Athletes are, by nature and definition, a competitive bunch; always looking for an edge. And the more we adapt and evolve to our training inputs the more finite our improvements become.
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 points between. As a coach, trainer and medical exercise specialist I have poked and prodded and measured and compared and tested others in the name of smart training and athletic performance.
Data collection is right up my alley. Measurable improvements in strength, power, aerobic endurance, vo2 max, heart rate recovery, changes in body composition, blood plasma volume, blood lactate concentrations, etc. are my bread and butter. Mostly butter though, not much bread these days. So when offered the chance to incorporate hyperthermic (sauna) conditioning into my training and record the outcomes I was happy to Guinea pig the idea.
Hyperthermic conditioning benefits –
Scientist Dr Rhonda Patrick tells us that regular sauna use can improve athletic endurance, prevent atrophy during muscle disuse, improve insulin sensitivity, increase neurogenesis and increase longevity. Heat acclimation increases blood flow to the muscles and the heart, at the same time boosting blood plasma volume. It promotes net protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy by combating oxidative stress associated with exercise and boosting growth hormone levels. Hyperthermic conditioning produces Heat Shock Proteins, responsible for maintaining and repairing the structural integrity of normal proteins. It also promotes the protein FOX03 which enhances gene expressions related to longevity (telomere length), as well as seeking out and repairing damaged DNA such as tumors which lead to cancer.
The idea is this; add post workout sauna sessions, 22 minutes per day at 111 degrees, every day for one month from 11/15 to 12/15.
Because there is substantial scientific study on the subject I am not going to try to reinvent that wheel. Rather, I will report to you my findings as they relate to subjective and objective experience. Since I already have a documented and consistent training history, the only thing that will change is the addition of the hyperthermic element. The idea is this; add post workout sauna sessions, 22 minutes per day at 111 degrees, every day for one month from 11/15 to 12/15. Why 22 minutes and why 111 degrees? Well, because it just worked out that way.
The objective stuff –
5 minute ergometer tests to measure power output in watts, heart rate and one and two minute heart rate recovery (HRR) –
As a competitive rower of 25 years I have more than the Gladwellian requisite 10,000 hours on the Erg to keep my constants constant and my variables variable. That makes this test a no brainer in terms of consistency and replicability.
Body composition –
Body weight, body water (TBW), body fat (TBF), muscle mass (TMM). Accurate, apples to apples comparison of these factors requires that the total body water be consistent. Inconsistent TBW will affect body fat and muscle mass numbers and make for poor comparison. That being said, 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 passed 12.0% it’s a red light for me to tweak some things, generally training volume, diet and recovery.
TMM 85%. This number, like the numbers above, has proven itself to work for me time and time again. When I drop 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.
Strength measured in traditional power lifts (bench, dead lift, squat)-
These get peppered throughout my training, usually as 5×5’s or in pyramid format 5,5,3,2,1.
The subjective stuff –
Strength endurance for HIIT style circuit workouts
Energy and mood
Pain or absence thereof
So there we have it, and this is how it went-
The first week was uneventful. Workouts were fine, sauna was warm. Ho hum. Routine. For the first six days that is how it went. But then, on the seventh day, multiple changes occurred.
On the seventh day I noted that my endurance and strength were up for my morning circuit workout, which was 6x clean and press, farmer carry and overhead plate carry. Noted as in notable, as in I wrote it down; notable. The second thing that happened was during my sauna; I began to sweat. Profusely. Buckets. This is a significant shift as sweating is our most efficient and effective thermoregulator and mine was finding its overdrive.
On the eighth day (22nd) my erg piece showed marked changes in wattage output, working heart rate and heart rate recovery. Power was up 25 watts while working heart rate was down four beats. One and two minute heart rate recovery were up 12 and 19 beats respectively.
Squat and bench pyramids were also up. They were confidence inspiring 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).
Clearly there was a shift taking place during days seven and eight. I also noted that on the ninth day (23rd) 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 tangible strength gains with multiple PR’s in bench press and squat.
Week three saw tangible strength gains with multiple PR’s in bench press and squat. While there was no high number PR for dead lift, there was a monumental subjective PR; I had no pain! Historically I equated dead lift with back pain. For me dead lift day brought with it the harbinger of debilitating back pain the following day. That was not happening!
My notations through weeks three and four were filled with exclamations like, “new PR!”, “awesome!”, “good one, go heavy!” and “felt great!”. My energy was great, my mood was great, I was fired up!
So here are the final numbers after one month of hyperthermic conditioning coupled with consistent training –
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 84.995% muscle mass.
Personal Records in bench press and squat
Those are real, measurable improvements that I can bank on; I’m sold and will continue to use the sauna as an integral tool in my training. Unlike many other training modalities, It is also quite pleasant and provides a peaceful, meditative respite. As an athlete/data numbers geek these numbers are a big deal. Considering the myriad other health benefits, I think they should be a big deal for everyone.
Andy Baxter is a Medical Exercise Specialist who does a bunch of stuff, some of it well. He is the author of Racing Yesterday and The Exercise Prescription.