Recovery Trends: What’s the Deal with Infrared Saunas?

Recovery Trends: What’s the Deal with Infrared Saunas?

Bernadette Machard de Gramont
by Bernadette Machard de Gramont
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Recovery Trends: What’s the Deal with Infrared Saunas?

The idea of going for a sweat in a heated space is not new.  From Native American sweat lodges to Finnish sauna baths, cultures all over the world have praised the physical physical (and spiritual) benefits of a full body sweat. And while traditional saunas have been around for years, far-infrared sauna (FIR) is one of the latest trends.

The History of Saunas

Saunas have been pretty popular among the health-conscious for over 70 years in the United States. During the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Americans noted the use of the sauna by Finland’s athletes and were inspired to incorporate the Finnish sauna with their own athletic training back home. Sauna manufacturers popped up stateside shortly after, and their sales have grown steadily ever since.  During the last couple of decades, FIR saunas have gained popularity, replacing the traditional radiant heat units that have been a mainstay at gyms and health-related facilities.

What Makes the Infrared Sauna Better?

FIR saunas may simply feel more tolerable! Traditional dry saunas typically use high heat (at least 150°F), relying on hot air to produce a profuse sweat, which can be unbearable for some. FIR saunas use infrared light which produces lower heat (about 120-140°F) but is still able to penetrate up to one and half inches beneath the skin, heating the body from the inside out, and causing you to sweat at less intense temperatures. Some of the health benefits claimed by FIR treatment are improvement in cellular health (due to increased blood flow), lowered blood pressure, detoxification, increased immune system performance, better muscle recovery, and providing a supplemental calorie burn (particularly useful while recuperating from injuries that don’t allow full workouts).

A Sauna Session Debunked

While the jury is out on whether the purported benefits of FIR saunas are really there, some do swear on this fitness trend. The popularity of FIR saunas have surged in recent years with many boutique sauna spas to cropping up in major cities. Sweatheory, a Hollywood wellness spa, offers infrared saunas as well as fringe trends like IV therapy. A typical sweat session is $35 and can last anywhere from 30-45 minutes.

Sweatheory CEO Olivia Doneff says the popularity of the infrared sauna treatment has grown every year, with many of her clients coming in up to five times a week.  She compares each session to a light cardio workout, as your heart rate elevates after about 15 minutes into the session, increasing blood flow and helping with circulation. Doneff recalls that during the initial stages of daily use she would see signs of pollutants rising to the surface of her skin, likely accumulated in her system because of Los Angeles’ infamous smog issues.

Health coach and nutritionist Shauna Faulisi recommends FIR sauna therapy to her clients who want to “level up” their health. Faulisi, a former dancer who stays active with plenty of Pilates, yoga, and boxing, takes her own advice and heads to the sauna 3-4 times monthly. “Immediately after infrared I notice how soft my skin feels, and the calmness in my body,” she says. “I have a really easy time winding down and fall asleep that evening. The sleep quality after infrared is on another level.”

Infrared Sauna For Exercise Recovery

While infrared saunas may be trendy for metabolic boost and clearer skin, some medical professionals and athletic trainers find the therapy helpful for athletic conditioning and speeding up recovery.

Physical therapist Michelle Rodriguez, founder of the Manhattan Physio Group in New York, recommends infrared sauna use to many of her clients, including the ballet dancers of American Ballet Theater. In an interview with Vogue magazine, Rodriguez recommends the following for to enhance recovery for an injured client, “Forty minutes in the sauna will increase blood flow dramatically sending a surge of oxygenated blood to the (affected) area.”

“Increasing your core temperature for short bursts is not only healthful, it can also dramatically improve performance,” says Dr. Rhonda Patrick, Ph.D, a fellow at UCSF-Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. “Hyperthermic conditioning optimizes blood flow to the heart, skeletal muscles, skin, and other tissues because it increases plasma volume. This leads to endurance enhancements in your next workout or race, when your core body temperature is once again elevated.”

The Verdict

So is it worth it? A single infrared session can run anywhere from $35-65 at a spa, and installing an at-home unit could cost a couple thousand dollars. While the research around FIR is fairly limited, there is no doubt that spending time in the sauna with the intent to relax and recover is beneficial. “All my clients feel amazing when they come out,” says Doneff. “Sweating is so good for you, and it’s great to take time for yourself.”  

Have you tried infrared saunas? Share your experience in the comments below.

About the Author

Bernadette Machard de Gramont
Bernadette Machard de Gramont

Bernadette holds a BA in Dance from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, where her coursework included kinesiology, anatomy and nutrition. She currently teaches Pilates in the Bay Area and uses her movement background to help her clients explore their strength, increase their mobility and enjoy being in their bodies. In addition to Pilates and ballet, she sweats it out at SoulCycle, Barry’s Bootcamp, Zumba and loves churning out healthy and nutritious recipes in her spare time. Follow her at LoveofTaste.com, and on Twitter and Instagram.

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