The Science of SleepDonovan van Gelder
When looking at the most significant difference between a professional and amateur athletes lives many will be surprised to find that it is not so much the flashy equipment or scientific training techniques that make the biggest difference to performance. It is all about time. Not training time but sleeping time. I would wager that everyone reading this could make a massive difference to the quality of their training and the recovery between sessions by simply getting better sleep.
Notice that I didn’t write ‘more’ sleep, although that would probably help as well. How well we slept, irrespective of how many hours we were asleep makes a significant difference to our overall well-being and simply, how well the body recovers from the rigours of the previous day. It therefore makes a huge impact on what sort of state we start the next one. Most of us never really completely reset every morning. We start each day in a lower than optimal recovered and rested state and then fall further into deficit before repeating the process again the next night.
Sleep is when our bodies do their best work. Think of ourselves as computers. During the day we have multiple apps open demanding performance from our CPU and battery. At night, when asleep, there are less demands and therefore more focus can be placed on things like muscle recovery. One of the most abused doping products in sport is Human Growth Hormone, which is produced naturally in the body and is involved in many things that improve human performance, including muscle regeneration and recovery from intense exercise. HGH production peaks in the body during deep sleep. It is free, legal and healthy. Why wouldn’t we want to make the most of it?
So, first things first – let’s try to get more sleep. This is often easier said than done in our modern lives. It is hard enough for sedentary people with jobs, children, hobbies and pets to get a solid seven to eight hours of sleep in every night. We are also trying to achieve our athletic goals, which is not only time consuming but also fatiguing. Probably requiring more sleep than the average non-athletically inclined human-being. Most will be reading that and thinking where exactly are they going to be finding an extra hour of sleep time in their crazy lives but it is always possible if the desire and motivation is there. The biggest change most people can make to their night time regimen is less television. We are all disciplined people. Getting in training that leaves our friends stunned. So it shouldn’t be that hard to cut down on screen time in the evenings and getting more shut-eye. Most of use utilise ‘on-demand’ viewing apps nowadays so there is no need for staying up late to catch our show when it is aired. Planning viewing like everything else, will make things efficient and less time consuming. Prioritising and planning sleep just like everything else in our lives can definitely help eek out a bit more time every night and this, in the long term, will make a massive difference to our recovery between hard training days and the performance we are able to deliver in training.
Just like training, quality is often more important than quantity and this applies to sleep as well. Fortunately, this is far easier to achieve in our sleep than it is in training, where it is a result of considerably more effort. If we just can’t find another hour of sleep every night, we can still try to make the most of the time that we have. There are a few, very simple things that we can do to ensure that every hour of sleep that we can get each night is optimised.
Many believe that a glass of wine or the like with dinner allows them to sleep better and I know of many who follow that practice before races as well. The truth is, while alcohol may feel like it is relaxing us and helping us to fall asleep, the resultant quality of sleep is below par as a result.
Caffeine is another, obvious culprit behind less than perfect sleep patterns. Endurance athletes are almost always caffeine junkies. Much has been studied and written about the performance enhancing attributes of our favourite legal drug and, for the most part, these have been accepted as fact. Most of us would never be able to get ourselves out of bed for the early morning sessions were it not for a cup or two of java but it is a very good idea to try and limit our intake beyond midday. Strong coffee and the caffeine it contains, acts on the central nervous system for three to four hours after our last cup of Joe, so it is a good idea to limit coffee or other caffeinated drinks after midday so that the body is easing down towards bedtime free from any stimulants.
What about the evening session, is the question that just popped into your head I am sure. There are two reasons that our evening sessions, should be kept to something a little less intense if at all possible. Firstly, not requiring any kind of pick-me-up beforehand in order to achieve a high level of sharpness. Secondly, a very intense session, late in the day has an ‘afterglow’ for lack of a better term. This will keep the body buzzing for a few hours after the session and, although we may fall into bed exhausted, we will have a fitful nights sleep as a result.
Shutting down the brain is often a difficult thing to achieve at bedtime. Thoughts and ideas are buzzing around and, even though our bodies may be shattered, old Mr. Brain has some things he needs to ponder. Some can be day-to-day problems that need to be solved but there are times when the weirdest things will pop into our heads just when we want to close our eyes. There are a number of ways to calm the brain down in preparation for sleep and everyone needs to find the one that works for them. Research indicates digital screens are not one of those though. Reading or listening to calming music or podcasts are good, but everyone will have their own ‘best practice’ and it may require some trial and error.
The good news there is that all modern wearable devices now track sleep through heart rate and breathing patterns and it is a simple thing to find out what works and what doesn’t. The key is to chip away at it, just as we do with our training and be patient and consistent. Remember the discussion about HGH, think of sleeping as our free, legal and completely healthy performance enhancer and use that as a motivator to make the most of it.