Foam rollers, massage guns and ice baths — there's certainly no shortage of fitness recovery tools out there. And after a tough lift, long run or high-intensity swim, they're a necessity, especially if you want peak performance.
Now, you can add infrared sauna to your list of treatments to try. There's a lot of buzz and speculation around infrared and its purported health benefits, with workout recovery being one of the most widely touted.
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Learn what happens to your body when you use an infrared sauna and how to recover as safely as possible.
Although infrared saunas are a safe recovery tool for most people, those with pre-existing conditions or health concerns should consult a doctor before they try their first session. Generally, infrared saunas are not recommended for pregnant people, those who have a fever or those who have insensitivity to heat.
What Is an Infrared Sauna?
Unlike other dry saunas, infrared saunas have light panels either on the ceiling or walls, which glow red. These saunas usually only get to about 135 degrees (traditional saunas can go up to 195 degrees) but use the infrared lamps to warm your body directly, rather than heating up the air temperature, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
"Infrared light is invisible, just above red visible light," Joel Kahn, MD, an integrative cardiologist who has encouraged infrared as a supplementary tool for some of his patients, says. "It is a form of light therapy, which involves getting exposed to sufficient intensity of infrared light to experience health benefits."
Infrared light has three different wavelengths, according to Dr. Kahn: near infrared waves (NIR), mid infrared waves (MIR) and far infrared waves (FIR). Each of these wavelengths are a little different, but the far waves are thermal and provide the heat that you actually feel, according to NASA. The shorter waves you can't feel at all.
What Happens When You Use an Infrared Sauna?
What exactly happens when you sit down in an infrared sauna? The infrared rays warm your body temperature and raise your heart rate, promoting increased circulation, according to the Mayo Clinic. That's how you get the benefits from the treatment (more on that below).
As you look around the sauna, you may notice a glowing red light, too. In some infrared saunas you may be able to change the light color. This light doesn't actually heat the room but rather provides light therapy, which is intended to help improve your skin or improve pain and inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, there's no firm research to suggest that light therapy actually provides much health benefit.
After you've settled in, you can expect to sweat quite a bit, despite that the temperature is lower than a standard sauna and there's no steam, per the Mayo Clinic. That's what makes infrared a better option for those who can't sit through super high heat.
You don't have to sit in the sauna too long to experience the benefits, but you probably shouldn't be in there much longer than 30 minutes, per the Cleveland Clinic.
You may be familiar with some claims that connect infrared sauna and improved blood pressure or reduced chronic pain. But there's currently no data that confirms these links, and more research is still needed to make any conclusions.
However, the infrared sauna can be used as a day-to-day recovery tool for athletes and casual gym-goers (or anyone just looking for a refresh). Just as you might experiment with cryotherapy, infrared sauna is another recovery treatment that may offer some benefit but, at the very least, likely won't have any adverse affects.
3 Fitness Benefits of Using an Infrared Sauna
1. Better Recovery
Increased blood flow is a big part of muscle recovery after exercise, according to the University of Rochester Medicine. When you train, your body forms new capillaries and brings fresh blood and oxygen into your muscles. This helps you lift, run and jump during your workout.
Your blood is also responsible from carrying your muscles' waste back to your kidneys, which is how your body rebuilds damaged muscle tissue. That's why improved circulation is such a big part of the recovery process.
Infrared saunas are one tool that can help speed your post-workout recovery process, according to Dr. Kahn. By increasing your body temperature and therefore heart rate, the sauna promotes circulation, helping heal your muscles.
2. Muscle Soreness Relief
Infrared saunas may also help relieve sore muscles, according to Dr. Kahn. Considering the infrared waves are able heat your body from within, they can better penetrate your muscles and tissues.
And this seemed to be the case for the athletes in a small July 2015 study in Springerplus. Athletes who sat in an infrared sauna with far-infrared waves experienced more recovery benefits, including muscle relief, than athletes who did no sauna.
"Far infrared is known to help with muscle soreness, and near infrared helps with tissue regeneration to help repair and grow muscles faster," Dr. Kahn says.
3. Improved Performance
In addition to your recovery, infrared can also have a positive effect on your performance, according to a September 2015 study in the Journal of Athletic Enhancement.
After sitting in a far-infrared sauna for 40 minutes each night for five days, athletes saw improved muscle activation, better explosive force production and speed performance compared to athletes who used no sauna. With that said, researchers did conclude that while infrared is a great supplemental recovery method, it shouldn't replace nutrition, sleep and muscle massage.
How to Use the Infrared Sauna
Before you jump into a long sauna session, start slow with a lower temperature, recommends the Cleveland Clinic. Begin with 5 to 10 minutes at a time and slowly increase the time length and temperature as you grow more comfortable.
Make sure you're well hydrated before you use the sauna and bring a water bottle with you. You may even want to consider adding some electrolytes to your bottle before you begin.
Bottom line: Chances are, the infrared sauna isn't going to work any magic — nothing can. And a session can cost as much as a boutique workout class ($35-50), so there is some investment involved (however, many studios offer membership packages).
But some time in the sauna probably won't hurt and for those who want to incorporate a new recovery treatment it may be worth a try. And as someone who has tried an infrared sauna herself, the peaceful alone time is a nice bonus.
Want to Invest In Your Own At-Home Option?
- Sunlighten Portable Infrared Sauna (Price Varies, Sunlighten.com)
- Signature Infrared Sauna (Price Varies, Sunlighten.com)
- Cleveland Clinic: "Infrared Saunas: What They Do and 6 Health Benefits"
- University of Rochester: "It's All About Blood Flow"
- Springerplus: "Effects of Far-Infrared Sauna Bathing on Recovery From Strength and Endurance Training Sessions in Men"
- Journal of Athletic Enhancement: "Effects of Far Infrared Heat on Recovery in Power Athletes"
- NASA: "The Infrared Region"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Red Light Therapy"