PPP: 013 The Sauna – A Secret Weapon to Boost Endurance & Much, Much More!
The Sauna – A Secret Weapon to Boost Endurance & Much, Much More!
Welcome to the Peak Performance Podcast
I’m your host Dr. Marc Dupuis on this show we discuss tips, tools and strategies for optimizing athletic performance, overall health & wellness!
Today I am excited to share with you an ever-expanding list of Performance Improving benefits that comes with adding sauna time to your training & recovery plan! Also and perhaps of even greater importance; We are learning that there are Numerous health promoting benefits that come with regular sauna use.
Did you know that for decades many of the top Scandinavian endurance athletes both past and present incorporate regular Sauna use as a key component of their training AND recovery? This is something that we in North America have been way behind in, however, as the research continues to pile up hopefully we will no longer be left out in the cold on this one!
Let’s Dive right in and look at the Top Athletic Benefits that result from Sauna use:
Improved Cardiovascular Function:
Consistent sauna sessions train and improve your body’s ability to not only disperse heat better but to metabolically function better in higher temperature environments. Think about how many races you have done or are planning to do that could be in very hot temperatures. That can be a worry to many of us especially in the Northeast where an early season hot race can shatter our performance because we just came out of winter often without having any chance to acclimate to increased temperatures. Obviously if there is a way, like using a sauna to simulate heat training during the winter months, this would be of huge benefit come race season.
Regular sauna use has been shown to allow the athlete to utilize a lower HR in higher ambient temperatures compared to non-heat trained athletes. The translation: Sauna use makes athletes become more efficient! For those familiar with Polarized Training, which science is showing to be the best way to optimize endurance training, that is the end result, to do more work at lower heart rates! Therefore regular sauna use would be a perfect complement to Polarized Training. If you are not yet familiar with Polarized Training, do not worry, we are going to be drilling down on this topic soon in an upcoming podcast, so stay tuned.
Heat trained athletes are able to maintain lower core temperatures compared to non-heat trained athletes. This can be huge for long course events such as Iron distance races, ultra-marathons etc where maintaining lower core temperatures can help prevent the digestive tract from shutting down which is one of the major causes of GI distress in these events.
Sauna use has been shown to improve muscle perfusion.
Sauna use has been shown to increase the heart’s Stroke Volume.
Sauna use improves the rate at which muscles can clear metabolic waste and decreases the rate of glycogen depletion (meaning you can do more work on less fuel).
Sauna use has been shown to increase red blood cell count due by stimulating an increase in erythropoietin (EPO) and also increase Growth Hormone output!!!
How does sauna use do all of this: It’s actually pretty straight forward: Sauna use provides a benefit similar to exercise. It is all about overcoming applied stress. With traditional exercise the stress comes from physical resistance in a variety of forms depending on what we are doing; For example; when running we need to exert ground contact force to overcome gravity, when cycling we need to exert power to overcome the resistance from the pedals, gears, etc. With sauna use the the applied stress is maintaining core temperature in a hot environment. Both exercise and sauna use result in increased heart rate, increased respiration rate, increased stroke volume and increased sweat rate. Now this is important: There is one one major difference between sauna use and traditional exercise: When we do traditional exercise weather it be weight training, running, biking, elliptical use etc, of course we experience increases in everything we just mentioned, BUT, it also causes an adrenal response (our adrenal glands produce stress hormones as a result of the body sensing it is under stress) causing a spike in cortisol output. Now this is can a good thing because cortisol triggers the subsequent changes in hormones and dietary fuels that we need to get through whatever is stressing us weather it be a workout, running away from that bear, making those split second decisions to avoid say a car crash and cortisol also sets the stage for recovery (in fact that is just the beginning of what cortisol does, we could literally spend an hour on that). But, there is a problem which is this; So many of