Sleep is an essential part of our daily routine, required to return our body to homeostasis and for us to maintain a healthy living. It is a time during which our body heals, both physically and mentally. It is when our bodies grow stronger from previous training as the muscles rebuild and our brain re-sets to handle the next workout.
There are two stages of sleep: Non-REM Sleep and REM Sleep. Non-REM sleep makes up most of our sleep time and is when our bodies are in a parasympathetic or "rest and digest" state, brain activity is low. REM sleep is a time when brain activity is high, yet our bodies remain paralyzed. This prevents us from acting out our dreams. The combination of both states allows us to store nutrients, promotes injury healing, restores cognitive function and gets us ready for the next day. Sleep is incredibly important for normal functioning and even more important for athletes, considering the mental and physical training we endure.
Sleep is cyclical. You move through non-REM sleep and then REM sleep over and over. When you first fall asleep, non-REM sleep is quite lengthly and REM sleep is quite short. As you repeat the cycle, non-REM sleep gets shorter and REM sleep gets longer. So, shortened sleeps often compromises REM sleep.
How much sleep do we need? The following is recommended:
Newborn: up to 18hours
1-3 years: 12-15hours
5-12 years: 9-11 hours
13-18 years: 9-10 hours
Adults: 7-8 hours or more
Pregnant women: 8 hours or more
Keep in mind, these are the requirements for the general population and athletes likely need a bit more.
How does lack of sleep effect athletes? Here are a few effects:
- Prevents muscles from healing and growing stronger, which can lead to lack of progress and injury
- Effects cognitive function, which may prevent you from mentally getting through either a high intensity or high volume workout
- Increased appetite - will lead us to consume excess calories and "junk foods" ... ever wonder why you are gaining weight while training for something that causes you to sacrifice sleep?
- Impatience and irritability - don't become an annoying training partner!
- Decreased performance
- More prone to illness. Athletes lower their immune system when they train, combine this with lack of sleep and it makes an athlete much more susceptible to sickness.
- Decreased reaction time. This is especially dangerous when riding out on the road.
What is my rule on sleep and training?
Let me preface this by saying that I have never needed a lot of sleep. This has been tried and tested as I've still been able to make gains in fitness with 7-8 hours of sleep per night (maybe with more I could get even stronger?). I have a very strong parasympathetic drive - my resting heart rate is 40-42bpm, which, I'm speculating allows me to "rest and digest" a lot easier than others. I actually have a hard time sleeping longer than 8 hours. So, my "rule" on sleep is that I need an average of 7.5 hours in 3 consecutive days in order to handle a big training load (TSS > 100) on a given day. So, if I have gotten 6-7-6 hours of sleep before a big training day I will need to modify.
How to improve your sleep? These are a few things that work for me:
- Write down all your worries on a piece of paper about 1hr before you go to bed, to help clear your mind and prevent worry at night
- No alcohol before bed (alcohol can initially help you fall asleep, but it can easily disrupt REM sleep later in the night as it becomes metabolized).
- Meditate to fall asleep
- Look at pictures of people sleeping before bed
- Don't nap longer than 30 minutes! While napping can make you feel better, it certainly disrupts your sleep cycle during the night, and prevents normal healing and sleep functions from occurring.
- Establish a sleeping routine. I go to bed and wake up at the same time almost every day.
- Medications can effect the sleep cycle, so try not to take sleep medication before bed
- Workout 3 hours or more before bed