Something that I have been reading up a lot on recently is the importance of sleep, sleep cycles and sleep ‘hygiene’. It is something that I have been trying to implement in my programme more after my first big race this season in Abu Dhabi. I had one of the best weeks of sleep and rest (mixed with training) of my career and subsequently had one of the best performances I’ve had after a very short pre-season and having shown no real form in training. I attributed the performance down to how well rested I was going into the race. Going onto the run you can often feel a bit lethargic and your body can be screaming at you to give yourself a rest, but on this occasion I felt so alert, strong and fresh! And remember this was a World Triathlon Series race, where I was racing at the top level there is in triathlon.
Unfortunately we live in a culture that does not value sleep enough. In everyday life sleep is seen as something that you kind of need but is not that important. If you go without sleep you can be seen as ‘tougher’ or being ‘more productive’. But actually it has proven that you are less productive without good sleep. When it comes to being an athlete, and especially one training and a high level or training a lot of hours it is imperative that your body is performing at a high level.
So after coming home from Abu Dhabi I started looking into this more and decided I was going to make sleep a high priority in my training schedule. While reading up on it I came across a really good podcast recently which can be found on YouTube here. It is a video by a body building outfit who are interviewing ‘sleep doctor’ Kirk Parsley. He makes some very interesting points about how much of an impact sleep can have on your performance not just in training, but in overall life. But the training effects can be immense if you get it right. The main point of the show is how sleep can increase natural testosterone levels in the body – something that some people illegally try to increase by taking supplements/creams etc., which are banned by WADA. This is at great cost to them both financially and legally, when they could just look to sleep more and sleep better.
Very little research has actually been done on sleep and the beneficial effects of it and why we need to do it at all. Even Dr. Parsley himself admits early in the video about how little he knew about sleep, even as a doctor, before he started studying it specifically.
If you want to hear some really in depth information I would highly recommend listening to the show all the way through. Dr Parsley talk through a lot of the scientific processes in the body that help/hinder your sleep patterns. But to sum up the podcast I have taken some of the more impactful points that come from the show:
- There is a direct positive correlation between increasing natural testosterone in the body and increased sleep time.
- If your testosterone levels go up you sleep more, and of you sleep more your testosterone goes up.
- All anabolic activity happens in deep sleep. So any improvement in your physical make up as an athlete happens when you are sleeping, in the deep phase of sleep.
- If you are injured, it is when you are sleeping that the body is working on repairing the damaged part the most.
- The optimum amount of sleep is 7.5-9 hours per night. BUT the more hours of hard training you do, them more hours of sleep you need – this is where naps come in handy!
- Deep sleep cycles are between 90-120 minutes and this is where the physical repair happens. So if you want to have a nap in the day and want to actually improve yourself physically then you should take a 1 /12 hour to 2 hour nap.
- Cognitive repair, muscle memory and anything creative is done in the lighter sleep cycles. So if you are looking to have a nap and need to concentrate well on something then a 20-45min nap will do the trick. This will make you feel more alert and make it easier to think clearly.
- Sleep medication may make you feel as though you are sleeping but it actually does nothing for you physical and mental recovery and repair functions. With sleeping medication your body effectively passes out. You get none of the anabolic activity that helps you to recover. So sleep medication, ironically, inhibits the exact functions that you are trying to maximise by sleeping.
- After some sleep intervention studies Dr Parsley found a 300% increase in ‘free testosterone’ levels in Navy SEALS with previously very bad sleep problems and who were taking medication to be able to sleep.
Steps you can take to increase you QUALITY sleep levels are numerous. But for me some of the most effective ones have proved to be the most simple. There a three main things you should be doing:
Black-out your bedroom
The one I would say that makes the most difference is to make light levels in your bedroom as low as possible. This has made the biggest difference to the quality of sleep I have been getting recently.
This can be in the form of blackout curtains, but simple things like switching off all electronics that my illuminate while you are sleeping can make a big difference. Put your iPhone or other smart phone on ‘Do Not Disturb’ mode overnight and you will not be disturbed by any calls or messages you may get overnight but can still pick them up in the morning.
The best method for me recently has been to wear an eye mask in bed. These are great because even with the curtains wide open and the sun blazing into your room you can sleep as if you are in the darkest of places.
