Sleep and Recovery
Sleep is the final frontier for performance. Unfortunately, it’s also the final thing we often think to ‘fix’ and optimize. In a world of recovery fads and gimmicks (“eat this”, “try that”), sleep is proven to work. It may be the only one that is proven, and the principle is straightforward – sleep equals regeneration, recovery and repair. All the ‘stress’ we apply to ourselves through exercise and the unavoidable realities of life are dealt with only when we rest properly.
You can be doing everything perfectly from 7am to 10pm – your training is just right, you eat well, you have a good work-life balance, but if you don’t nail down those eight to nine hours of sleep, then your adaptation to the exercise stress is undercut, and you’ll slip into overtraining, or burnout, even injury, much faster. That’s why if you want to reach the very top of what your lifestyle and training permit, you have to get sleep right!
It is so important because it’s our body’s window for the release of hormones like growth hormone, testosterone and cortisol, all of which repair tissues and help rejuvenate every system we rely on to keep us healthy. Studies have found that less sleep is associated with lower testosterone levels, for instance. Other studies have found that subjective assessments of sleep quality (“Did you sleep well last night, on a scale from 1 to 10?”) are the best predictor of running performance over a season. And given that these hormones are such important ‘anabolic’ (meaning to ‘build us up’) hormones, you might think of sleep as a type of ‘natural doping’. . Certainly, the opposite is true – go without sleep for too long, and you’re reverse doping in a way harmful to performance. Sleep is also our brain’s chance for rejuvenation, and is where many of our memory processing and learning is processed.
Little wonder then that sleep is a for-profit industry. American Football superstar Tom Brady has infrared pajamas that, for $200, promise to “unlock better sleep to that you can perform like Tom. There are supplements for sleep (see last week – no proof they work), meditation techniques explained in books and videos (some evidence), and experts and sleep clinics, all trying to capitalize on the recognized though elusive need for sleep.
Unfortunately, there are probably more pressures that are negatively affecting our sleep than positively helping us sleep better (and for clarity, the infrared PJs don’t fall into either group with any evidence). We are now living a life online, buried in our cell phone screens, often on social media. That combination is particularly harmful to sleep, because phones and other electronic devices emit blue light which messes with our body’s normal circadian rhythms. They cause melatonin release, which interferes with our body clocks, and studies have found that people who read print books rather than tablets before bed feel more refreshed the next morning.
There are of course devices that reduce blue light emissions, so if you’re absolutely reliant on electronics, then use those, but the best rule of thumb is to shut down the electronics an hour before your scheduled bed time. That will also help you avoid the inescapable mental anxiety that things like social media add to our lives!
Other tips to help you optimize sleep are not rocket science – easy to know, difficult to do! They require you to practice what is called “good sleep hygiene”, and while simple on paper, they’re often challenging because we neglect our sleep routines, or we don’t always have control over them (children, anyone?) and so it’s difficult to wrestle back control over this important element. But, these are some of the things you should aim to do:
- Prioritize! It’s been said in the military that “rest is a weapon”, and while we are lucky enough not to be in actual battle, all the little things you fight and conquer during the day obey the principles. If you are trying to squeeze sleep into your day, it’s no wonder you’re losing out on it! Start with sleep, and sacrifice the other things. It may seem impossible, but many of the barriers we see are actually imaginary, and if you get sleep right, you’ll do much more with the even shorter waking time than you are now. So make it the priority, and don’t let life get in the way!
- Keep to the same bedtime as much as possible – sleep rhythms are all about routine. Life gets in the way of perfection, yes, but don’t let perfect become the enemy of good. Try to set up a window for sleep and stick to it especially during the week
- Temperature control – research suggests that between 17 and 19 degrees is the best for a good night’s sleep, so if you can hit this, do. Obviously, if it requires a fan or air conditioning that is noisy, there’s a trade-off you’ll need to manage.
- Try to avoid waking up with an alarm where possible. I’m not saying this to make you late for meetings, but if you can get away with a natural start to the day, then do so. Use alarms sparingly
- Test out pillows – nothing makes for a good night like a comfortable pillow. Hardly rocket science, but with trial and error!
- Eat at least two hours before bed time, if not more – heavy meals make it difficult to sleep, so eat as early as you can without it being so early that you’ll wake up hungry. Naturally, don’t eat or drink sugar or caffeine too close to bed time either, unless you’re a habitual coffee drinker, and
- Finish exercise far enough before bedtime that you’ve cooled down and return to a “resting state”. This is especially true for very hard sessions – your body temperature is raised, your ‘fight or flight’ system in overdrive, you’re in metabolic deficit, and it makes it difficult to sleep.
- Don’t obsess – it’s easy to take this advice and to start thinking about sleep much more. That might backfire, as you begin to worry and drive sleep anxiety. A bad night now and then is fine, just like a bad training session is fine. It’s about consistency, and relaxation.
What about naps? A controversial one, and some people swear by them, others will say, with merit, that an afternoon nap detracts from evening sleep quality. I’ll leave that to you, assuming you have the luxury of time for a nap. What I would say is that if you’re so tired that a nap is unavoidable, then take it when needed – rest is a weapon, remember, so reload and revitalize! But address the source of the fatigue, and don’t let naps become indispensable, because they may create an unsustainable routine.
And finally, technology. These days, smart watches and smart phones are able to measure our sleep quality by measuring how much and how deeply we breathe, and various factors related to heart rate. I would not discourage you from doing this if you’re interested, but I would caution against living and dying by the numbers. The devices are not yet accurate enough to be the “gospel” truth, and even if they were, understanding what they mean is tricky. So by all means, study yourself and learn, but don’t let the process of sleeping better make you sleep worse!
Bottom line – make it a priority, do the basics, and then relax! Be patient, because just like running or any other skill, sleeping might take you some time, but once you get it right, many other things may fall into place!
Author: Ross Tucker