Bathhouses are not a part of American sports culture, but they should be.
Going to the bathhouse has been a crucial part of my athletic development. Each visit drains me of water, electrolytes, and energy, but the following morning I’m feel refreshed, ready to work, and ready to recover. It’s like a reset switch.
A bathhouse is a facility with saunas, Jacuzzis, steam rooms, cold pools, and showers.
Nearly all Eastern-European weightlifters (and athletes from most sports) are instructed to visit the bathhouse on a weekly basis. It’s just as important for their progress as the actual training process. Skipping the bathhouse isn’t an option, and a good coach will make sure that all of his/her athletes are just as dedicated to frequenting a bathhouse as they are to any other part of their training.
In the US, few athletes visit a sauna regularly. And fewer go to proper bathhouses for the full bathhouse experience on which many professional weightlifters rely.
The following is a typical training schedule for professional Eastern-European weightlifters:
Notice how a typical professional weightlifter is scheduled to visit the bathhouse three times per week (plus a massage twice a week – more on that below).
There are very few sources of legitimate scientific information that I could find online about the benefits of saunas, so I asked Dr. Kevin O’Fallon, the “muscle doctor” and Research Physiologist at US Army/Natick Labs in MA, and Professor and Russian National Powerlifting Coach Boris Sheiko to help me gather scientific literature on the topic. All of the studies/articles we used are linked here.
Here are some of the most relevant facts from these studies on the benefits of using a sauna:
- Performance improvement: Athletes are able to perform better following a visit to the sauna. Studies have shown this when testing counter movement jumps, wrist strength, and grip strength. Studies have also shown significant increases in levels of HGH and endurance. (Sources: 1, 6, 8, 12, 13, 20, 21, 22)
- Skin: capillaries are forced to work and get good ‘exercise’ by contracting and dilating, pores open up and get cleaned out (in dry heat), dead skin cells get removed (especially with a “venik” or scrub). (Sources: 12, 13, 15)
- Blood: Blood throughout the entire body, including stagnated blood, is forced to move and systolic pressure increases while diastolic pressure decreases. Lipid content, cholesterol, and free radical amounts get reduced. (Sources: 2, 3, 17)
- Stress and happiness: using a sauna results in an increase in dopamine and serotonin levels, because of which participants saw relief in stress and muscle tension. (Sources: 13)
- General health and longevity: increased frequency of sauna bathing is associated with a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. (Sources: 23)
The general consensus in the Soviet sports community is that athletes recover faster when they visit the sauna often. The sauna increases blood flow within muscles and removes unwanted materials from the blood. After the sauna, the increased blood flow will continue, allowing more nutrients into the muscles that are required for muscle recovery.
You can go to the local gym with a good sauna and get almost everything you need from it. Or, you can go to a traditional bathhouse with friends and teammates and make an evening out of it. I prefer the latter.
A Russian bathhouse, or “banya” in Russian, costs $30-40 per visit and typically has Russian food, beer, and a good atmosphere for spending 2-4 hours with friends or just enjoying the time by yourself. I like to go with a group of 2-5 friends. When there, we go into a few different saunas, maybe a total of 5-6 times total. When we’re not in the sauna, we typically sit and eat, drink tea, water, or beer, talk, get a massage, and enjoy the process.
Saunas in bathhouses are typically larger than Globo-gym saunas and have multiple levels you can sit or lay on. The higher you go, the hotter it gets (heat rises). Everyone in a group can enjoy the same sauna even with individuals preferring different temperatures.
Heat and time
Non-professional/young athletes are required to go to a sauna 1-2 times per week. The temperature in the sauna should be about 90-95° Celsius, which is typical in most hotter Globo-gym saunas or lower levels of bathhouse saunas. Young athletes should enter the sauna about three times per visit, each time for 5-7 minutes.
Professional/adult athletes need a hotter sauna, at 95-110° Celsius, which, most Globo-gym saunas do not produce. Professional athletes should go to the bathhouse 2-3 times per week, each time entering the sauna about four times, for about 10 minutes each time.