us are under so much stress on such a regular & on-going basis that our adrenal glands are actually fatigued. The harder you push in training results in greater strains to the adrenals glands. Continuing to push hard ie TRAIN when you are in adrenally fatigued leads to becoming overtrained which leads to poor performance, injury and sickeness. Now when using a sauna, the body must try to cool which creates a stress on the cardiovascular system similar to what occurs when working out, however, sauna use has been shown to actually Decrease cortisol levels! Therefore; you get the benefit of a cardiovascular workout without putting stress on our adrenal glands! This takes us right into the next major benefit of sauna use:
Enables Downregulation of our Nervous System
Let’s talk some more about STRESS! Stress in all its forms attacks our nervous system first? Why? Simple. It’s been estimated that 80% of our entire nervous system is dedicated to sensing what is going on in our environment. It’s an innate survival mechanism. Is there a bear chasing me? Where is my food source? Is a storm coming? Do I need to take shelter and warm up, cool down? Etc. Get it? There are two major subdivisions of our nervous system. The sympathetic or “fight or flight” system and the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” system. They are opposing systems, like a light switch so they cannot both be fully “on”. As I just mentioned, when we are under stress, weather working out, being chased or are being hit with a myriad of emotionally based stresses…work, money, relationships, that triggers the fight or flight sympathetic system. Which is okay if we need to run from that bear, crush that workout or figure out how to resolve that emotional challenge. The problem is, we are not supposed to be chased by a bear all day long. As we just talked about, Constant sympathetic stimulus stresses out adrenal glands as they try to put out an abundance of cortisol. Now we only have so many building blocks for hormones, so if we spend all day trying to produce cortisol we begin to see drops in other critical hormones responsible for repair, healing and longevity such as DHEA and growth hormone! Now to further complicate things, of the two systems, the sympathetic system is the only one capable of winding itself up. The end result we get stuck in sympathetic overdrive and then big problems start showing up. In addition to poor performance, injury and sickness, our digestion system becomes impaired, often resulting in excessive gas, bloating, heartburn, irritable bowel symptoms. We start putting on weight around the midsection despite how much we work out or how little we eat. Often, we are so tired but when we go to bed we are actually so wound up we do not sleep well, the list goes on and on. This is where down regulation comes in. Simply put; down regulation refers to anything that can calm down the sympathetic system while simultaneously stimulating the critically important rest and digest parasympathetic system and sauna use has been clinically shown to do this! This is probably the most important health benefit that is behind the longevity of sauna use dating as far back as to the Greek & Roman empire era
Here are two applicable studies:
#1. 2007 Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: 30 min post exercise sauna session in 190 degree F over a duration of 2x/wk for just 3 weeks resulted in
32% greater run time to exhaustion.
#2. 1989 European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology: (2) 20 min sauna sessions at 176 degree F sauna with a 30 min cooling period resulted in 2X’s growth hormone secretion vs control
Now let’s get into some of the General Health Promoting Benefits of Sauna use:
Folks this is huge. Never before have we been exposed to so many toxins on such a regular basis. Increased toxic load is proposed to be a major contributing factor to many of the leading chronic diseases, including cancers, due to the inflammation that so many of these toxins create in our bodies. Therefore, it is absolutely critical to do all we can to improve our bodies ability to detoxify. It has been proven that our skin plays a major role in detoxification and sweating is how we release numerous toxins. Research in the publication Clinical Chemistry showed that Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and Mercury can be readily eliminated from the body via sweat, which is why sauna use is so effective in promoting detoxification.
Recent 2017 research in the American Journal of Hypertension found that regular sauna use resulted in lower rates of hypertension. Likely the same factors that generate the improved cardiovascular function as talked about earlier help in the overall balance of blood pressure.