Have a sleep routine
Having a routine for sleeping helps your body fall asleep more easily when it is time to do so. We all set an alarm to get up in the morning but try setting an alarm for yourself to start your going-to-bed-routine. It sounds stupid but this gets you putting more importance in sleep and makes you take it more seriously.
I have personally always struggled with getting enough sleep as I am a real night owl, staying up doing things that could really wait until the morning when I am more functional and useful! But getting into bed about 30min before you want to get to sleep will help you to get the amount you need.
Chill before bed!
Try not to do anything too stressful before bed. I always found myself booking expensive flights for long, complicated training and racing trips at the end of the day, just before bed. Stringing all the places together with the flights, accommodation, transfers, parking etc. etc. can make you brain work overtime. This is something you need to minimise just before you sleep. Try to get all your admin jobs done at least an hour before you are due to sleep.
If you need to get to bed soon and find yourself thinking about all the things you have to do, an effective solution is to write every task or job down – either in your phone or on a piece of paper. This will help clear your head and you can get on with the list when you have a good sleep under your belt!
So go ahead and try it. We all spend thousands of dollars/pounds on things that are going to make us better athletes and supplements that are going to make miracle improvements to our training and racing! But have you ever tried the completely free method of getting more quality sleep? It is scientifically and anecdotally tried and tested but still overlooked. Tonight, instead of spending an extra hour watching the latest episode of “Keeping up with the Game of Thrones” get your eye-mask on and get to bed of you want to smash that session in the morning!
Coping with, and how to avoid injuries
I am writing this blog in a pretty positive mood compared to how I have been for the past few weeks - since my crash-out in Cape Town and my development of a knee problem, which started before that crash. I’m not going to lie I have been a bit of a misery at times, as some of my nearest and dearest would be able to tell you! But I have done all I could to make the best of the situation and so I thought I would share what I have learned from the (ongoing) experience and hopefully you can take something from it too.
I just found out today that I will be racing the London World Triathlon Series event at the weekend, hence the positive mood! This was a nice reward for a few weeks of frustration and ambiguity of when /where I would be racing.
Before crashing in Cape Town I was actually carrying a bit of knee pain that had started the week before the race. I went to the race anyway and hoped that a few days off running would allow it to settle down and I could race fine on it. Whatever would have happened with the knee in the race didn’t, as I ended up being taken out on the bike by another athlete and hit the ground pretty hard (video of it can be seen on this blog). I went home with lots of road rash, a shoulder that I could barely move and a destroyed Zipp 303 and pretty much forgot about the knee! This was just 3 weeks after I had slid out on some mud in training too, so some just-healed cut had been re-opened! The worst thing about these smaller crashes is always the frustration of knowing the time off you are most likely going to have to take to recover. The pain is not something that bothers me, it’s more the feeling of weeks and months of training going to waste.
I decided to take a few days off because of deep cuts, an arm I couldn’t move and bruising and road rash all over my body. I was also hoping that a bit of forced rest would clear the knee up. My head went down after a few days of not really feeling any better and the rest turned into 1 week.
I started training again after the week off and soon realised that the knee problem had not left me. I was ok riding and swimming but running was aggravating it. So I stopped running for a few days. This is something I believe in: that you are better having a few days off and doing what you can without pain then over-doing it and making things worse. But then after a few more days it started hurting when cycling too. This is when things started to get very frustrating. I was now down to swimming and gym! At this point I was treating the problem with ice and anti-inflammatories but it obviously wasn’t working. So I decided to get some advice and some treatment on it from physios. I am lucky enough to have a girlfriend who is a great Physio and she helped me a lot with the treatments – needling, kinesio-taping, massage and strengthening exercises. It turned out to be an issue with the dreaded ITB, which was rubbing over the bones in the knee – a common problem in running and cycling.
Living at the pool/gym!
While I was sorting the knee out I was swimming twice a day and doing gym 5 times per week as I had read-up on and agreed on exercises to help the problem. I figured that I might as well use the time to hammer the swimming and get myself closer to being a real WTS front-pack swimmer! I could have aqua-jogged but I think that working on my swimming was better for my overall performance and more functional in triathlon terms. It would also serve as a good replacement for the lost volume from not being able to bike or run. But I have to say – swimming twice a day is BORING! I don’t know how swimmers do it. But I knew it was the best thing to be doing so I just sucked it up and got on with it. I did the odd short run/bike here and there to test the knee but for two weeks I felt like I was living at the pool!
