What’s Most Beneficial: a Sauna Before or After Your Workout?
After a workout, the sauna is king. Save the guy with the towel riding a little too low (you do you), and anyone whispering (way too loud) in the corner, it’s damn relaxing.
Relaxation isn’t the main lure for Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D., though. Get your sauna practice right, and you can boost longevity, per Patrick’s recent scientific review published in Experimental Gerontology (1).
Regular sauna use can reduce the risk of death, enhance cardiovascular and brain health, reduce inflammation, enhance muscle recovery, and reduce sarcopenia (or muscle breakdown) which happens naturally with age, according to the review.
To get these benefits, how long and often you use the sauna matters, Patrick told MedCram. Plus, “it’s essential to time your sauna sessions around your workouts just right since it can make or break workout performance,” says Michael Hamlin, NSCA CPT, CSCS.
What’s the best time to sauna—before or after your workout? And how long—and often to hit the sauna? And what’s the best temperature for benefits? Patrick and Hamlin break it down.
Should You Sauna Before or After Your Workout?
It depends on your goal. “Using a sauna before your workout can help initiate the warmup process by increasing blood flow and core body temperature,” says Hamlin. However, he points out it’s no match for a regular pre-workout warmup. It’s important to activate your muscles through a full range of motion before exercise.
“Spending too much time in the sauna before a workout could take away from performance,” says Hamlin. “The sauna requires a great deal of energy from your body but it doesn’t require the same performance as a structured strength workout, sprints, or even a zone 2 cardio workout.” That’s why he recommends capping pre-workout sauna sessions at five minutes to avoid zapping your energy or overheating before a strenuous workout.
Five minutes in the sauna might not be enough to tap into the benefits. “Duration in the sauna seems to matter when it comes to robustness of results,” Patrick says. According to her, the most significant benefits start cropping up between 20 to 30 minutes (1). Exactly why saving the sauna for after your workout might be the better move.
“I like to do it right after my exercise. I hop on my bike then get in the sauna,” says Patrick. “Typically, I’m in the sauna at about 186 degrees, and I’ll stay in anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. I also add hot water on the rocks, to bring the humidity to around 10 to 20 percent.”
Ideal Sauna Temperature, Humidity, and Duration
Patrick has developed her own precise sauna protocol for a traditional Finnish sauna including specific temperature, humidity, and duration ranges. The protocol is based on the exact regimens used in studies that were found to maximize heart and brain health benefits (2, 3). Here’s how she breaks it down:
- Temperature: 176 to 194 degrees Fahrenheit
- Duration: 20 to 30 minutes
- Humidity: 10 to 20 percent
She’s quick to point out that this protocol is not medical advice, it’s simply what’s worked for her and others included in recent studies. It’s important to consult your doctor before using a sauna to ensure it’s safe for you.
How Regular Sauna Use Benefits Your Workouts
“Evidence seems to suggest sauna use may improve endurance exercise (1),” says Patrick. “Sauna use mimics moderate aerobic cardiovascular exercise. So a lot of the same physiological responses happen—your heart rate elevates, and you elevate your core body temperature. Afterward, blood pressure is lower, resting heart rate is lower, and you’re dumping endorphins into your brain.”
The increase in heart rate boosts circulation, which in turn helps to warm up your muscles. “Heat causes blood vessels to dilate and muscles to relax,” says Hamlin, “That improved blood flow can help deliver nutrients and oxygen to tired muscles more efficiently.” Nutrients your muscles need to recover after exercise.
Repeated sauna use optimizes your body’s stress response via heat shock proteins—which help protect proteins inside of your cells to keep their three-dimensional structure intact (1). As we age, this structure naturally degrades over time and can aggregate and form plaques in the arteries and brain. Heat shock proteins, however, help prevent that from happening.
“The sauna activates heat shock proteins above baseline levels. Once activated, they stay that way for around 48 hours,” says Patrick. She explains that heat shock protein 72 protects your muscles from breaking down. “[Heat shock protein 72] has a huge impact on people with sarcopenia or people who are disabled and can’t work out in the ways necessary to maintain their muscle mass,” says Patrick.
How Long Should You Stay in the Sauna?
Five to 30 minutes is the norm. But how long you can safely use a sauna depends on if you’re doing it before or after exercise, the intensity of your workout, and how acclimated you are to it.
“I’ll stay in 20 to 30 minutes—depending on how intense my workout was, because I already elevated my core body temperature from my workout,” says Patrick. “And then there are times when I don’t work out, and I stay in the sauna for longer.”
She started with shorter sessions, adding time as her body adapted to the heat. Hamlin agrees: “Start out with short sessions as tolerated, and gradually increase the duration over time.”
As for when to get out, leave when “you reach the point when you start to feel really, really uncomfortable,” Patrick says. “You’ll know.”
Can You Use a Sauna Every Day?
Yes, the sauna is generally safe for everyday use. “The benefits of frequent sauna use occur in a dose-dependent manner. The more frequent the sauna bathing, the more robust the benefits,” says Patrick.
One study published in JAMA found that people who used the sauna two to three times per week were 22 percent less likely to die from sudden cardiac death than those who used it only once weekly, and those who used it four to seven times per week were 63 percent less likely (2).
People who sauna bathed two to three times per week were 20 percent less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s than those who used the sauna just once per week, and those who used it four to seven times were 60 to 66 percent less likely, per a study published in Age and Aging (3).
The key takeaway: you don’t need to do it every day, but it doesn’t hurt.
Patrick doesn’t usually have the time for seven days a week. “It depends on what I have going on. Sometimes I’ll do five days a week, sometimes two days a week; but I try to do at least four days a week to get all the benefits,” says Patrick.
When to Skip the Sauna
According to Patrick, sauna bathing shouldn’t replace exercise. “I only have so much time in the day. If I can only choose one, I mostly choose exercise,” she says. “Exercise is the best thing you can do for your overall health.”
Make sure your body is prepared for the stress of a sauna session before hopping in. “Stay hydrated during sauna sessions, as the heat can cause you to sweat out fluids and electrolytes,” says Hamlin. “If you’re feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or ill get out. You can always get back in later.”
He also points out that extreme heat might not be safe for everyone. “If you have any underlying medical conditions such as heart disease or low blood pressure, it’s important to consult with your healthcare provider before using a sauna,” says Hamlin.