My sauna experiment to improve endurance and performance

We’ve had an unusually cold November here in Minnesota – ice, snow, temperatures close to zero with wind chills in the negatives. Each morning, in the pre-dawn darkness, I walk past the enticing, hot sauna en route to my morning swim. It’s tempting to bag the workout and just sit in the sauna. When it’s zero degrees outside, boy, wouldn’t that just feel amazing?

SaunaTurns out, spending more time in the sauna might be just what I need. Over the past few months I’ve been reading more about so-called hyperthermic conditioning, or using heat acclimation to build a physiological tolerance to heat stress and improve fitness. The impact of brief sauna sessions – whether following a workout or even by themselves – on the body’s physiology is quite profound.

Consider these adaptations that occur (which I pulled from one of the most comprehensive articles on the topic written by health and wellness expert Rhonda Patrick on Tim Ferriss’s blog):

  • Improved cardiovascular mechanisms and lower heart rate.
  • Lower core body temperature during workload.
  • Higher sweat rate and sweat sensitivity as a function of increased thermoregulatory control.
  • Increased blood flow to skeletal muscle (known as muscle perfusion) and other tissues.
  • Reduced rate of glycogen depletion due to improved muscle perfusion.
  • Increased red blood cell count (likely via erythropoietin).
  • Increased efficiency of oxygen transport to muscles.

Hyperthermic conditioning is becoming more common among endurance athletes. Many triathletes use saunas to help acclimatize, prepare and simulate race conditions in hot, humid environments, such as the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The practice is also common among professional cyclists, including Taylor Phinney, who used 20-minute sauna sessions after training rides to help him prepare for the Giro d’Italia and other big grand tour races.

My Experiment

When I started structured training again earlier this month I decided to give it a shot and made a point to include deliberate sessions in the sauna. For the past three weeks I’ve capped off my morning 30-45 minute swim workouts with 10 minutes in the sauna. It’s still somewhat early in the process, but I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel in the coming weeks after several more weeks on my protocol. At the beginning of my training block in early November I ran a 5km time trial as a baseline (which was pretty close to my PR, indicating I haven’t lost a ton of fitness from taking a month off, and maybe the sauna use is potentially helping). I’m planning to do another in a couple weeks. Thus far, I feel my fitness going in a good direction, but stay tuned to how things play out.

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