*** If you feel lightheaded or short of breath – leave the sauna to cool down.
- Wear swim trunks or a bathing suit. This isn’t the Soviet Union anymore. Everyone is covered, and you’ll look pretty silly if you head in there naked.
- Although most bathhouses provide flip flops you can borrow, I recommend bringing your own. You’ll be more comfortable and are less likely to catch someone else’s fungus (or spread your own). Just a suggestion.
- Standard bathouses have various levels of benches you can sit on. The higher you go, the hotter it gets. Your head will likely be the highest body part in the sauna – that’s where your brain is housed. Don’t let your brain overheat. Many people prefer to keep their head covered with a sauna hat which can be purchased at any bathhouse. You can also just use a towel – I usually just wrap a small towel over my head when it gets too hot.
- Get a robe at the bathhouse if you’re feeling extra fancy. Otherwise, wrap yourself in 1-2 towels.
- Most bathouses provide towels for free. You can use as many as you want. I typically go through 5-8 towels per visit.
A venik (“broom” in English) is a bundle of leafy birch or oak tree twigs that you can buy at the bathhouse. Athletes and the elderly often use veniks to add extra heat to major muscles to increase benefits and relieve muscle aches and other injuries. To use a venik, lightly wave it around in the air to heat it up, and then use it to fan hot air onto your skin while letting it lightly touch the skin to transfer the heat from the leaves. You can do this by yourself or get someone else to do it for you.
When using the venik, a lot of heat will constantly blow onto your hand. It is recommended that you use a special venik glove to prevent blistering on your venik hand.
Before using the Venik, you should make the sauna hotter (below).
Making the sauna hotter
To make the sauna hotter, pour some hot water on the rocks (on the sauna oven) to increase the moisture in the air. As the water evaporates (instantly), the air becomes more humid and dense, increasing its effect on you. If you’re in a small sauna, don’t pour more than a few tablespoons of water on the rocks, as you may damage the oven. If you’re in a Russian bathhouse with a large oven, throw small buckets onto the rocks every 3-5 minutes.
Sauna and massage
When muscles get stiff, many athletes go to a massage therapist. However, when the muscles are stiff, getting through the superficial layers of the muscles is very difficult and usually takes the entire length of the massage session. But if you get a massage (from a therapist at the bathhouse or self-massage) directly after softening the muscles in a bathhouse, the massage will be much deeper, as the superficial layers will already be soft.
Getting a massage too often is also not recommended. But 1-2 times per week, after an hour or two in the bathhouse is ideal.
There’s a limit to how long you can sit in a sauna. At some point you will start to overheat and need to cool down. You have three options:
- Leave the sauna and go sit in the lounge area to let your body cool off
- Jump under a cold shower (there’s always at least one right next to the sauna)
- Jump into the cold pool (every Bathhouse has a cold pool)
- Dump a bucket full of ice-water on your head (available inside some saunas)
All of these work well, however, when you do cool yourself down with cold water and then go sit down outside of the sauna, your body may be too cold, and will start to use energy to warm back up. It’s recommended that after a cold plunge, shower, or bucket of water, step back into the sauna for 1-2 minutes to heat back up.
After the bathhouse
The bathhouse will leave you drained of electrolytes, fluids, and energy. All of your internal systems will be drained, and your skin and hair will be wet. After visiting the bathhouse, it’s very easy to get sick if it’s cold outside. Dress warm and cover every piece of skin with warm clothing.
Draining your body can be very beneficial, so long as you replenish the fluids and electrolytes that were lost. Drink plenty of water, and make sure to have drinks/foods with electrolytes. I’ve found that Gatorade is ideal in terms of electrolytes replenishment. (Source 11)
See you at the banya!
Thank you to Lisa Lokshina, Lisa Tsetlina, Kevin O’Fallon, Boris Sheiko, Vasily Polovnikov, and Nadezhda Evstyukhina for your help!