Sauna is a place where people go to relax and refresh a tired body. Research suggests it can be a lot more than that. Let’s look at two main reasons why you will benefit from regular sauna visits as a cyclist, regardless of your performance level.
Sauna has something to offer to every kind of cyclist. If you are a serious cyclist and enjoy competition, you will appreciate the improved endurance and overall exercise performance. If you are cycling for fun and general fitness, then you should go to sauna for the health benefits.
How does sauna improve your performance?
Regular sauna visits have been shown to produce three physiological effects that could improve endurance. Let’s go through all of them and see if they help people improve performance in actual athletic events.
It increases blood volume
When you go to sauna, your body sends blood to your skin to keep your core temperature down. This reduces the amount of blood available to your organs, which stimulates your kidneys to produce more erythropoietin (also known as EPO – the same thing that cyclists used to dope) and plasma. This increases blood flow to the heart, which reduces cardiovascular strain and lowers the heart rate for the same workload.
It increases blood flow to your muscles
As your body adapts to regular heat exposure, it increases blood flow to skeletal muscles. That increases the delivery of glucose and oxygen to your muscles, which reduces their dependence on glycogen stores by 40% – 50%.
It improves thermoregulation
Regular sauna use also improves your thermoregulatory control. You start sweating at a lower core temperature and your sweat rate is maintained for a longer period, which results in better cooling during exercise.
It improves heart rate recovery after cycling
Authors of a 2015 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology studied whether the above-mentioned mechanisms actually do improve performance or not. For 10 consecutive days, they exposed 7 well-trained cyclists to 30 min of sauna (87 °C, 11% relative humidity) immediately after training. The results did show an increased plasma volume and better heart rate recovery in these athletes after a cycling test.
It enhances endurance running
Similarly, authors of a 2007 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport looked at sauna effects on runners. They exposed 7 well-trained distance runners to sauna (90 °C) for 30 minutes after training four times a week for three weeks. These athletes improved their performance in run to exhaustion by 32% and decreased their 5km time by nearly 1.9% after just those three weeks.
How does sauna improve your health?
A lot of what happens to the body in sauna is similar to what happens during exercise. Your heart rate and metabolic rate increase, you consume more oxygen and have elevated nitric oxide. This means that a lot of the health benefits you get from exercise should also come from sauna.
Conclusions from the 2018 literature review on health benefits of sauna bathing from the Mayo Clinic support this. The authors found that the more often people visit sauna, the lower their risk of heart disease and overall mortality. Regular sauna goers also showed lower risk of dementia, reduced inflammation and pain caused by arthritis, and less severe headaches and flu.
And the best thing is that the benefits of sauna bathing may be even better if you already exercise. The researchers concluded that good fitness levels from regular exercise combined with frequent sauna visits provide better cardiovascular benefits than each of those things alone. So make sure to keep riding your bike and add a sauna session after your rides for improved performance or just regular sauna bathing at any time each week for better health.