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!