Most athletes don´t like the exposure to intense heat, in fact, most people don´t. But what most likely most people don´t know is that sauna use, or other types of exposure to bursts of intense heat can have great benefits for athletic performance and endurance, overall health and longevity. Frequent sauna use triggers a physiological adaptation process that produces an improvement on endurance, improves our capacity to manage stress and increases muscular mass – hypertrophy. Not only that, It has even been shown that has positive effects on the brain, like better focus, an improvement on memory and learning, and neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells.
Frequent sauna use triggers a physiological adaptation process that produces an improvement on endurance, improves our capacity to manage stress and increases muscular mass – hypertrophy. Not only that, It has even been shown that has positive effects on the brain, like better focus, an improvement on memory and learning, and neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells.
Sauna and effects on sports performance and endurance
Sauna use, and other types of exposure to intense heat bursts and hyperthermic adaptation, improves endurance by forcing a cardiovascular adjustment and a thermoregulatory regulation, minimizing the negative effects associated to sudden increases in body temperature. In other words, when you regularly expose your body to high temperatures, you force him to adapt and that has a carry over effect on endurance, like in long distance run, crossfit work or a sparring session.
This adaptation to bursts of intense heat increases plasma volume and red cells count, which translates directly in a better cardiovascular capacity and a better endurance, lessening stress in the whole system and lowering heart rate for a given training session or workout. It increases blood flow to the tissues, with the subsequent higher delivery of glycogen, fatty acids and oxygen to the cells.
Another important positive effect of heat exposure adaptation is that it activates the sympathetic nervous system, improving our recovering capacity and increasing blood flow to the skin. This helps enormously in our ability to thermoregulate, triggering sweat at a colder body temperature and prolonging it longer. This, in terms of performance and endurance, is huge advantage.
Sauna and increase in muscle mass – hypertrophy
This is yet another advantage of regular and frequent sauna use and heat exposure, especially for athletes.
Your body is in a constant process of building new proteins and breaking down damaged and under performing ones. Your muscle gain, or loss, is the net result of this constant process of making new proteins from amino-acids and the destruction of existing ones. Heat adaptation diminishes the degradation of existing proteins, expanding its lifespan and contributing to an increase in the net result of this process, thus precipitating hypertrophy, that is, more muscle mass. This happens for several reasons, one of the most important being that heat boosts Heat Shock Proteins (HSP), a type of proteins that proliferate with stress. An HSP increase has a rippling effect in the production of growth hormone and improves insulin sensitivity, all three working synergically and resulting in more muscle tissue. Insulin is endocrine hormone produced in the pancreas, its main function is energy storage and transport to the cells, but it also plays an important role in the metabolism of proteins.
Sauna and runner´s high
For sure you must have heard that endorphines produced by the body are responsible for that pleasant sensation and feeling we get after an intense workout or a long run. But there is more to it than just that.
Beta-endorphins are endogenous opioids responsible for the blocking of pain signals from the body, basically they prevent these signs from reaching the brain, where we actually ¨feel¨ the pain. That´s why get in that satisfying state after a exhausting training session. A lesser known fact is that during exercise the body produces other substance, dynorphin, that makes us feel dismayed and even unhappy. This is called dysphoria and it is the state of uncomfort we need to overcome during training. The production of dynorphins are also triggered by other forms of stress, like very spicy food, or extreme heat… like sauna. This is how it works: The body produces beta-endorphins (good feeling, after workout) after the secretion of dynorphin (discomfort during workout), to compensate, and it overshoots.
That is the reason behind positive mood effects of the frequent sauna use, it has been shown that high heat exposure produces and substantial increment in endorphins production by the body, even higher that after an intense workout.
Heat therapy has played an important role in the culture and health of northern population in Scandinavia and Russia for generations. Today, its use is becoming increasingly widespread among elite athletes and health and longevity fanatics. Benefits are enormous… but act cautiously!
This is not a scientific paper and it is not meant to be medical advice of any type. Please be cautious and ask your doctor before trying any kind of heat therapy.