There are at least two major factors that can help sauna users lose weight. The first is reduced cortisol levels. Remember when we talked about saunas being able to help us downregulate the nervous system. This results in lowering cortisol output which can have a significant impact on weight. Cortisol, among many things, induces the body to store body fat as part of the alarm response. Simply put; your body thinks you are being chased and you may be running far away from your food source so you better store fat for future fuel just in case. The second way sauna use can help people lose weight is through direct calorie burn. Depending on your size, weight and sweat rate, the average person burns somewhere between 200-600 calories per 30 min session.
Decreased incidence of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Very promising, recent research in the Journal of Age and Ageing showed lower risks of developing both Alzheimer’s and Dementia with increasing rates of sauna use. This was an interesting study because it followed a large sample size, over 2300 males for over 20 years. This is consistent with other research that has shown that the more you sweat the greater amount of BDNF Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor is produced, which is critical for improving the health of the neurons in the brain!
Helps to reduce chronic pain
An interesting 2005 study in the Journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that daily sauna use for 4 weeks not only reduced the participants chronic pain, 77% of them showed signs of continued progress 2 years after the sauna trial was completed. There are likely multiple factors tied to sauna use that can help those with chronic pain. Improved circulation and metabolism helped improve their healing response and they most likely benefited from sauna induced downregulation. Those in chronic pain are typically deep in sympathetic wind up since pain directly stimulates that fight or flight system therefore these individuals need as much help as anyone in downregulation.
There you have it folks! In addition to boosting your overall athletic performance, regular sauna use has been shown to promote relaxation and reduce stress, improve detoxification, downregulate the nervous system, decrease risk of hypertension, stimulate weight loss, decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s & Dementia and reduce chronic pain!
Now for my personal experience: I began researching the benefits of sauna use a few years ago and last winter purchased a small home unit so I could perform my own research and this is what I have learned so far.
#1. Better sleep. Now this was something I was not expecting as I am extremely fortunate to be a good sleeper. But when using the sauna in the evening for as little as 20 minutes, I come out feeling so incredibly relaxed that the night my sleep is another level, I would say in all honesty, it’s fantastic!
#2. Noticeable Stress Relief. This ties in with the previous finding. I had some extremely stressful times in our clinic this past winter as we had to switch over to a completely new electronic health record, deal with some difficult insurance companies and we were simultaneously rebuilding our team. On some of the most stressful days, if I were to get into the sauna for a session, I would have to say afterwords, if I had to put a number on it, it would be no stretch to say I felt 90% less stress after the session, no doubt I had experienced some much needed downregulation.
#3. Absolute improvement in dealing with race day heat. This past winter in the Northeast was brutally cold and the cold temperatures continued on into the spring and even early summer. One of my earlier season races was Xterra French River, which I would highly recommend, by the way, but the temps on race day were over 90 degrees. Many people suffered during that race, however, after drawing back to my many sessions in the 140-150 degree sauna I can say it made the 90+ degree heat that day seem not that bad. Based on how I felt during the race, I know that the degree of power I was putting out was much more than I could have done prior to regular sauna use.
That wraps up my personal observations regarding regular sauna use. If any of you have your own stories about how sauna use has helped your training and performance, please share them with us by commenting on this episode on tunes, facebook or on our website directly, the links for all the ways to do so will be in the show notes.
I will put links to the research discussed in the show notes as well as links to the Clear Light sauna that I am currently using. And as a special thank you to our listeners, if you are interested in purchasing a sauna, use this link and enter the promo code SPINE to get $450 dollars off and a special Gift with purchase! That is promo code SPINE!
This concludes today’s episode of The Peak Performance Podcast, where we discuss tips, tools and strategies for optimizing athletic performance, overall health & wellness! Please SUBSCRIBE to this podcast so that you never miss a future episode, also PLEASE SHARE this podcast with ANYONE you feel may benefit from what we covered today.
Clear Light Saunas: Remember to use the Promo Code, SPINE to get $450 off & a Gift with purchase
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Ironman European Champion, Ironman 70.3 Champion, 6th place finisher / first American finisher at the recent 2020 PTO Championships: Professional Triathlete Skye Moench!