When it comes to performance, a lot of athletes I meet seem to think that training exists in a vacuum.
That is, that only training is going to make them a better, faster athlete.
While that simplicity would be nice, it’s just not true.
There are numerous peripheral activities that support your ability to effectively train and recover and you need to put focus and attention on each of them if you truly want to perform at your best.
Things like diet, mindset, stress management and sleep all play a major role in performance.
They lay down a strong foundation that helps to keep you healthy, energetic, happy and motivated. They help you to recover quickly from training and therefore allow you to do more, high quality and consistent training without falling sick or getting hurt.
It’s often these things that can make the biggest difference.
Of those peripheral activities listed above, sleep is arguably the most overlooked. Time-starved athletes will often sacrifice sleep in favour of a little extra training, “I’ll sleep when I am dead” is something I hear often.
While cutting sleep short can sometimes be worth it, more often it’s not.
The Effects Of Sleep
Sleep affects us in many ways. Here are four of the most important things that I believe sleep offers athletes.
Sleep Improves Hormone Regulation
Sleep is known to positively influence your hormones. It lowers cortisol, increases insulin sensitivity and increases testosterone.
Cortisol – commonly known as the stress hormone – can lower immune function, increase inflammation levels and suppress fat burning when levels are high.
Insulin sensitivity is important for disposing of sugar and burning high amounts of fat.
Testosterone helps maintain strength, energy and concentration levels while fighting off fatigue.
Sleep Strengthens The Immune System
Sleep helps you to fight off being sick.
As an athlete putting a great deal of stress on your body, your immune system takes a hit. When you add sleep deprivation into the equation, you’ll likely suffer from frequent bouts of illness.
Studies have shown that people who sleep less than 7-hours a night are 3 times more likely to develop a cold than those sleeping over 8-hours each night. You can’t do good quality training when you are sick, so anything you can do to avoid illness and the inconsistency it brings is worthwhile.
Sleep Improves Fat Burning
Lack of sleep is one of the largest risk factors in obesity.
While you don’t see too many obese endurance athletes you do see a lot of people participating in marathons and Ironman races who are carrying significantly more body fat than you’d expect, given the amount of training that goes into preparing for these events.
Because sleep lowers cortisol levels and increases insulin sensitivity, it also improves fat burning.
Sleep Affects Thermoregulation
Living in Singapore, I work with many athletes all training in high heat and humidity.
Being able to regulate your temperature in this – and other hot – climates is important for performing well.
A study involving endurance-trained men published in the “American Journal of Physiology” showed that when sleep-deprived, had a higher oesophagal temperature. This resulted in a reduced sweat rate in response to cycling in a warm room compared to when they were well-rested.
This indicated that the lack of sleep reduced their ability to regulate body temperature.
How To Sleep Better
Sleep In A Cool, Quiet And Dark Room
Melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone, is raised when the sun goes down to let your body know that it is time to rest. The problem is that street lights, device and other unnatural lights confuse this hormone and trick your body into thinking that it is still daylight.
To avoid this, you need to block these lights.
The best way to do this is to use blackout curtains and switch off or cover any electronic lights. If you don’t have blackout curtains, a simple and cheap way to ‘blackout’ is to use a good eye mask.
Keep your room cool and quiet. If you live on a busy road, have a partner who snores or have a loud air conditioning unit, use earplugs (these are the ones I use). While earplugs will feel a little uncomfy, to begin with, you’ll soon get used to them and over time, you’ll begin to wonder how you ever did without them.
Avoid Screens 1-Hour Prior To Sleeping
Besides the unnatural lights of screens suppressing the production of melatonin, checking email, watching videos or scrolling your news feed keeps your brain alert.
After a long – technology fueled – day, your mind needs time to wind down and relax in order to sleep peacefully.
Use apps like Night Shift or F.lux to shift the colours of your display to the warmer end of the colour spectrum after dark and turn off your screens 1-hour prior to going to sleep so you have time to wind down in preparation for sleep.
Develop A Sleep Routine
Humans are creatures of habit so creating a habitual routine will improve sleep.
Something as simple as turning off your screens, putting on your PJ’s, brushing your teeth, reading for 20 minutes and immediately going to bed can make your sleep almost automatic at night.
10 – 30 minute naps can work wonders and offer a number of health benefits. They lower cortisol levels, improve mood, increase alertness, reduce fatigue and improve performance.
If you’re an athlete who rises early to get their training in, a lunchtime or mid-afternoon nap could be an essential part of your ‘training’ process.
As with nighttime sleep, nap in a quiet, dark place with a cool room temperature and few distractions.
How Much Sleep Is Needed
Sleep requirements vary based on a number of factors.
Age, training volume and phase, overall life stress levels and genetic factors all play a part in determining the optimal amount of sleep you need at any given time.
Most studies show that to function optimally, you need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
As an athlete, your requirement is likely on the higher end of that scale to maximise training effectiveness and recovery.
If your sleep duration is falling short of those numbers, I suggest you evaluate how you are prioritising your time. We each have 24-hours in a day and it is up to you to invest your time wisely.
When I started, it was really quite scary to see just how much time is wasted in places like Netflix, Youtube, Facebook and on other social platforms.
I think you’ll be surprised at what you may learn.
As you can see, there is a lot of value in sleep and it is not something to be neglected.
For the sake of your health and performance, I encourage you to prioritise sleep and aim for – at the very least – the minimum 7-hours each night.