Are Saunas Good for You?
Dan Gable is probably one of the most successful wrestlers that’s ever lived. He won the wrestling world championships in 1971 and an Olympic gold in 1972 at the games in Munich, Germany. Gable was perfect in his campaign to Olympic gold, by not only winning, but also completely dismantling his opponents without surrendering a single point. For the non-wrestlers, this would be like winning the Super Bowl and not allowing a team to score a single point along the way. Or winning the World Series and throwing back-to-back no hitters.
Courtesy Dan Gable
As a coach at the University of Iowa, Gable led his wrestlers – the Iowa Hawkeyes – to 15 National Collegiate Athletic Association Wrestling Team titles and 25 consecutive Big Ten Championships. He coached 152 All-Americans, 45 National Champions, 106 Big Ten Champions and 12 Olympians, including eight medalists.
The 72-year-old wrestling legend now lives north of Iowa City, Iowa. Here, he shares his secret to working through adversity and finding success both on and off the mat. It’s a tool anyone can use: the sauna.
Gable’s Early Introduction to the Sauna
Gable first tried a steam room when he was five years old at a local YMCA with his father. Then in high school, he learned a sauna routine from a college wrestler, which led his parents to install one for him in their basement. By college, Gable was using the sauna every day, and he has ever since. As a young athlete, it helped him relax, control his weight and recover from workouts.
“It should really be a part of our (U.S. wrestlers) training from the beginning,” Gable says. “We’re at a disadvantage with everybody else in the world because they really use it a lot and they know what it’s for.”
The profound effects of sauna therapy are founded in science, according to Dr. James DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist and doctor of pharmacy at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. His book, “The Immunity Fix,” has an entire chapter dedicated to the sauna. Its benefits, he claims, ranging from athletic performance, weight loss, boosting the immune system and anti-aging qualities to cognitive benefits and mental health.
There is a statue of Gable outside of the University of Iowa’s wrestling gymnasium, the Carver-Hawkeye Arena that depicts him yelling at a referee to penalize his own wrestler for stalling. The statue reads: (NO) STALLING. It epitomizes Gable’s signature philosophy to trust in yourself and take action.
It’s an ideal that constantly echoes through Gable’s life. When he was 15, his sister was murdered in their family home. Prior to the incident, Gable had spoken with the neighborhood boy who took his sister’s life. The boy made comments about Gable’s sister that made him uneasy, but he considered it to just be “boy talk.” He had intended to say something to his family, but eventually “let it go. Within a month, that same guy murdered my sister.”
This tragic event motivated Gable. He says it’s made him a better communicator. After workouts, he uses the sauna as a time to pause, reflect and process his decisions. He became masterful at being honest with himself, noticing his missteps, and making adjustments.
“When I’m in the sauna, I’m going over everything that has taken place that day and everything that I want to accomplish that night and tomorrow,” Gable says. “That’s how I relax. Or if there’s something that bothers me, I study it. That’s really critical for me.”[
Brain Building in the Sauna
According to DiNicolantonio, just as you would strengthen your muscles by breaking them down to build them stronger, the sauna acts like exercise for your brain. This is a process called hormesis. The stress of the heat breaks down cells in your brain and that leads to healthier or stronger tissue and makes them more resistant to oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain that is commonly linked to mental health disorders. You are also increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which acts like fertilizer for your brain cells.
“After a sauna session, your brain is more resilient to stress,” DiNicolantonio says. “And so a stressful event that used to cause you anxiety, may not be as detrimental now because your brain cells are literally more resistant to the oxidative stress or the fight or flight response that might occur in the brain through stressful events.”
Gable used this same sauna-induced mental processing in wrestling. After his first and only loss in college, Gable, who keeps a log of his life decisions, went back through the entire year prior to his loss. He noted where he could have been better, then he turned to the sauna to calm down, reflect, and most importantly, change.
“You just don’t stop learning, but you have to have that sauna time to analyze,” Gable says. “Because if you’re just going 100 miles per hour all the time, you don’t understand anything.”
While training for the Olympics, if Gable would lose a takedown or miss an attack, he would mentally dissect it in the sauna.
As a coach, Gable passed on his sauna knowledge to his athletes, and they would often use it as a time for silent reflection. [
While competing, Gable attributes his ability to recover and out-train his opponents to alternating between the sauna and cold exposure.
“It’s kind of like a massage. It’s that last thing I was doing after each workout. But it wasn’t just the routine of a hot sauna. It was a cold plunge or cold shower and then back in the hot. I would do that (back and forth) for at least 30 to 40 minutes” after a workout. “That gave me an edge on recovery.”
While there’s some benefit to cold exposure after a sauna, DiNicolantonio suggests waiting before switching over to cold after a sauna session. This will optimize the elevation of heat shock proteins that are made when cells are briefly exposed to temperatures above their normal growth temperature and have an anti-inflammatory effect.
The cold temperatures “activate brown fats,” DiNicolantonio says. “That could increase fat loss through heat loss. If you go instantly cold, you’re decreasing the heat shock proteins that would have kept going up and stayed elevated.” He suggests waiting at least 30 minutes afterward being in a sauna before doing cold therapy.
The sauna also helped with Gable’s endurance and cardiovascular capacity. A benefit that has also been shown in research.
“If you become heat-acclimated in the sauna, you can actually exercise longer,” DiNicolantonio says. “So the increase in core body temperature that would have caused you to stop wrestling after five minutes, you can go longer now because your body is so used to being overheated through sauna use.”
While coaching, Gable saw a difference in his wrestlers’ abilities to train hard and to balance their lives as student athletes when they used the sauna.
“Early on, I realized that my kids could have an advantage with recovery and go back home and actually not be so tired that they have to go to bed,” Gable says. “They could actually do their homework if they wanted to come back and have a social life. It’s very valuable from that point of view.”
Now that he’s retired, the sauna remains a way for Gable to stay relaxed, healthy, and pain-free. Gable’s four daughters and 13 grandchildren keep him busy with family and sporting events. They often join him for his sauna and cold exposure routine. Gable also continues to promote wrestling around the country.
He has a sauna, a hot tub, and two steam rooms at his house. Every morning he takes a hot shower or gets in the hot tub and then goes straight into the sauna. After 10 to 12 minutes in the sauna, he jumps in a snowbank for a minute during the winter or a cold shower when snow isn’t available. And he alternates hot and cold for about 40 minutes total.
This ritual keeps him vibrant enough to work out for over an hour a day. After his workout, he goes back into the sauna.
“I’m living proof. There’s no way I would have been able to, in my life, go as long as I can without the sauna,” Gable says. “I never miss a day in my life.”