who are out of practice, it’s a gentle way to introduce your heart to the exercise that is to come.
So, Who Most Benefits from Pre-Workout Sauna Use?
While a mini session in the sauna before a workout is a nice warm-up for any athlete, the real benefit is for the casual exerciser.
Someone who does a little bit of weightlifting and goes for a short run just as a way to stay fit could see real improvement in their performance.
Likewise, people who aren’t planning to incorporate cardio activity into their workout should consider a pre-workout schvitz. Yogis, weightlifters, Pilates class-takers, and ballerinas all need to start their workout with warm, pliable muscles that are ready to take work. For these types of people, yes, using a sauna before working out is best.
A Word of Warning about Pre-Workout Sauna Use
There aren’t many major downsides to pre-workout sauna use, but you will still want to take note of a couple of things. First of all, if you sweat heavily while you’re lounging in the sauna, you may become dehydrated. That’s why it’s important to drink plenty of water before and after sitting, as well as throughout your workout.
Also, while saunas can be a relaxing experience, it may be a little too relaxing. If you’re planning on doing a high-energy workout, you may find it difficult to get hyped for harder activity. Combat this by monitoring your body in the sauna and leaving just after your muscles feel warm and limber.
Using the Sauna After Your Workout
Many people use the sauna after their workout as a way to wind down, especially after an intense session.
A post-workout recovery in the sauna is great for a number of reasons. While it may help your body flush out toxins through your sweat, it can definitely help your body look and feel good in other ways, too.
Increase Your Endurance
Obviously, the sauna is a popular hangout amongst athletes and exercise fanatics. This is because sauna bathing can trick your body into thinking your workout is still going on.
That means the response of high blood flow and oxygen use continues, building your stamina and endurance. So, while you chat with your workout buddy about birdies or reps, your heart continues to power on.
A study followed a group of distance runners who sat in a sauna post-training for a 30-minute session, four times a week. their performance improved by 32 percent, and they were able to cut their 5K run time by 2 percent after three weeks.
Natural Performance Enhancement
Many people say that using the sauna afterward will only cause dehydration, and they’re not wrong. However, when you’re dehydrated, your blood volume drops. Oxygen decreases, and this causes your kidneys to create EPO and plasma volume. Both of these are optimal performance enhancers.
Adapt to High Heat Situations
Also of note, using the sauna after working out is ideal for people who run or compete in sports at a high altitude or in extreme heat. Because the body gets used to the sauna temperature after regular use, it is less likely to react negatively to extreme heat temperatures.
Reduced Soreness the Next Day
While this is included as a post-workout benefit, it’s true of a non-workout related schvitz as well. Especially with use in an infrared sauna, the heat of the room helps your blood to carry oxygen to worn muscles.
This decreases pain. In addition, studies have shown that stretching in the sauna helps reduce soreness, allowing you to continue working out at high intensity for the rest of the week.
While it’s certainly no replacement for your workout, adding a sauna session after your workout might help you lose a couple of pounds if done properly. The average sauna user will lose roughly one pint of water during a session, and you will see that on the scale, but remember to replace that fluid by drinking water to avoid becoming ill.
So, no, you’re not going to drop a pound just sitting there sustainably. It’s a temporary benefit.
However, regularly sitting in the sauna post-workout can help to increase caloric expenditure, build your endurance, and increase your heat tolerance.
This leaves you able to perform tougher workouts that will help you in your weight loss journey. So, while just sitting in the sauna is not a sustainable way to lose weight, adding a session on top of your regular workout and nutritional regime can help.
How Many Calories Can You Burn in a Sauna?
Speaking of using a sauna to lose weight, you are more than likely curious if you can burn a ton of extra calories if you add some sauna time to your exercise routine. Well, the truth is that the number of calories you’ll burn is practically minuscule.
Saunas should never be used to replace your typical workout routine. Not only will doing so make you feel miserable, but you’re highly likely to become extremely dehydrated as well.
General Benefits of Sauna Use
Now that you’ve read through the benefits of workout-related sauna use, let’s talk about general sauna use. In this section, we’re focusing on the benefits of sitting in a sauna, even if you’re enjoying a session on its own. Take note, because these benefits are added on to the great things that happen with pre- or post-workout heat sessions.
Boost Brain Function
Believe it or not, using a sauna may also help prevent cognitive diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. A study done in Finland found that those who used the sauna between 4 to 7 times per week were at 66 percent lower risk for dementia than those who visited less frequently. And that is a benefit whenever you use a sauna.
This one seems obvious, but why does this happen? Stress causes your muscles to tighten up, and your blood flow slower. This is an evolutionary survival response. While your email inbox may not chase you like a lion, your body still reacts like that’s what’s happening.
To combat the stress response, half an hour in the sauna will increase your blood flow and loosen those tense muscles. This allows causes your body to release endorphins. Endorphins are a natural muscle relaxer, and they allow your body to relax without distractions from the outside world completely.
Improve Your Heart Health
The act of reducing stress levels while in the sauna also contributes to the improvement of one’s cardiovascular health. This makes sense considering the heat works to open up your blood vessels and increase blood flow. As a note, using a sauna may contribute to good heart health, but it should never replace typical exercise.
