I did a Google search on “infrared sauna for athletic recovery.” Google returned about 6.48 million results. That is an indication of how much confidence people place in infrared sauna as a recovery technology. And why wouldn’t they?
According to a 2018 posting in Sports Illustrated, “[Far infrared radiation] will increase the vibration of water molecules inside cells, in effect raising the temperature in microscopic regions not by heat but by electromagnetic energy. One proven effect is increased blood flow in deep tissue, which is the main benefit to athlete recovery.” That may be the most proved effect of far infrared radiation, but there are a host of other hypotheses and theorized benefits as well. Among these are the idea that far infrared radiation (FIR) acts on proteins within cells to create physiological effects.
Heal Faster to Work Out More
For the past couple weeks in this space, I have been writing about Peak Recovery & Health Center technologies in terms of their ability to heal muscle damage in order to return an athlete to the field quicker. The idea is that faster recovery equals more workouts, equals faster progress.
FIR sauna seems to tick most of the boxes for that. Within a few minutes of entering the sauna cabinet, you begin to relax. Your muscles begin to soften and stretch, increasing your flexibility. Furthermore, you begin to sweat profusely. Sweat is more than just water, and many of the trace elements it contains include toxins. Their absence promotes healing, too.
The Special Case of Infrared Sauna for Athletic Recovery
I recommend infrared sauna as a recovery method, as well as a way to improve cardiovascular function, deal with back pain, and help protect against cancer. But it’s not as simple as our other recovery technologies, in which you use it soon after a workout in order to get back out there faster. With FIR sauna, you need to exercise some care in the timing.
I say this because of some relatively recent research. A December 2019 article in The International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance reported on a study of sauna and training for competitive swimming. The researchers worked with 20 competitive swimmers and triathletes (17 men, 3 women) with national ranking or higher. They put them through a tough workout. Each swimmer did 4 50-meter swims at an all-out pace. They repeated the same workout the next morning.
Between the two workouts, they put some of the swimmers in a sauna at 176-185 degrees Fahrenheit (3 times, 8 minutes per time). The rest of the swimmers — the “placebo” group — got no sauna but were rubbed down with massage oil. The sauna may have relaxed the swimmers, it may have improved their cardiovascular function, and it may have helped them shed toxins. But it also reduced their performance in the second workout by an average of 1.69 seconds. Subjective feelings of stress were also higher among the sauna swimmers than among the massage oiled swimmers.
Timing Is Critical
If you’re not swimming at a nationally competitive level, then 1.69 seconds might not make much difference to you. But if you are swimming at that level, you need to pay attention to the timing of your sauna sessions. I don’t think this study proves that sauna affects your overall long-term performance in any sport. But I do think it suggests that you should not schedule sauna right before a critical or high-pressure event.
If you’re a competitive athlete, you probably have up to a half dozen events per season and consider one or two of them to be “A-list.” So look at your training calendar before you book an infrared sauna session. If you make sure to avoid scheduling sauna during the week prior to any of your A-list events, you don’t need to worry about missing out on the relaxation and other benefits provided by all that wonderful heat.