What a month of daily infrared sauna did for me as an athlete
As an athlete I’ve been poked and prodded and measured and compared and tested in the gym, on the water, in the lab, and at points between. As a coach, trainer, and medical exercise specialist I have poked and prodded and measured and compared and tested others. Data collection is right up my alley. So when offered the chance to add hyperthermic (sauna) conditioning to my training and record the outcomes, I was an almost happy guinea pig. My problem was this: I don’t like high heat or breathing steam. This sauna, however, was infrared—not nearly so hot as a traditional sauna and no steam. I said okay.
I knew from a review of literature by Rhonda Patrick PhD that regular use of traditional saunas improves athletic endurance and prevents muscle atrophy during time off. Saunas promote “net protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy by combating oxidative stress associated with exercise and boosting growth hormone levels.” (You get stronger and recover faster from workouts.) Heat acclimation from saunas also increases blood flow to the muscles and the heart, at the same time boosting blood plasma volume. (That’s good.) Sauna use improves insulin sensitivity (good for preventing diabetes) and increases neurogenesis (good for your brain). Saunas promote the protein FOX03, which enhances gene expressions related to telomere length (good for living longer). Sauna may even help with cancer.
So the simple story is that traditional saunas are very good for people, which probably accounts for the fact that so many cultures have some version of a sauna practice. What I wanted to know is what a month of daily infrared sauna would do for me as an athlete. Since I have a well- documented training history from 25 years of rowing, the only thing I changed was the addition of a post-workout sauna, 22 minutes per day at 111°F. Why 22 minutes and why 111°F? Well, why not?
For the month, I monitored body weight, body water (TBW), body fat (TBF), and total muscle mass (TMM) using a Tanita Ironman Body Composition Scale. You have to keep TBW consistent or any changes in your body fat and muscle mass numbers won’t mean much. I like to see my numbers as follows:
• TBW 58%. Below 57% I feel dehydrated and do not perform well.
• TBF 10–12%. Especially when in winter gain mode, if I am gaining muscle while keeping in that range I know my training and diet are on track. If I go above 12.0% fat it’s a red light. I add more low-intensity (fat-burning) exercise, recover longer, and eat less.
• TMM 85%. Below 85% I feel weak and don’t handle my training volume well. Over 86% I feel slow and lethargic. But that’s just me. Your numbers may vary.
During the month, I rowed regular 5-minute “pieces” on a rowing ergometer to test my power output, heart rate (HR), and one- and two-minute heart rate recovery (HRR). I measured my strength with traditional power lifts: bench press, dead lifts, and squats. I also noted my energy and mood and any pain or discomfort, as well as anything else that seemed noteworthy.
The first week was uneventful. Workouts were fine, sauna was warm. Ho-hum. But then, on the seventh day, I noted that my endurance and strength were up a bit for my morning weight circuit workout. The second note was from my sauna: I began to sweat. Buckets. Sweating is our most efficient and effective thermoregulator and mine was suddenly in overdrive.
On the eighth day my rowing ergometer piece showed marked improvement: Power was up 25 watts, while working heart rate was down four beats. One- and two-minute heart rate recovery improved 12 and 19 beats, respectively.
Squat and bench pyramids were also up—and pain free. Shoulders, back, and knees held up fine. I had also gained 2.8 pounds while adhering to my 85% muscle mass rule (85.17%, to be exact). I also noted that on the ninth day I was moderately dehydrated, so I upped my water intake.
Over the course of the second week my working heart rate and heart rate recovery numbers stabilized, while my power output continued to increase. Muscle mass was at 85.36%.
Week three saw strength gains in bench press and squat. While there was no improvement for dead lift, I had no pain! Historically, I squatted dead lift with back pain the following day. That was not happening. My notations through weeks three and four were filled with exclamations: “new PR!,” “awesome!,” “good one, go heavy!” and “felt great!” My energy was great, my mood was great—I was fired up!
• 13.3% wattage increase at same heart rate
• 33.3% one-minute heart rate recovery improvement
• 51.2% two-minute HRR improvement
• 4.6-pound body weight increase at 84.99% muscle mass
• Personal Records in bench press and squat
As an athlete/data numbers geek, these numbers are a big deal to me—and the sauna is pleasant and provides a peaceful, meditative respite.