During a time of injury I think everyone goes through the thoughts of: ‘What is the point?’, ‘Should I just quit?’ and ‘I don’t even feel like and athlete right now!’ It is very hard to stay positive but at the same time so important. Positivity will make the whole process of recovery easier and I believe it also helps you to recover more quickly. I did this by taking myself out of my normal training environment for a few days and heading to Bath to see friends. It helps take my mind off the injury and gives some perspective to a relatively small problem.
Since then my recovery has been much quicker and after delving a bit deeper into what to do about the problem, I was told that it was ok to bike and run on it up to the point of pain. With the interventions I have added it is much more manageable now and hopefully on the mend. One of the more unusual therapies I have had for it was “Cupping”. A really weird, unpleasant treatment that seems like something from medieval times – but I found it to be very effective for this particular problem. The pictures with this blog show you the aftermath of the treatment! Also my swimming is going great at the moment and my run and bike have not suffered too much due to the work I had already done at the start of the year. Plus the swim volume helped to keep my cardiovascular system working hard.
Tips to avoid/cope with injury
So in summary and at a point where I feel like I am on the mend, here a 6 things I learned from this bout of problems:
1. Always keep your gym work up -
During the few weeks before I very first felt the knee pain I had neglected my basic gym work (core, glutes and balance) and I strongly believe this is the biggest factor in me developing the problem. This is vital when you are training for triathlon and can save you weeks of frustration down the line.
2. Rest sooner rather than later if you get an injury during training. Try to save yourself weeks of frustration further down the line. A few days off from the sport that is giving you issues may save weeks of rehabbing if you make it worse.
3. Go to see a physiotherapist ASAP if you get an unusual problem that will not leave. It took me a bit too long to seek advice and I would have had more peace of mind during my recovery had I seen a physio earlier in the process. Even if it did not solve the problem any quicker, it would have given me more focus and positivity during my rehab. I found after getting an answer about what the issue was that I was happier and knew what I was doing and why I was doing it when in the gym.
4. Try to take your mind off the problem. Do this by getting out of your normal training environment and doing something different that will still help you physically but also mentally. This will inevitably shorten your rehab in my opinion. And if not then you might as well be happy then miserable!
5. Work hard on the discipline(s) you can still do. Luckily as a triathlete we have the benefit when injured in one sport to work on the others and improve more quickly on those disciplines. I am swimming great now after just 2 weeks of double swimming and that will hopefully set me up well for the swim in up-coming races. Also I am going to the gym more and it has forced me to make sure gym, stretching and massage are integral parts of my training.
6. Keep training consistent. Consistent training will enable you to more easily solve problems should they arise. It will enable you to see more easily what has changed following a problem. For me there was a slight change in my Saturday training schedule, which was instructed by my coach and I think this may have set off the tightness that caused the pain.
This point also ties in a bit with point 2. A few days off may keep your training more consistent in the long run, which is always much more important than just a few big days of training. 4 weeks of consistent training always beats 1 week of smashing yourself to pieces!
After a good swim and transition, which put me at the front of the second pack I jumped on my bike and my seat just gave way! After a smooth recovery and banging it back down (watch the highlight show) I jumped back on and resumed my race not losing very much time and still in a good position. But then after another minute I sat at the back of my saddle to balance the weight of it as it was still loose... and it just came off in between my legs!
It was then a decision to stop or keep going. I hate stopping in a race. Stopping always feels a lot worse than having a bad race. So I just carried on and linked up with a guy who had dropped off the pack. Plus there were still guys behind me- they ended up being lapped out. I used the rest of the race as a good hit out. I wanted to get onto the run and get a good session out of the race and practice for the upcoming Asian champs.
After people started realising what had happened the support from family, friends and random people in the crowd was amazing and kept me going even more! 58th was probably my worst result in a WTS but the experience ended up being incredible! I received a standing ovation from the crowd as I crossed the finish line. It definitely took some of the disappointment away from an overall bad result. London WTS really is the best atmosphere I have ever raced in!