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Is the Sauna good for recovery?

This week we have a question from Brian, one that has had me go out and do some reading to ensure I gave the best answer.

Here’s what Brian asks:

“A question? Do you rate saunas as a recovery aid?

I've recently started using one about 5 times a week after exercise and notice that I'm definitely not as sore as I used to be.

In fact all my old shoulder stiffness is practically gone. Perhaps the 10 minute lazy swim that follows also helps.


Good question

The simple answer is blood flow.

The sauna increases your body temperature so you push blood out to the muscles and extremities to try and cool.

This brings Nutrition and carries away any waste from the muscle cells, which is exactly what we need for healing/recovery.

It has been shown in studies that “sauna bathing” can raise the heart rate and has been recorded as high as 150 BPM, although that does seem to be in response to extreme sauna heat.

But raising the heart rate to the 100 BPM and up is not uncommon.

This is due to increased cardiac output, i.e. the heart is pushing harder. There seems to be no change in stroke volume which is how much blood is pushed per beat.

You are pumping the blood faster around the body, mostly towards the surface, away from the internal organs.

Sounds a lot like cardio to me!

The heat and humidity opens the lungs making breathing easier, blood is pumped around the extremities by a heart beating at a rate of 100- 150 BPM.

That is aerobic training.

In fact, the only real warnings I could find contraindicating the use of saunas was for those people with cardiac type problems. But in some of the research, this is questioned as there doesn’t seem to be evidence for linking deaths in a post sauna window with pre existing heart problems. So the advice is precautionary, but it’s up to you whether you take heed of it or not.

What is a factor in deaths post sauna?


Take from that what you will.

So what about Brian’s shoulder?

We actually do not know.

While the research does show people with rheumatoid arthritis report feeling improvements after sauna use, there’s simply nothing to explain why.

We can suppose, we can make guesses. But we can’t say for definite why our hero is finding his shoulder issues improve.

So what can we suppose?

Is the swim helping as our hero suggests?

I would say so. Movement helps almost all things.

The sauna?

Well, let’s look at the common ground between movement and sauna.

And that is, at the most basic, the lowest common denominator, blood flow.

Blood carries all the nutrition, all the oxygen, the amino acids and so on.

The difference between movement and sauna is maybe the tissue stimulation.

Joints like to move, the synovial fluid is akin to oil lubricating the joints.

However, if movement is an issue, perhaps sauna gives many of the same benefits, without the risk of aggravating the tissues.

And then there are these things called “Heat Shock Proteins”

These are basically stress proteins, they respond to temperature change be it heat or cold. As well as other forms of environmental stress, be that illness, inflammation, oxygen debt and more.

These proteins are complex little buggers. But in essence they make sure everything is working as best it can.

They ensure regular proteins cross the cell barriers, they carry away broken/dead cells and have a direct effect on the immune system.

Here’s the interesting thing, because they stimulate the immune system, promoting healing, this can also spark an autoimmune response. But, and this is fascinating, this increase in immune response can potentially reduce the autoimmune diseases power as it gets “bored” of the upregulation of the immune system.

Kind of a graduated exposure treatment, like used by CBT practitioners for phobias and the like.

This is all good in theory, we still know very little for definite. At least as far as I can see.

So, long story short, are saunas good?

Well, unless you have heart issues or you’re pregnant, there seems to be absolutely no downsides.

And as I often tell folk, if you believe it is helping you, then it is helping you.

Above we’ve looked at some of the maybe’s for how it might be helping, but that’s not nearly as important as you believing it helps.


Dave Hedges

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