Is The Sauna Good For MMA?

July 28, 2021

The sauna could be one of the most versatile pieces of equipment in an MMA fighter’s arsenal. Need to cut weight quickly? Get in the sauna. Recovery day? Get in the sauna. But is the sauna good for MMA?

Using the sauna directly after training has a myriad of benefits for MMA fighters ranging from increased aerobic endurance, reduced resting heart rate, and improved heart rate recovery.

These are not the only benefits of using the sauna for an MMA athlete. So, what else can you gain from getting your sweat on?

The Benefits Of Sauna For MMA?

Is Sauna Good For MMA

Saunas can play a much bigger role in your overall training schedule than just the weight cut. But be careful, there are times you may not want to use the sauna.

Reduced Blood Pressure

Just 30 minutes of the sauna has been shown to reduce blood pressure in healthy participants by 6% on average [1]. Similar results have been found in repeated 10 minute twice daily saunas [2].

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Over the long term, this may reduce the risk of hypertension and other related diseases such as fatal cardiovascular diseases [1].

Increased Endurance Performance

When using the sauna directly after endurance exercise, 18% increases in blood plasma volume, 10% reductions in resting heart rate, and a 13% reduction in 60-second heart rate recovery have been found [3].

Interestingly, this increase in blood plasma volume has been correlated with improvements in run time to exhaustion in competitive runners and triathletes [4]. These athletes saw a 32% increase in run time to exhaustion after 12 sauna sessions over 3 weeks.

Middle distance and cross country runners were found to improve the running speed at 4 mmol.L-1  by 4% and reduced submaximal heart rate while running by 7 beats per minute after just 9 sauna sessions directly after exercise over 3 weeks compared to the control group [6].

In contrast to these studies, a study on competitive swimmers and triathletes found sauna directly after an intense training session reduced swim performance the following morning [5]. Perhaps using the sauna after very intense training sessions is not a good idea as it may potentially compound the physiological stress.

Improved Recovery

30 minutes after the far infrared sauna directly after endurance training, participants jumped higher compared to the group that did not sit in the sauna [7].

What About Growth Hormone?

Many people love to mention the increased levels of growth hormone as a primary reason to jump in the sauna citing it will help you build more muscle and recover faster. However, growth hormone is not the muscle builder or recovery hormone that everyone may think it is.

Firstly, growth hormone is raised to levels far greater than sitting in a sauna. For example, after strength training, growth hormone levels can reach greater than 40 ug.L whereas sauna may only reach half of that [7].

Secondly, even after 12 weeks of strength training and being injected with 2-4 times the daily adult growth hormone secretion rate, no difference in muscle strength, size, or new protein production is seen compared to a group that doesn’t receive growth hormone injections [8].

Why Do MMA Fighters Use The Sauna?

MMA fighters will use the sauna predominantly as a dehydration strategy as part of their weight cut for a fight. By sweating in the sauna, MMA fighters can lose body weight quickly that is easily and quickly replenished after weighing in.

How Hot Should The Sauna Be?

A traditional sauna should be between 80-100°C with approximately 10-20% humidity. Humidity is difficult to measure but will be determined by how much water you throw on the heater.

A far infrared sauna will be anywhere between 40-60°C.

How Long Should You Sauna?

Most of the research suggests 30 minutes is enough to gain performance benefits. Using the sauna 3 times a week seems to be a good frequency.

Is Sauna Best Before Or After MMA Training?

The research presented above suggests that using the sauna directly after exercises results in pretty dramatic improvements in endurance performance. However, if your training is very intense (for that study, the swimmers performed 4 x 50m sprints), then it may be better to skip the sauna.

One research paper investigated the use of sauna before aerobic exercise [9]. They found that 15 minutes of sauna attenuated the rise in blood pressure with moderate exercise. This could be useful for those that suffer from high blood pressure.

Infrared or Traditional Sauna For MMA?

While direct comparisons between infrared and traditional saunas have not been made regarding sporting performance, it seems you can use either. The only real difference is the temperature inside the sauna.

Infrared saunas range between 40°C to 60°C whereas traditional saunas range between 80°C to 100°C [7]. Don’t let this cooler temperature fool you. Infrared saunas radiate heat at smaller wavelengths which penetrate deeper than a traditional sauna. Approximately 3-4 cm deep whereas traditional sauna heat only penetrates a few millimeters [7].

If you find the hot temperatures of a traditional sauna unbearable, then an infrared sauna may be a better choice.

Do Portable Saunas Work For MMA?

The only problem with portable saunas is they don’t get hot enough. Take this portable sauna, for example, it only heats to around 40°C and is a steam sauna, not infrared. This is unlikely to give you the heat stress needed to get the benefits seen in the above studies.

If you can find a far infrared portable sauna that utilizes 120 V infrared lights, then the portable sauna may be worth getting. Otherwise, stick to the real thing!

References

1. Laukkanen, T., Kunutsor, S. K., Zaccardi, F., Lee, E., Willeit, P., Khan, H., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2018). Acute effects of sauna bathing on cardiovascular function. Journal of human hypertension32(2), 129-138.

2. Leppäluoto, J., Tuominen, M., Väänänen, A., Karpakka, J., & Vuor, J. (1986). Some cardiovascular and metabolic effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta physiologica scandinavica128(1), 77-81.

3. Stanley, J., Halliday, A., D’Auria, S., Buchheit, M., & Leicht, A. S. (2015). Effect of sauna-based heat acclimation on plasma volume and heart rate variability. European journal of applied physiology115(4), 785-794.

4. Scoon, G. S., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S., & Cotter, J. D. (2007). Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport10(4), 259-262.

5. Skorski, S., Schimpchen, J., Pfeiffer, M., Ferrauti, A., Kellmann, M., & Meyer, T. (2019). Effects of Postexercise Sauna Bathing on Recovery of Swim Performance. International journal of sports physiology and performance15(7), 934-940.

6. Kirby, N. V., Lucas, S. J., Armstrong, O. J., Weaver, S. R., & Lucas, R. A. (2021). Intermittent post-exercise sauna bathing improves markers of exercise capacity in hot and temperate conditions in trained middle-distance runners. European journal of applied physiology121(2), 621-635.

7. Mero, A., Tornberg, J., Mäntykoski, M., & Puurtinen, R. (2015). Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus4(1), 1-7.

8. Yarasheski, K. E., Campbell, J. A., Smith, K., Rennie, M. J., Holloszy, J. O., & Bier, D. M. (1992). Effect of growth hormone and resistance exercise on muscle growth in young men. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism262(3), E261-E267.

9. Bogdanich, H., Kiger, J., & Santos, J. M. (2019). The Physiology Effects of a Finnish Sauna on Aerobic Exercise in College-Aged Individuals. Revista Contexto & Saúde19(37), 137-141.

About the author 

James de Lacey

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international level teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your combat training.


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