For many people, the sauna is an important part of their training routine. Some people like to use the sauna to get warm and dialed in before their workout, while others see the sauna as the perfect way to unwind and relax following an intense training session.
There is a myriad of benefits to using the sauna. But are you getting the most out of your time in the sauna? Should you use the sauna before or after a workout?
While there are no major drawbacks to using the sauna before your training, you should use it as a recovery and cool-down tool after your workouts if you really want to maximize the benefits of the sauna.
In this article, I’m going to break down the benefits and drawbacks of using the sauna before and after exercise. In the end, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to answer the question: should you sauna before or after a workout?
Health Benefits of Sauna Use
There are many benefits to using the sauna for your general health. From managing your stress levels to lung function and even improved sleep, spending time in a sauna can make your life better.
Even if the sauna isn’t part of your training routine, you should consider including it at some point throughout your week. These benefits, when coupled with the benefits of your exercise program, can be life-changing.
Immediate and Sustained Decrease in Hypertension
A study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology found that spending short periods in the sauna had positive effects on lowering systolic and diastolic pressure immediately and 30 minutes following their protocols.
Improvements in Lung Function
This study showed significantly improved lung function parameters for patients with obstructive pulmonary disease.
Can Provide Many of the Same Benefits of Exercise
A study published in The Annals of Clinical Research demonstrated that an ordinary sauna bath increases cardiac workload by about as much as moderate or vigorous walking.
Reduction of Chronic Tension Headaches
Regular sauna usage is a simple treatment that can be effective for reducing headache pain intensity in chronic tension-type headings (CTTH).
Antiaging Benefits for Skin via Collagen Production
The hot air and the humid environment of the sauna help increase your body’s collagen production. This collagen helps increase skin elasticity, thus reducing wrinkles and improving complexion.
Stress Reduction and Relaxation
Medical Conditions and Practice found that regular sauna use reduced the risk of psychotic disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Using a Sauna Before a Workout
To answer the question, “Is the sauna better before or after a workout?” it’s important to understand the pros and cons of using the sauna at these times.
There are a few benefits and quite a few drawbacks to using the sauna before working out. Here’s a list of the most important ones.
Benefits of Sauna Use Before Workouts
It Gives You Time To Warm Up
I don’t mean just physically warm up, I mean mentally. Some days it’s difficult to flip that switch to “on” the minute you walk into the gym. Taking time in the sauna gives you a buffer to get your mind right and prepare for your workout.
You Get a Sweat Going
The purpose of a warm-up is partly to get a sweat going. Hopping in the sauna before your workout can fast-track that process and make you feel warm and ready to go.
Drawbacks of Sauna Use Before Workouts
Autonomic Nervous System Shift to “Rest and Digest”
The autonomic nervous system is something you don’t have direct control over, but it regulates things like your breathing, heart rate, and blood flow.
There are parasympathetic “rest and digest” states and sympathetic “fight or flight” states. Studies have shown that after spending time in the sauna, you get a parasympathetic shift. This is not ideal for training because your body may not be primed to handle the stress you’re about to put it through.
Can Reduce Blood Flow to the Muscles
When you get hot, the body works to cool you down via sweat and heat exchange. Being in a hotter environment takes blood away from the muscles and places it in the skin so that your body can shed unwanted heat. So even though you feel warm, you still need to move around to get blood flow back to the working muscles.
Sweating is one of the ways the body cools off when you get too hot. Water is released through the pores in the skin and then evaporates, offering a cooling effect.
Being in a hot environment for too long without replenishing water can throw off your electrolyte balance and leave you dehydrated. This will decrease your performance in the gym.
Loss in Water Weight
This one is a bit nitpicky on my part but still worth mentioning.
Mass moves mass. This means that even a pound or two lost in weight (even water weight) prior to training can decrease your ability to move as much weight as possible. Less weight equals less tension. Less tension equals less growth.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Using a Sauna After a Workout
Below is a list of the most important benefits and drawbacks of using the sauna after working out.
