Sleep can be one of the most important tools at the disposal of the endurance athlete and can help spur improvement as well as recovery. But why is this?
When we get enough sleep, we improve our glucose metabolism. Thus, inadequate sleep inhibits glucose metabolism. Glucose metabolism is critical to ensuring the muscles are topped off and ready to go the following day. If the muscle glycogen stores are sub-maximal, you'll know it in the morning because your muscles will feel thick or you will feel sluggish or heavy. Proper sleep also helps the body produce HGH (human growth hormone), which is essential for post-workout repair. Deep sleep is the driving force behind HGH secretion and, thus, proper levels of this and other hormones in the body. Inhibiting the body's ability to repair itself means you're already on the back foot from a performance perspective.
The rule of thumb is to shoot for at least 8 hours per night. Some professional athletes strive for as many as 10 hours per night plus daily naps in the afternoon. That’s a lot of sleeping! It’s also not a realistic expectation for the majority of us non-professional athletes. For myself, I find 7 hours to be adequate for most every day. Rarely do I hit 8 hours, because my time to work out is in the wee hours of the morning when it has minimal impact on my family. According to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans average less than 7 hours of sleep per night. Eventually, the lack of sleep does start to negatively impact workout performance and, thus, race performance as well.
Most age groupers can probably get more sleep – whether their sport be cycling, running, swimming, triathlon, ultra-distance events like Ironman or the Western States 100 running race. By assigning greater priority to sleep, even the busiest of endurance athletes can find ways to sleep more and start experience the positive benefits of doing so.
· Keep regular hours. Try to go to bed at the same time every night (within an hour or less, even on the weekends)
· Turn off the electronics. When you climb into bed, do something that helps calm you down and turn off your mind, like reading. But, read the old fashioned way with a real book so you avoid the temptation to close the Kindle app on your iPad and start looking at Facebook or email. These 2 things in particular amp you up and get the mind spinning – the opposite effect of what you want when you are in bed
· Limit caffeine consumption to before late afternoon. This allows the body to process the stimulating effects and bring you down off the buzz well before bed time
· Avoid watching something on TV that will amp you up right before bed, like a horror movie or an exciting sporting event. Anything that gets the heart pumping a little faster will negatively impact your ability to “shut it down” and get to sleep. The adrenaline is flowing and it can take hours for it to leave your system
· A little bit of alcohol is great, but limit its consumption to dinnertime rather than later in the evening
· If you have trouble falling asleep, move. Sometimes a simple change of environment – the couch instead of the bed – is enough to allow the body to relax and zonk out
Getting enough sleep seems to be very challenging. Exciting things happen when we’re awake. However, with a little discipline, we can squeeze an extra 30-90 minutes into our sleep pattern and start reaping the rewards of that extra snoozing. Our workouts will improve and, therefore, our racing will improve as well.