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Sauna Training Tips

Sauna training - the basics of how to workout in the sauna while your exercise remains safe.

Unless you live somewhere hot – really hot – the chances are that you’ll prepare for your extreme running events in the sauna as well as on the road. But what can you actually do in there that will help? And how do you stay safe?

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I’ve been training in the sauna for around six years, so I’ll divide this article into two parts: beginning your sauna training, and steadily advancing it. Skip a few paragraphs if you’re in the second category. Also note that in this article I’m discussing dry saunas, not steam rooms. But before I begin, let me offer you three cardinal rules.

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  1. Stay hydrated.
  2. If you feel dizzy, leave. Now.
  3. Tell someone what you’re doing if you’re doing something more challenging than usual.

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Beginning your sauna training.

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Saunas are hot. If you need me to tell you that, read another website. The fact is that most people can only stand 5-10 minutes in there when they first start out. That’s natural – training for the sauna is like training for anything else. You need to start easy and work up.

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Initially your goal is simply to get used to the extreme heat – usually around 160 to 180 degrees in most gym saunas. It may take a couple of weeks to begin to build up a tolerance; don’t be impatient. There’s nothing gained by hurting yourself, and it will be to the detriment of your training elsewhere.

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A word on hydration: do. In extreme cases I’ve walked (barely) out of the sauna having dropped six or seven pounds. Since it’s all water, salt and minerals, you’re going to need to drink often. My personal preference is for regular swigs from a one-quart plastic bottle, without gulping. If you’re not drinking a little every five minutes, you’ll pay for it with stiff muscles, dizziness, fatigue and – if you’re silly about it – serious danger. If you really are one of those crazy type who is going to go beyond their limits, do yourself a favor and make sure that someone’s in there with you, or that someone knows to check on you at a certain time. Inexperience plus over-confidence can and will lead to a bad situation.

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Visit as often as you can – five times a week is really the bare minimum. Try to increase the length of time you spend in the sauna by five minutes per week. You’re looking to get to 45 minutes eventually. Assuming you start at 10 minutes, it will only take eight weeks to achieve this goal.

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When in the sauna, I strongly recommend that you relax and take your mind off the heat by chatting or listening to music. I last ten minutes less when I’m merely concentrating on the heat. However, don’t take a book in – the heat melts the binding glue. Magazines are fine. If music is your thing, bear two things in mind: first, that if you lie down the sweat will pool in your ears and rapidly destroy your headphones. Second, that other people may find the sounds that escape rather irritating if they’re trying to relax – it’s very quiet in there usually. I wear a hat (see the next section for the real reasons) which muffles the sounds and generally makes things better for everyone. I imagine that ear muffs would do the same thing.

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Once you’ve established a reasonable tolerance, it’s time to begin some light exercise. I suggest beginning with nothing more than a regular running warm-up – a few stretches, maybe lunges. Don’t be discouraged if even this light work takes a few minutes off the time you can stand – your body simply isn’t used to the increase in heart rate that it will cause. Once again, be courteous; drawing attention to your exercises can result in management asking you to stop completely. I always, always ask permission of other users before working out – and even if they come in after I’ve started, I make a point of checking that they don’t mind.

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One suggestion I would make is that you don’t try to artificially raise the temperature by soaking the sauna unit (they’re invariably electric in gyms and you’ll blow it up) or placing a wet towel on the temperature sensor. It’s inconsiderate of others and will result in a far shorter experience. As an extreme runner or athlete, stamina is key; I haven’t yet heard of any hot weather sprinters.

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Advancing your sauna training.

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As an experienced sauna user, there are a number of techniques you can use to go above and beyond regular training and really prepare for extreme heat running.

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The first is to exercise in the sauna. Again, be considerate of others. If alone, one of the best – and most exhausting – things you can do is shadow box. Even if you don’t know how to box properly, imitate the movements you’ve seen on screen. Stay on the balls of your feet, lunge and rock back and forth, keep up a guard, and throw occasional punches. Bob your head as if to avoid blows. This will rapidly (and I mean rapidly) elevate your heart rate and breathing. Vary the routine up by using a jump rope (in most cases, an imaginary one) for a minute, then simply dancing back and forth for a minute whilst holding your guard, then throwing a series of rapid punches. This exercise takes up very little space and I guarantee that if you can master twenty minutes of this, you’re in terrific shape.

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Your gym may have a step that you can borrow; set it high if you expect to be gaining elevation on your run. It has taken me six years to become capable of doing 500 10″ steps in a single session, so be careful not to overdo it. This is a less intrusive workout, and most people won’t be too bothered by it.

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You can also engage in strength exercises; use the bench to brace for sit-ups, for example. My sauna has facing benches that allow for push-ups and dips, which are eminently satisfying. Use gloves if you want to use free weights; even plastic ones rapidly heat up and become very uncomfortable to the touch.

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With vigorous exercise the time you spend in the sauna will drop to 25 minutes or so. Be even more aware than usual of your limits. I often find that the gap between feeling just fine, and feeling like I’m going to drop dead, is as short as five minutes. The instant you feel dizzy or get a headache, get out.

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If you’re truly nuts, there is one way to push yourself even harder – and if you maintain it, even Death Valley seems slightly less impossible.

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Start with long tracksuit pants and a Cold Gear shirt by Under Armor. Over the weeks, add layers. These days I never train in less than three thermal tops, thermal long pants, jogging pants, gloves and a hat. I wear a ski mask from time to time to really see stars. If you can train for 20-25 minutes in all this gear, or relax for over an hour, then you will have little trouble adapting to extreme heat running. Please note that I don’t recommend this, even for serious athletes. I’m just saying, you could.

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A couple of final things to bear in mind: if the staff has recently cleaned the sauna, it will retain water and the relative humidity will significantly affect the time you can spend working out. Don’t try and meet an unrealistic target if there’s moisture in the air. Also, vary your routine so that you occasionally spend more time relaxing; three workouts and two relaxation days will improve your stamina and your tolerance together.

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Sauna training by nature pushes you harder than your body is willing to endure. Over time you can build a tolerance that will be satisfying and safe, but you must take that time and always keep in mind that your safety is key. If there is any indication of headache, dizziness, blurred vision, coughing or other unusual symptoms, just walk out the door and come back healthy another day.

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Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice… but you already got that, right?

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Jon

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2 comments

  1. Gabriel Beauchemin

    Thank you exactly what I was lokking for!

  2. I am 69 years old in live in Ontario, Canada where we have cold winters. I suffer from upper back arthritis and would not be able to stay in Ontario for the winter if it was not for my sauna. the pain from the arthritis would drive me to the southern US. Going into the sauna on an average of 3 to 4 times a week completly keeps the pain at bay. Because my sauna is at home I can regulate the temerature down to 140 degrees. I will relax for 20 min’s and stretch or ride a stationary bike or do light weights for another 40 to 50 minutes. Total time in the sauna is about 70 minutes. About 10 years ago I developed angina because of a partially blocked artery at the top of the heart. I have never had a heart attack but am on heart medicineS. Because I relax for the first 20 minutes and let my body warm up I never have angina in the sauna and I do push the exercise fairly hard once I warm up. I don’t usually hear the promotion of the sauna to relieve arthritis but I can swear that is is very benificial. I have checked with my doctor and he is very supportitive of what I am doing.

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