Benefits of Sauna Use After Workouts
Improved Muscle Recovery
Temperatures above 42 degrees C (107 degrees F) increase heat shock protein synthesis. These proteins are important for recovery, as they’re involved in the folding and unfolding of proteins to protect them from damage. They’re also involved in the breaking down of damaged protein structures, which helps speed up recovery.
Promotes the Central Nervous System to “Rest and Digest” State
This parasympathetic “rest and digest” state promotes recovery. When you train, you’re in a sympathetic state, so you need to shift from that “fight or flight” state to recover. Spending time in the sauna speeds up that process.
Drawbacks of Sauna Use After Workouts
Can Put You in a Catabolic State
Dehydration is a potential outcome of using the sauna before or after your workout. Inside you, water binds to glycogen (muscle sugar), which ensures good availability of energy for your muscles to recover.
Being dehydrated (as little as 5%) can negatively affect the availability of these nutrients. This can lead to you being in a catabolic state, or a state of breakdown.
Following exercise, you want to be in an anabolic state, or a state of building/repair. Mauro Di Pasquale wrote about this in his book Amino Acids and Protein for the Athlete.
Dehydration can lead to cramping. After sweating throughout your workout, spending time in a hot environment can pull blood (and water) from the muscles and take them to the skin for heat exchange. This can lead to cramping.
Sauna Before or After a Workout: Which One is Best?
Using the sauna either before or after exercise can be a great addition to your training regimen. That said, if you want to maximize the benefits while minimizing the drawbacks of using the sauna, you should sauna after your workout.
The benefits of a sauna after your workout far outweigh the drawbacks, and those drawbacks can be mitigated fairly easily. The biggest drawback to a sauna post-exercise is potential dehydration. You can reduce those risks by drinking plenty of water during and after your workout.
The most important reason the sauna is better after your workout is its ability to aid in muscle recovery and promote a quicker recovery in general. The shift to parasympathetic nervous system dominance following sauna use is important following training and definitely not something you want before training.
The sauna’s ability to increase heat shock protein synthesis is another good reason to use the sauna after your workouts. The goal in training is to damage your muscle cells so that they can be repaired and grow back bigger and stronger. These heat shock proteins help to facilitate that healing and create healthier, more vibrant cells.
How Long Should You Be in the Sauna?
There are three types of saunas that get used frequently by the general public: infrared saunas, steam rooms, and traditional dry saunas.
Most of you reading this probably have access to a traditional or dry sauna to use before or after your workout. But if your gym has any of the other types of saunas, don’t fret because the rules are all pretty much the same.
Most of the studies cited in this article used a protocol of about 30 minutes, but you can find some great benefits in the 10-15 minute range. As long as you can get to the point of a little relaxation, a little bit of a sweat, and an increase in body temperature, you should be good to go.
On the flip side, don’t stay in a sauna longer than you can tolerate. You don’t really get extra points for those extra minutes.
If you want to use the sauna before or after your workout to lose weight, you should also be mindful of how long you stay in it. Any weight you lose from the sauna will be water weight that you’ll quickly regain once you eat and drink again. Staying in the sauna longer than necessary just to lose another pound or two isn’t worth it.
To ensure your safety, leave the sauna immediately and get help if you experience dizziness, lightheadedness, or trouble breathing.
If your gym doesn’t have a sauna, you can get some of the same benefits by using a sauna suit, However, take extra care to ensure you understand the limitations of these suits, such as the risk of an abnormally high body temperature.
So, should you do the sauna before or after a workout? All the evidence points to after. The sauna has proven to be an excellent recovery tool that I don’t think gets used nearly often enough.
The biggest factor in this being better for recovery is the sauna’s ability to help create a parasympathetic shift in your autonomic nervous system. This shift primes your brain and muscles for recovery, leading to better performance the next time you work out.
While you can definitely use the sauna before you train, save the sauna for after your workouts if you’re really trying to maximize its benefits.
About the Author
Connor Lyons is a graduate of the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He spent the past 14 years as a strength and conditioning coach in both the NCAA setting and the private sector working with NFL, MLB, ATP, and NHL athletes. He is a former NCAA hockey player and was the strength and conditioning coach for USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Team which captured gold in 2018. He now owns The Lyons Den Sports Performance just outside of Tampa, Florida.