You know that getting eight hours sleep a night is good for you. But factor in a working day, a bit of training or riding, an hour or two travelling, an hour eating and changing, dashing around as the kids’ taxi service, and a couple of hours of just being and – well, you do the maths. Struggling to make it add up?
The obvious way to cram more into your day is to snip off bits of the night. Earlier mornings, pushing lights-out later, and bingo, you’re squashing everything in. But this might not be quite the ‘brilliant’ solution you think it is.
Your mind is racing so you’re tossing and turning half the night. Your legs feel like lead. You’re drinking double espressos to get through the afternoon. And that big fat sugary doughnut suddenly looks like the best breakfast on earth. That’ll be the fatigue setting in...
The latest research shows getting enough sleep is essential for optimum performance – and that sleep deprivation plays with your mind as well as your body. So here’s why hitting the hay is so important for hitting your race targets – and what you can do to make sure you get enough vitamin Zzz.
Your nightly MOT
“Regular, good-quality sleep is essential for your body’s physical repair process, but also for your mental health and agility,” says Dr Guy Meadows, sleep and sports scientist, and cross-channel swimmer.
Scientists divide sleep into five stages: “The deep sleep of stages three and four is when your body releases human growth hormone (HGH) to repair muscles and bones,” says Meadows. “Stage five is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It’s when you dream, when you lay down memories and boost cognitive performance, enhancing skills and techniques you’ve learned during training.”
The latest research from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, showed complex learning tasks such as getting the hang of a new song on Guitar Hero become easier if you sleep well – so the same goes for learning swim technique or mastering fast transitions.
Good sleep, good performance
The boffins who make it their business to find out what boosts athletic performance have revealed that good quantities of sleep increase sprint time, energy levels and shooting accuracy in basketball players; and improve athletic vigour and alertness for footballers.
A study using Stanford University men’s and women’s swimming teams also revealed that athletes who extended their sleep to 10 hours per day for six to seven weeks swam a 15m sprint 0.51 seconds faster, reacted 0.15 seconds quicker off the blocks, improved turn time by 0.10 seconds and increased kick strokes by five kicks, as well as setting personal bests.
Bad sleep? You guessed it...
Just as filling up your Z-tank helps you reach optimum performance levels, skimping on sleep can put unwanted obstacles in the path to your next personal best. “There are basic things your body needs to function properly – temperature regulation, energy recovery, and heart function are all affected by sleep as well as things like concentration and focus.”
Studies have shown various detrimental effects of chronic sleep deprivation – from reducing the performance of the heart, to increasing blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and interference with blood sugar metabolism. “Lack of sleep over several weeks results in persistent fatigue and ultimately overtraining syndrome,” says endurance coach and sports scientist Scott Murray.
Lack of sleep will leave you fatigued, and possibly too tired to even eat your porridge in the morning, let alone get out and ride
One night only
But what about short-term sleep loss – the pre-race jitters, the teething baby or work stress worries that keep you up all night before a key training session? (“I’ve even seen athletes hydrate so well during the day that they’re up at night peeing,” says Murray.)
One night’s disrupted sleep negatively affects motivation and increases anxiety, the number of lapses in concentration and delays in reaction time,” says Murray. “Two nights of broken sleep does have an effect on anxiety and anaerobic performance. And three nights of severely restricted sleep may not affect your gross motor functions (such as muscle strength, lung power and endurance running on a treadmill), but it'll reduce your exercise duration and motivation levels.”
A University of Colorado team recently discovered the metabolic cost of an adult missing one night of sleep is the equivalent of walking slightly less than two miles – the findings showed eight hours of sleep saved roughly 135 calories over eight hours of wakefulness. And research from the Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands showed that healthy subjects can become insulin-resistant after a shortened night of sleep (four hours in this case). Insulin resistance is the precursor state to diabetes, affecting your body’s ability to manage sugar, and therefore your energy levels.
Just do it
The good news? “When an event or crucial training session is on the horizon, adrenaline kicks in, and it helps us perform,” says Meadows. “And the way we view our sleepless night is also key – buying into the idea that we will perform badly starts a downward spiral of doubt that affects performance, whereas chalking it down to experience, and believing in the hours and weeks of previous training helps you to perform.”
In a study showing that one night of sleep deprivation decreased endurance performance only slightly, Dr Sam Oliver, from the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Bangor University in Wales, concluded that: “Altered perception of effort may account for decreased endurance performance after a night without sleep.” Get your mind in gear, and your body will follow.
