Issue 205

May 2024

Ray Klerck explores the ancient practice of heat therapy through saunas, highlighting their transformative impact on modern MMA fighters' training, recovery, and longevity, with insights from top fighter Gilbert Burns.

Long before the Joe Rogan Experience put saunas on the map, ancient warriors were already sweating out their battle aches, proving that heat therapy has always been the hottest way to bounce back from a tough day on the front line. Spartans. Samurai. Vikings. They all used heat as therapy. In MMA, saunas used to be for weight cuts, but now it’s a practise that’s revolutionizing how fighters train, recover, and mentally prepare for their bouts. This ancient practice, rooted in the traditions of soldiers, is gathering more scientific research each year, showing profound impacts on physical and mental health, making it an indispensable tool for MMA fighters.


Heat therapy can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The Greeks and Romans used bathhouses for cleansing, socializing, and strategizing before battles. In Northern Europe, the Finns perfected the sauna, using it as a place for physical and spiritual rejuvenation. Ancient warriors believed that the heat could cleanse the body and mind, preparing them for the rigors of combat. It’s a practice that many MMA fighters have adopted because it’s so powerful for both mental resilience and recovery. UFC top 10 Welterweight fighter Gilbert Burns had nothing but praise for sauna when Fighters Only caught up with him recently.

“You’ve got to have longevity in the sport,” explains Burns, who is nudging 38 this year. “If I became a champion very early, it’s okay, but you still want to be able to fight for as long as you can. You need to be able to perform. It’s keeping up at the highest level. You have to invest in your recovery, and my SaunaFin sauna is one of the best things I’ve done for my body. It keeps my body loose, moving well, and ready for the next session.” 


Fighters like Burns, who is almost 38 years old, can get more longevity out of their careers because saunas aren’t just for cutting weight anymore. They’re a longevity asset. A groundbreaking study by scientists at the University of Eastern Finland demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session could significantly reduce blood pressure and increase vascular compliance, which is similar to the effects of medium-intensity exercise. The research highlighted that sauna sessions elevate heart rates and body temperatures, mimicking a cardiovascular workout without the physical strain. "Sauna bathing reduces blood pressure and increases vascular compliance, offering cardiovascular benefits comparable to physical exercise," says Professor Jari Laukkanen, who led the study.

Another comprehensive review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found regular sauna use is linked to a reduced risk of vascular diseases, neurocognitive diseases, and various nonvascular conditions. The study also noted improvements in mental health, respiratory diseases, and overall quality of life. Burns seconds these effects with his glowing review of the sauna’s unexpected benefits. 

“The sauna helps me with a lot of things,” he smiles. “It helps with flexibility, muscle soreness, inflammation, and even helps me spend time with my kids, friends, and family. I like the sauna because it’s like a community thing. I’m a Christian and have five Christian friends who are all professional fighters, and we spend time together in the sauna. We train in the garage, stretch, talk, and laugh. So, the sauna has been a big help to me.” 


For MMA fighters, the rigorous demands of training and competition can take a toll on the body. Saunas provide a means to enhance recovery and maintain peak performance. The heat helps in muscle relaxation, reducing soreness, and accelerating the healing process of minor injuries. Moreover, the mental benefits of saunas cannot be overstated. The tranquil environment allows fighters to decompress, reducing stress and anxiety, which are crucial for mental resilience in high-stakes matches. Burns, who has a backyard SaunaFin sauna, believes in this and more. 

“There are so many variables to become a champion,” said Burns. “It’s not just training hard. Training hard is a must, but after you train hard, there are a lot of things you have to do. You have to get better food, better health, better supplementation, and better recovery. You need a great coach, team, and the psychology of the sport. Your faith has to be strong, too. My advice is to try to cover each and every one of them. You can get there, but you need to stay there. When you get these boxes ticked, that’s the way to get there. After I’m done with the sauna, I feel all the stress is gone, my body is nice and loose, and I’m ready to take a nice nap or have a good night's sleep, and my energy is back.” 


As the benefits of saunas become more widely recognized, their integration into MMA is growing. Fighters are using saunas not only for post-training recovery but also for weight management before fights. The intense sweating during a sauna session helps cut weight safely and effectively, a critical aspect in making weight classes in MMA.

“During all my preparation for the fight, I use a sauna,” explains Burns. “When you’ve got a drop weight, you’ve got to sweat a lot more. That’s how we make the weight. Sure, we diet a lot, but after the diet, we all look to cut the water off the body. The sauna has been a big help. It makes the weight cut easy. When I get there, my body is already flushing the water out. It’s easy to map how much I’ll lose, so if I do three 10-minute rounds, I know I’ll lose around 7 – 8 pounds. It’s there to help me get everything by the book. 

From the ancient warriors who used heat to prepare for battle to modern MMA fighters leveraging the same principles for recovery and performance, saunas have stood the test of time. The convergence of ancient wisdom and modern science underscores the sauna's role in enhancing physical and mental fortitude. As research continues to unveil the myriad benefits of saunas, they will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone in the training regimens of fighters striving for greatness in the octagon.