Saunas, specifically infrared types, have been known to help relieve seasonal and other environmental allergy symptoms. One study found that infrared saunas could be used to improve the autonomic nervous system, which is what triggers your body’s reaction to environmental allergies. The good news is that you can enjoy this benefit no matter when you use the sauna.
We included a section on the benefits of sauna-sitting after a workout. However, you should also know that stand-alone schvitzing can help you manage chronic pain, as well.
One study showed that saunas could reduce inflammation and help those suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or fibromyalgia. Another showed that arthritis sufferers benefited from regular sauna bathing, reporting more mobility.
How to Safely Use the Sauna?
As beneficial as saunas can be, they’ll only help if used correctly. No matter when you use it, doing it the wrong way can lead to serious health problems and potentially put you in grave danger. Depending on your situation, you may be advised against using a sauna at all.
Talk to Your Doctor Before Use
While it can help maintain good heart health, you should consult with your doctor first if you have any type of cardiovascular disease. Because saunas fluctuate your blood pressure, you’ll want to speak to your doctor if you recently suffered a heart attack or you suffer from low blood pressure.
Do Not Go from Hot to Cold
It’s also inadvisable to use the sauna before going into a swimming pool. Going from extreme heat to cold can cause your blood pressure to spike. Some cultures swear by taking a plunge into an ice bath to refresh post-sauna. This should be avoided as it can cause your heart to go into shock.
Limit Your Time
Regardless of when you bathe in the sauna, limit your time to 20 minutes tops. If you are just starting, stick to a 5-minute session, working up to 10 minutes over a couple of weeks. For a pre-workout sweat, 5 to 10 minutes is adequate. Post-workout, a longer time may feel good but stick to a 20-minute maximum.
Saunas and Babies Do Not Mix
First of all, never bring a child or a baby into the sauna. Their little bodies are not suited to the high heat, and even 5 minutes can put them in serious danger. That said, pregnant women are also advised against using a sauna.
The high heat can cause fetal death, preterm labor, and other complications. Additionally, there is already excessive stress on a pregnant woman’s heart, and the sauna can push her toward preeclampsia.
Drink Plenty of Water
Most importantly, be aware of your hydration level. People who suffer from kidney disease or diabetes are at a higher risk than others and should take extra precautions to stay hydrated. If you become too dehydrated while in the sauna, you may feel dizziness or nausea.
While mild thirst isn’t always a cause for concern, more severe dehydration isn’t something to take lightly. Be on the lookout for these symptoms:
- Constant thirst
- Dry mouth
- Fatigue or sleepiness
- Headaches and dizziness
- Less urine output/more yellow urine
If you’re experiencing these, you’re dehydrated and need to drink water as soon as possible. If you don’t take care of the problem, you could develop urinary and kidney problems, seizures, or even low blood volume shock (SOURCE).
Other Safety Precautions
Even if you’re considered to be “healthy,” you still need to take certain precautions to avoid an unexpected trip to the hospital. Here are some general guidelines:
- No Alcohol in the Sauna. Going into a sauna drunk, or even tipsy, will cause dehydration, hypotension, arrhythmia, and possibly death.
- Don’t Use the Room if You’re Sick. While it may seem smart to induce a fever, you can cause a host of other issues, and possibly spread your illness to others. Try a warm bath at home, instead.
- Be Mindful of Your Fertility. Men who plan on impregnating their partner are advised that high heat can reduce sperm count and lower chances of conceiving. Women are advised that increased body heat reduces the chances of successful implantation and maintenance of a newly implanted zygote.
- Leave the electronics out the door. Not only will the extreme heat melt the inner workings of your phone or music player, but any steam in the room will also kill your electronics. It’s best to leave these things in a locker. Unplug and just enjoy the experience.
Dressing Appropriately for the Sauna
If you’re using the sauna before your workout, your clean workout clothes are fine. However, do not wear your street shoes inside. Designate a pair of shower shoes, or foam flip flops as your sauna shoes. This will prevent Athlete’s Foot and you won’t track in anything unseemly.
If you are bathing post-workout, first consider a rinse in the shower. Change into a towel, or loose-fitting, clean cotton clothes. Do not wear your stinky, sweaty, workout gear as it is rude to other sauna-goers and doesn’t do your skin any favors.
If you choose to remove your clothing altogether, please be discreet and wear a towel. Not everyone wants to see your birthday suit. While it’s a common practice among certain cultures to steam in the nude, not everyone is comfortable with that, and you should be considerate.
Finally, do not wear a sauna suit. Not only are you increasing your chances of severe dehydration, but you are also using a plastic product in a high heat situation. That means that your suit is releasing potentially toxic fumes into a small, enclosed room. This is dangerous and highly inconsiderate of your fellow sauna users.
The Verdict: Is Sauna Use Best Before or After a Workout?
When comparing whether it’s better to use the sauna before or after a workout, it truly depends on your reason for using it. If you’re just an average joe who goes to the gym to stay healthy, using it beforehand is better. However, if you’re an endurance athlete or you spend time running or competing in extreme heat, using the sauna afterward is your best bet.