Every athlete has an off season, a time of year post competition where they relax and take time off from training. For some, that could be a couple weeks, perhaps a month. As a cyclist spending many hours on the bike and in the gym, you generally look forward to this time. Unfortunately, for me this was a forced 90 days. I missed the fall racing season in 2019 due to a concussion starting at the end of August and a righteous case of systemic poison ivy from October through December.
After my recovery, I started training again in the new year for Paris to Ancaster in Ontario, Canada. Admittedly, it was not going very well. I struggled to complete workouts. Riding on the stationary trainer was regularly ending in tears, not because of its location in the basement, but because I couldn’t complete relatively simple hour-long workouts. Months prior, these workouts were no trouble. I had been off a while, but this was a lot harder than I remembered.
Normally, when I have issues with anything, I think about what has helped me in the past, make a list, and create a little resolve by referencing a few key books in my library. In the depths of my training despair, I sat in my infrared sauna, as it has always made me feel better. By way of sweating, this little cedar closet has helped with training (and life) in so many ways.
Ari Whitten, in his book The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy (2018), describes different types of light as ‘bioactive’ or affecting the functions of our cells. Most of us are completely unaware of this phenomenon and the power that it holds for our bodies. Blue Light contributes to our circadian rhythm, regulating neurotransmitters and hormones. Ultra Violet (UV) Light allows our bodies to synthesize Vitamin D from the sun. Far Infrared acts as heat, as you feel from the sun’s rays, this stimulates cell function and circulation changes. Red Light boosts mitochondrial function increasing cellular energy. Near Infrared (NIR) acts similarly to red light, increasing mitochondrial function and energy in the cells.
“Hormesis or low-dose metabolic stress, stimulates adaptations that can improve health. Exercise is an example of hormesis, the body is able to adapt with improved cardiovascular efficiency, moving more blood and oxygen to the muscles and strengthening and growing mitochondria. There is a down regulation of genes involving inflammation and oxidative stress (key components of disease, but also present during exercise and recovery process) and up regulating genes involved in energy production and antioxidant defense systems.” (Whitten, 2018, p.43)
In a similar way to exercise and building stronger muscles through positive stress, sauna and red light exposure make the cells more tolerant to stress and reduce inflammation (making the body more resilient to overall stressors), creating a healthier and more energetic you at a cellular level.
Building Endurance Through Sauna Training
Sauna training is effective for heat and altitude acclimation, as well as recovery and in preparation for competition. Using a sauna is similar to that of exercise, playing the same role on your cardiovascular system much like a bike ride or a run. It should only be done for as long as you feel comfortable. These general guidelines, according to Stacy Sims, PhD, include 25-30 minute sessions where the temperature should not exceed 165 degrees. (ROAR, 2016) It’s not an activity to ‘win’ at, you definitely can cause harm by pushing yourself to stay in longer or hotter than your body can handle and therefore, you should exercise caution and use your best judgement.
“As training for heat or altitude, you are looking to create a small amount of heat stress and a small amount of dehydration. With dehydration, there is a decrease in blood volume and the heat from the sauna signals the body to send more blood to the surface of your skin for cooling. Now there is decreased blood flow to the organs, particularly the kidneys, and there is stimulation to produce EPO and increase plasma volume. It also resets your thermoregulation thresholds so hot temps feel less severe.” (Sims, S., 2016, p. 209) (EPO refers to Erythropoietin, which promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow)
She goes on to explain more tips and specifics to help athletes be more successful with this technique.
After carefully following Dr. Stacy Sims simple sauna protocols, I have dramatically changed how I feel riding my bike, even on the days I am stuck in the basement. In my 8-year career, I have never seen power test results or training blocks like I have recently. Improvements in strength on the bike are measured by functional threshold power (FTP), which is the highest wattage an individual can sustain for a period of time. Last year, before using the sauna at home and with less time off, I saw an increase of 10 watts, which is a great result. Recently, the improvement was another 20 watts, DOUBLED with carefully planned sauna sessions. I’m ecstatic about these numbers and look forward to what it could mean for racing in the upcoming months. Certainly, there are more factors than the sauna to consider, but it was definitely part of the bigger picture.
For me, the infrared sauna has contributed to successful mid-day summer races on days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and finishing events at altitudes over 10,000 feet. Not to mention, it also helped in recovering from illness, such as Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) and injury from concussion to bruised ribs and everything in between. Infrared sauna works in many capacities and is my secret weapon in training, staying active and being healthy.
- Whitten, A. (2018) The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy. Published by Archangel Ink.
- Sims, PhD, S.T. (2016) ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, “Sauna Training”. Published by Rodale