Finnish Saunas to Finish First. Could passive heat acclimation build the freeway to form?

Saunas have been a hot health topic for decades now, with a bucket load of claimed benefits ranging from improving skin, sleep and general relaxation. Research on athletes shows that the adaptations from sweating are even sweeter for endurance performance than expected.


Image Credit: monika1607 via Pixabay


The most significant impact of saunas for athletes is the increased oxygen delivery to working muscles. There are two key components of blood most important for this job: red blood cells (RBCs) and blood plasma. You can think of a blood vessel from the heart to the muscles as a freeway from a city towards towns. In order to move more people (oxygen) you can either put more cars (RBCs) on the road or build more lanes (plasma) for the cars to move quickly along.


Image Credit: qimono via Pixabay


The sweating that occurs in a sauna results in substantial dehydration which ramps up the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system in the kidneys. This causes reabsorption of sodium into the blood vessels which leads to an increase in blood plasma, more lanes on the freeway. Repeat sauna sections can increase plasma volume by around 10%.


Image Credit: Free-photos via Pixabay


Not only can saunas help aid in the transport of RBCs but they may also result in more RBCs being produced, more cars on the road. The increase in plasma results in hemodilution (aka thinner blood) which can lead to a natural secretion of erythropoietin (EPO) and higher RBC count. The higher blood volume leads to heart adaptations including a greater stroke volume and hence lower heart rate at a given power output for cyclists. More cars on the road and more lanes to move those cars means a lot of people can leave the city, a lot more oxygen is reaching the muscles. This is shown in athlete studies by increased VO2max, peak power outputs over given intervals and even time trial performance after passive heat acclimation.

Outside of the blood vessels, repeat exposure to passive heat stress also provides more widespread physiological benefits. Elevated body temperature increases expression of heat shock proteins (my second favourite kind of HSP) which can upregulate circulating factors, increasing cellular protection and triggering the release of human growth hormone. Anyone who has paid attention to professional cycling since the turn of the millennium understands a natural means of boosting EPO and growth hormone release is going to make more than just your arm strong.


Image Credit: Dale Frederick via Flickr


The most obvious benefit of heat acclimation is … acclimation to heat. Heat adaptation broadens the critical range at which an athlete’s core temperature can lie without affecting performance. Athletes also develop improved thermoregulatory responses including better circulation and higher sweat rate, aiding in cooling. Plus, there’s no doubting the psychological benefit of getting comfortable being bloody hot.

World University Championships, Philippines, 2016. Hot

Saunas seem a sure-fire way to boost your cardiovascular fitness, ability to deal with heat and your general health and well-being and there’s no strong evidence for any health risks for healthy adults.

Hot tips for best results:

  • A typical Finnish sauna is 80-90°C and 10-15% humidity.
  • Heat stimulus should ideally be at least 30min per session (this can be in multiple bouts).
  • Avoid drinking any water in the sauna or in between bouts, the dehydration is a key player in the benefits!
  • Ideally heat acclimation should take place as soon as possible after an exercise session.
  • Heat-acclimatised athletes will need to hydrate more after sauna sessions or training/races than regular athletes due to increased sweat response.
  • Only 6-7 exposures are required to produce physiological and performance benefits.
  • Heating sessions should not be undertaken by athletes who have acute injuries, oedema, vascular disease, wounds, or infections.


I’m currently writing this on the bus ride with the team from Palmerston North to Cambridge, NZ. EvoPro just finished our first race and it couldn’t have gone much better, getting teammate Luke Mudgway up for the win in his home town and myself in third. Read all about it on my facebook page. Next up is the 5-day New Zealand Cycle Classic starting tomorrow. I won’t be hitting the sauna in between stages but hopefully the adaptations from heat acclimation sessions back home before heading over the ditch will hang around and we can get some more results this week. Until then, I’ll keep reading the research papers so you can spend more time on the bike.



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Ice, Ice, Maybe… But probably not. The science has gone cold on ice baths for recovery.

Recent science tells us the supposed benefits of ice post-exercise are not all they’re cracked up to be, and that the short-term shrinkage isn’t giving any long-term gains.


ice bathImage Credit: Tomas Tomas via Flickr

Sprinters, climbers and café racers are all looking for the best way to recover before their next training session, competition or speed-sign sprint. In the past, it was widely recommended that ice baths post-training or competing was an easy and cost-effective way to do this. Just like a standard bath – only crunchy.


‘I read this article that said I should do it’

A bunch of websites targeting athletes from all walks, runs and powerlifts of life have claimed that using ice baths will increase blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and even improve overall muscle function… Unfortunately, new research suggests the only change you’ll see is a reduced hot water bill.


Scientists have just made their way to the deep end

Ice baths have been put under the blow torch over the last few years from a whole squad of researchers. The aim was to wash away some of the not so solid facts on just how beneficial post exercise cold water immersion can be. They looked at the effect on blood circulation, inflammatory markers (a good indicator for how much ‘ow my legs’ you feel the days after a hard session), and the overall effect on exercise performance in the days post ice bathing.


The Cold Truth

All credible recent studies have agreed that cold water’s effect size on recovery is about the same as it’s freezing point (0 for those playing at home). Not only has the recent research shown that jumping in an ice bath after each training session is a waste of time (and water), it might put a freeze on your recovery all together.


Surely it can’t hurt, right?

Wrong. Some studies showed ice baths decreased blood circulation (makes sense when you watch an ice-bath victim quickly resemble the skin-tone of a snowman). This is a big no-no as it prevents muscle repair and removal of nasty by-products after high intensity exercise. Even if it lived up to the claims of reducing inflammation this wouldn’t be a win. Inflammation within muscles is the necessary evil which then allows for muscle repair and rebuilding, resulting in those ever-elusive gains. Lose the inflammation, lose the gains.


No gains.jpgImage Credit: Chris Stymac via Flickr

I find it a little odd that ice baths have been used unnecessarily for so long, especially considering there are no obvious brands keeping the myth afloat for their own financial benefit (the main players making big money off ice sales are not working in the sports industry…).

ice dealerImage Credit: Hello Chicago via Flickr

Best to bin the bath post-exercise and go with little recovery spin to the café followed by a nice cold drink from your esky full of fresh, unused ice.


Still haven’t warmed to the facts? Try these:


I’m into my last few training days before flying to NZ to kick off a big racing block. An ice bath would definitely be welcomed at the end of some big days on the road in the low 40s but I’ll have to cop the heat to max out those gains in preparation for the next few races. Until then, I’ll keep reading the research papers so you can spend more time on the bike.




© Cyrus Monk 2019

Request a Topic

Want to know the results of research on a particular topic of interest? Any questions about a supplement, food or intervention you’ve heard is the next big thing? Leave a question or a topic suggestion in the comments and I’ll sift through the papers for you.