No need for hang-ups
“One night of decent sleep helps you recuperate incredibly quickly after a sleepless night,” says Murray. “The key thing is not to start stressing about a less than decent night, or you add another pressure into the mix.” A US study from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research also showed that if you’ve been getting good sleep for just a week, you’ll handle a disturbed night or two much better, as protective benefits from the previous week keep you going.
Research has also shown that genetics may play a part in how much sleep you need in order to function well, so don’t get tied up thinking that eight hours is the essential figure, and get anxious if you’re not hitting that. “Everyone is individual,” says Meadows. “There’s no point trying to force yourself to sleep for nine hours if you can manage really well on seven.”
Listen to your body
It seems that out of the lab, and in the real world, lack of sleep becomes an issue if it happens over an extended period of time, rather than as a single night blip. “If your mind and body are both tired then you must listen,” says Catriona Morrison. “Dropping a training session, modifying your plans, getting an early night, having a long lie-in or taking a nap during the day will help to refresh you.
“If you push yourself when you're tired, you're at risk of overtraining, long-term fatigue and psychological staleness. Dropping a session and starting the next day fresh will mean the next day’s session is of far better quality. Don’t develop a guilt complex. If you need rest, take it.”
If you need rest, take it
How to join the sound asleep club
If sleep eludes you long-term, here are the expert solutions to try:
Cover the basics
- A dark room, at a cool temperature, with a decent mattress, and not a lot of noise
- A bedtime routine that includes unwinding before sleep
- Switch off the TV and computer a couple of hours before bedtime
“Exercising hard three hours before bedtime can lead to a disturbed sleep, but a moderate session can help sleep,” says Scott Murray. “You know your own body, so consider the training level.”
Food and drink
- Wait three hours after food before sleep
- Research shows large, and high-fat meals late in the evening affect sleep quality
- Avoid caffeine (from tea, coffee, cola and chocolate) from the afternoon onwards
- Foods rich in tryptophan, combined with healthy carbs, can help sleep, as your body uses it to create sleep-inducing serotonin and melatonin, and the carbs deliver it to the brain. Tryptophan-rich foods include pulses, turkey, eggs, sunflower seeds, miso, unsweetened soy milk and dairy products.
Energy lights can improve mood and energy levels after just 20 minutes.
“You don’t actually have to fall asleep to get benefits from a daily power nap,” says Dr Meadows. Close your eyes, be still, take time out and it will restore you. Even 10 minutes in the toilet at work can help, or on the train or tube journey home. Make it 15-20 minutes if you can, but no longer than 30 or you might feel fuzzy-headed.
“Our research using Kriya yoga meditation has shown teaching deep relaxation techniques during the daytime can help improve sleep,” says Dr Ramadevi Gourineni, director of the insomnia programme at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Evanston, Illinois, US.
“An ancient tradition of meditation, mindfulness means focusing on the present moment fully, rather than worrying about what’s happened in the past or being anxious about what might happen in the future,” says Meadows, who treats chronic insomnia using Mindful Sleep Therapy.
“If you’re lying awake worrying about being awake, try focusing on your senses – the feel of the pillow against your cheek, the sound of your breathing. When annoying or stressful thoughts come into your head, tell them now is not the time, and come back to your senses,” he says.
Japanese scientists have proven that a chemical in lemon and lavender essential oils – called linalool – alters blood chemistry to reduce stress. Put a couple of drops on a tissue, fold it into your pocket, and inhale when you feel stressed.
“Think of sleep in 90-minute cycles, not hours (so four cycles is six hours, five cycles is seven-and-a-half hours). The shorter four-cycle routine is commonly used to free up time and control sleep without losing quality,” says Nick Hales, sport sleep and recovery coach. “In 24 hours we have two natural sleep periods, nocturnal and mid-afternoon. So you can adopt a shorter period at night and combine that with an afternoon 20- or 40-minute nap or total downtime period.”
The sleeping pills question
If your health is suffering due to sleep problems, see your GP to discuss your individual case,” says Dr Pixie McKenna from Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies. “Doctors are very cautious about prescribing sleeping pills, but drugs called Zolpidem and Zaleplon don’t carry the same hangover side-effects or addiction dangers as Bonzodiazepines (such as Diazepam and Temazepam).
"You can use these for two to five days for a transient bout of insomnia, and not more than four weeks for short-term insomnia. Melatonin pills – the hormone that regulates the sleep pattern – can regulate short-term insomnia, but are only available on prescription in the UK to over-55s. Ask your doctor to recommend an over-the-counter brand.”
This article originally appeared in Triathlon Plus magazine