Regardless of your fitness experience level, you probably have some agenda of tasks you have to complete before and after every single workout. For instance, you might have a tradition of guzzling an entire water bottle and fueling up with a carb-rich snack before you lace your sneakers or slurping down a protein shake and foam rolling your quads once you’ve powered through your HIIT workout.
But should sauna bathing — a form of whole-body thermotherapy that involves sitting in a room with a temperature ranging from 113°F to 212°F for roughly 20 minutes — also be a part of your pre- and post-workout routine? Here, Heather A. Milton, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., a board-certified clinical exercise physiologist at NYU Langone Health’s Sports Performance Center, breaks down the potential benefits of taking a sauna before or after a workout — and how to stay safe if you decide to do so.
The Benefits and Risks of Taking a Sauna Before a Workout
When you're ready to kick off a workout, it's typically recommended to first do a warm-up that gradually takes your body from a resting state to a state primed for exercise, slowly increasing your body temperature, blood flow to your working muscles, and heart rate, says Milton.In doing so, your working muscles receive more oxygen (which is needed to create energy), and your workout may feel a bit easier once you get started, she explains.
In theory, the same “warm-up” effect can be achieved by spending time in a hot environment (think: temps above 100°F), such as a traditional or infrared sauna. In these spaces, your body temperature rises and your blood vessels dilate in order to improve blood flow circulation and increase blood flow to the skin, which helps keep you cool, says Milton. (BTW, infrared saunas generally run at slightly lower temperatures and with less humidity than traditional saunas, though they both operate above 100°F.)
The problem: A sauna doesn’t physically activate your working muscles and prep them for the workout, she says. Ideally, a warm-up should include movements that activate, in a full range of motion, all the muscles that will be called upon during exercise. If you’re going to run a 5K, for example, you’d want to do gentle movements that activate the stabilizing muscles in the hips, the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings, and the quads prior to hitting the treadmill, says Milton. “We want to move through a dynamic warm-up that incorporates movements that are similar to running and mimic those activation patterns prior to the more high-intensity version of it [re: actually running],” she explains. “We know this not only helps reduce your risk of injury but also helps with neuromuscular efficiency — or how well you’re able to perform the exercise…so in the instance of running, being able to run at the same pace, but it feels easier to do.” (
TL;DR, "while [taking a sauna] can help to warm you up, it doesn't necessarily replace a dynamic warm-up for exercise," says Milton.
Safety Tips for Taking a Sauna Before a Workout
One of the biggest safety risks of using a sauna before a workout is the potential for dehydration, says Milton. “We know that exercise dehydrates you because, most of the time, we are sweating when we’re doing, depending on the temperature, the environment you’re in, and what type of exercise you’re doing,” she explains. “So you’re predisposing yourself to a less hydrated state by already starting to sweat in the sauna.”
To ensure you properly rehydrate after your sauna session, take note of your body weight before and after you head to the sweat room, then replenish with that amount of water, suggests Milton. (For example, if you lost 1 pound of sweat while in the sauna, sip on 16 ounces of H2O when you're finished.) Once you're ready to pump some iron or hit the spin bike, be sure to do a few exercises to get your muscles activated and ready to take on your workout, she suggests.
The Benefits and Risks of Taking a Sauna After a Workout
Currently, research done on the benefits of taking a sauna after a workout is slim, and it’s primarily been conducted with small sample sizes, so it can’t necessarily be applied to the general population, says Milton. That said, “it has been suggested that [taking a sauna after a workout]can help with relaxation, the transition from exercise to a more rested state, and perhaps can help with decreasing delayed-onset muscle soreness,” she explains. “But that might be more of a placebo effect, and we really don’t know if there’s a true science behind the efficacy of that.”
Taking a sauna after a workout — and before it as well — may also help with heat acclimatization, aka physiological adaptations (think: increased sweating efficiency, increased skin blood flow) that help your body deal with hot temps. "If you are someone doing endurance events and you know that you're going to be in an environment that's very hot and humid, preparing yourself for that environment by [taking saunas] slowly — one to two days a week and for less than 30 minutes following or before your workout — could potentially help with that heat acclimatization," says Milton. Stick with the routine, and you may see results in one to two weeks, she adds.
Just like a warm-up, a short sauna sesh doesn’t qualify as a well-rounded cool-down routine. In general, it’s best to slowly transition back to a rested state after exercising, as suddenly stopping your activity may lead to lightheadedness, says Milton. “If you’re going from exercise to just sitting, even though it’s a hot environment, you might actually worsen the chances of that.” To reduce those odds, consider spending a few minutes doing gentle stretches (e.g. forward fold, standing quad stretch, and cat-cow) to slow your heart rate and return back to a resting state before you head to the sauna, she suggests.
Safety Tips for Taking a Sauna After a Workout
If you're more sensitive to temperature changes and suddenly move from the frigid gym to the sizzling sauna, you may experience vasovagal syncope, a quick drop in heart rate and blood pressure that can cause you to faint, says Milton. "Typically there is a precursor to it, which is a feeling of nausea or lightheadedness prior to the event happening," she explains. "So proceed with caution and try in a very small dose at first, with perhaps not the hottest sauna that you can find, and see how you tolerate it." Once again, you'll want to note your body weight before and after your sauna stint and rehydrate with that amount of H2O once you've finished.
The Takeaway On Using a Sauna Before or After a Workout
Simply put, the benefits of taking a sauna before or after your workout currently aren't well-founded. "I can't tell you there's a specific reason that you should integrate this into your workouts," says Milton. Taking a sauna generally isn't recommended if you're pregnant, have cardiovascular disease, or suffer from other clinically significant health conditions that may be affected by increased fluid loss, so in these circumstances, make sure to get the all-clear from your doctor first, she adds.
If you don’t have any contraindications and want to give pre- and post-workout saunas a shot, however, start off with shorter sessions, keep an eye on your hydration levels, and continue to ask yourself if you find it truly beneficial, suggests Milton. If you find sitting in the sweat-inducing room helps you start your run off on a strong note or chill out afterward, feel free to mix it into your fitness routine (and make sure to shower immediately after your sesh).