Is it worthwhile to use the sauna?
—Dylan, San Francisco, California
The sauna is good for more than playing Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” as you disrobe to just a towel (though that is a primary benefit). Whether the sauna is worthwhile depends on your goals and background.
First, the sauna increases blood volume and may improve performance. Along with blood cells, blood contains plasma that comprises more than 50 percent of blood volume in most people. More blood volume allows the heart to pump more with each beat, which powers working muscles. And bloodflow through capillaries on the skin’s surface is how the body cools itself during exercise.
A 2015 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that four sauna exposures of 30 minutes immediately after exercise can increase blood plasma volume by 17.8 percent. Theoretically, that should lead to performance benefits in all conditions, though some studies are mixed on how it impacts colder-weather performance.
Second, the sauna is a quick way to heat acclimation. Most dry saunas get over 160 degrees, a temperature where the body sweats profusely and releases heat shock proteins—two of several stimuli that the body can adapt to over time. A 2015 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that a few exposures to high heat can improve subsequent performance in heat.
Third, sauna use could have benefits outside of those related solely to the heat. Some evidence points to the increase of natural production of human growth hormone and EPO, two key elements in recovery and adaptation to stress. One 2015 study in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal found that frequent sauna users lived longer, though those findings were later questioned as being a correlation without a causal mechanism.
If you stopped here, it would seem that the sauna is a place of unicorns and free avocado sides. However, the sauna can add undue body strain for athletes with stressful, jam-packed lives. It could also be risky for some people with medical conditions (consult your doctor).
If you decide to use it, research indicates that it’s best done for 20 to 30 minutes after exercise in a dry sauna, which gets hotter than a steam room. It’s probably not in the top 10 list of most important things for training, but once you’ve checked off all the other boxes like maximizing aerobic training volume, doing strength work and getting massages, it could make a positive difference in your performance.
How do you know if you’re ready to run an ultramarathon?
—Michael R., Millington, Maryland
You don’t know! Like they say about parenting your first child: there is no perfect time, and no way to know if you’re ready. An ultra is a leap into the unknown, also with spittle and mushy food.
There are two things to think about when deciding whether or not to run an ultra: physical preparedness and psychological motivation.
Physically, ultras are extreme stresses for your aerobic and musculo-skeletal systems. Aerobically, easy miles spur angiogenesis, increasing capillary density to supply fuel to working muscles. Blood volume and cardiac stroke output increase from a mix of miles and intensity. The body gets more efficient at turning fat to fuel at higher intensities by recruiting slow-twitch muscle fibers and doing long runs that cause glycogen depletion. All of those adaptations don’t require a crazy commitment to training, just consistency. Can you picture yourself physically able to commit to consistent training to complete a road marathon? Then you’re ready to run almost any trail distance from the aerobic and metabolic perspective.
A bigger concern is musculo-skeletal strain. Over the course of an ultra, the body undergoes substantial impact forces, a lot of it happening when the body is fatigued. Injury susceptibility varies, so consider your history. If you’ve been constantly injured recently, it’s probably best to wait until you’re ready for four to six months of consistency. If you’re resilient and consistent, you can jump to the next step.
That step is the big one, though. Is an ultra best for you, mentally?
There is no right answer to that question. Make sure you think about why you are doing this at all. Happiness research indicates that a lot of what brings us fulfillment is an “atmosphere of growth,” thinking we are moving forward purposefully. That is countered by the “arrival fallacy,” a psychological principle where people don’t experience more happiness from reaching a destination. Sometimes, it’s the opposite.
Ultras are great to foster that atmosphere of growth, but the key is to continue dreaming, independent of results. There are two questions to mull. First, does the process of training sound fulfilling, independent of outcomes? Imagine you were guaranteed to DNF, or have the race cancelled the week before. If you’d still do the ultra training, then the process is fulfilling in its own right.
Second, how does the ultra fit into your broader running plans? The answer doesn’t matter, it’s just important to have a timeline that views the race as a check point on the running journey, rather than a finish line.
That’s all a long way of saying that almost everyone reading this could finish an ultra a year from now. But not everyone should.