Sleep – why you should make it your number 1 recovery tool

“The benefits of sleep cannot be overstated. It’s hands-down the most powerful recovery tool known to science. Nothing else comes close to sleep’s recovery-enhancing powers.” Christie Aschwanden

Sleep should be the most important recovery strategy in our training programs, and yet sleep can often undervalued in our quest for improved personal performance. When your life is already full with work and family commitments, it’s challenging to fit all your key training sessions in your week, especially in high volume/load periods. That’s when a common approach is to wake up earlier in order to get training done as your first priority for the day. That plan is fine if you’re able to go to bed earlier and maintain regular good quality sleep habits. Unfortunately, life is good at getting in the way of best intentions, and it can be easy to find yourself chronically short of an hour’s sleep, most nights, for weeks without realising it. You tell yourself that you’re feeling tired because you’re in heavy training, and you continue to get up for those early morning swim squads and Zwift rides, rather than sleep for another hour, because you don’t dare miss a training session. It’s tempting to believe that an hour’s less sleep doesn’t really matter – but those lost hours of rest will have more impact on your performance than the training sessions you pushed through while tired.

Six weeks ago, I had major surgery which required me to stop all exercise for at least one month. The most immediate change I noticed was how quickly my body fell back into my pre-Ironman life sleep routine. I’ve been waking up fresh every morning after six to seven hours sleep, recharged and wide awake, instead of craving another half hour in bed. It’s made me realise that while I thought I was doing fine on seven hours sleep when in heavy training, I’ve really been robbing myself of the best recovery tool I have available to me: more sleep.

There are well established negative effects of sleep deprivation on athlete performance, including reaction time, accuracy, strength, stamina/endurance and mood. Reasoning functions such as judgment and decision-making are also compromised. It has a pro-inflammatory effect, which can result in poor muscle recovery and repair, reduced immunity, and altered pain perception. Chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes, and impaired hormonal function.

If you’ve ever read a book on endurance training, you will most likely have learnt about the stimulus-fatigue-recovery-adaptation concept. In short, the theory states that fatigue accumulates in proportion to the effort and duration of an exercise load, and then after sufficient rest, fatigue dissipates and your body adapts to that specific load by becoming stronger.

Poor sleep induces a catabolic state (wasting), whereas good sleep promotes an anabolic response (building). Therefore, after a high load/volume training day, the two best recovery and adaptation tools you have available in the following 24 hour period are good quality sleep and nutrition. Insufficient sleep and poor nutrition will blunt the very training adaptations you are seeking.

Sleep deprivation can be confusing for an ultra-distance athlete. We train long, we train hard, and we accept that sometimes we are completely knackered and good for nothing more lying on the couch. After extremely tough training sessions and races, it can be difficult to sleep at all.

In the Sleep Hygiene review, a mere six to seven hours was found to be the common sleep duration for elite athletes, and the authors recommend increasing sleep by two hours for athletes, with the goal being up to nine hours per night. They contend that while nine hours per night may seem excessive to some, there are three pillars of health which are equally important for both performance and overall health: exercise, diet and sleep.

So how do you know if you have good sleep habits and health? You don’t need a fancy app or monitor to assess this, and smart technology can’t tell you how much sleep you need to thrive as an athlete and a person. In order to determine your ideal sleep and recovery relationship, you will need to tune in to your individual requirements for sleep duration, sleep quality and sleep timing. A simple way to do this is to track your sleep for a week when you can allow yourself to go to bed when you feel tired, and wake up without an alarm, or any urgency to be out of bed at a certain time. If you are waking up naturally, feeling well rested and mentally alert, then this is a good indication of your optimal sleep pattern.

If you have problems with getting to sleep, or remaining asleep for the duration of the night, these strategies may help:

  1. Avoid strenuous, high intensity exercise in the evening, as this raises cortisol (stress) levels. For homeostasis, your cortisol levels should be dropping at night.
  2. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol if possible – if using, don’t consume in the evening.
  3. Have a sleep ritual which induces physical and mental relaxation.
  4. Avoid using devices which emit blue light (eg. phone and computer screens) in the evening as they interfere with melatonin production.
  5. Avoid naps during the day if they prevent you from feeling sleepy at night and getting good sleep. However, naps can be a good addition if you are exhausted and feel that you need extra sleep; or as a way to ‘bank’ sleep if you know you will be getting less sleep in the next few days (eg. travel and jet lag, pre-race nerves etc). It’s recommended not to nap for more than an hour, and ideally to do so between 1 – 3pm when the body’s natural rhythm is slower.
  6. Add nutritional sleep promoters and wake inhibitors to your evening ritual, such as a carbohydrate-rich snack, milk, tart cherry, kiwifruit, magnesium, or supplemental melatonin, all of which contain certain compounds that can assist with improving sleep quality.

References:

Christie Aschwanden: ‘Good to Go’ (chapter 7, The Rest Cure), Pan Macmillan UK.

‘Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations’, Kenneth C. Vitale,et al; Int J Sports Med. 2019 Aug; 40(8): 535–543.

‘Sleep and Nutrition Interactions: Implications for Athletes’, Rónán Doherty et al; Nutrients. 2019 Apr; 11(4): 822.

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