Are you trading sleep for training time? Find out why it’s a raw deal.
Be honest. How many times have you woken up earlier than you should have to train? I know I have. Weekends used to prime time for long rides when I was racing bikes, and even early Saturday morning CrossFit training used to drag me out of bed too soon. On many of those occasions, I didn’t go to bed early enough to get 8 hours of sleep—the amount I need to feel my best—and heading out for a training session with less than 6 hours of shut eye was common.
Turns out, even though my nutrition was on point, lack of consistent sleep was hurting my training. Rest, recovery and sleep are even more important than the hours logged on the trails or in the gym, and if you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul, you’re selling yourself short. If you care about your performance, keep reading.
A Simple (?) Equation
Want to train at your best? You need optimal fuel (nutrition), physical stimulus (training) and recovery time (active recovery, rest and sleep) in the right balance if you want to maximize performance. Eating poorly for the demands of your sport? Expect eventual plateaus or backslides in performance. Training too much or too little? You’ll either slip into overreaching or overtraining or the physical stimulus (hormetic stressor) won’t be great enough to see gains.
These aspects of athletic training and performance are pretty well understood in theory (though the exact implementation can be elusive) but it’s the sleep, rest and recovery pieces that athletes often neglect. Can you get by on suboptimal sleep for a while? Sure. How long? Depends on you and the other stressors going on in your life but eventually, it will catch up with you. As any dedicated athlete knows, suffering declines in performance, desire to train or getting injured can be devastating to a season, and if any of these are preventable by a commitment to better sleep, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.
If you’re sleeping less to train more, it’s time to rethink that strategy.
“…But What About That Guy At My Gym / My Training Partner?”
“He only sleeps 5 hours a night, and that guy is a beast!”
He’s also not you. You don’t have the same life, the same stressors, the same genetics. And, you may not really know exactly what’s going on below the surface of his beastly exterior. Sure, he might be able to do it, but the assumption that you can (or should) because he can is folly.
Need more convincing?
Recent research shows that even one week of sleep deprivation may have important negative implications on gene expression (i.e. how genes are turned off or on). In one study, the experimental group that slept for just under 6 hours a night—compared to the control group which slept 8.5 hours a night—had genes related to normal circadian rhythms, stress, inflammation and metabolism (among others) turned on or off when they shouldn’t have been. (Source)
These are certainly important physiological processes to keep on an even keel for everyone, but athletes in particular can incur significant physical / psychological stress and inflammation. Rest, recovery and sleep are the critical yin to all that yang. During sleep—and its different phases—the body undergoes physical and psychological restoration. That’s the good stuff that you need.
Is 8 the Magic Number?
I don’t know exactly how many hours of sleep you need to function at your best, but my general rule of thumb is at least eight on a daily basis, and if my training is particularly punishing, that number becomes sacred territory. During the day, I take steps to prepare for restful sleep, and in the evening, I’ve developed a routine to help settle me down.
(Note: If you train in the late PM, that extra cortisol bump can make it hard to wind down. Develop a solid routine around bedtime and do what you can to train as early in the afternoon as possible.)
Some things I do to ensure kick-ass sleep:
- Eat a protein-rich breakfast. This is standard for me, but getting enough amino acids early in the day provides substrate for serotonin, which is later converted to melatonin, the hormone that ramps up in the evening to help put you to sleep.
- Stop drinking caffeine before noon. I’m somewhat sensitive to it but in general, the earlier I stop caffeine, the better I sleep.
- Go to sleep at a consistent time each night. The earlier, the better.
- Develop a bedtime routine that helps me wind down, and start that at least 30-45 minutes before I want to be asleep. Rushing around like a crazy person at 9:45 and expecting to be lights out at 10…not so great.
- Limit blue light exposure (from TV, computer, phone, etc.) as much as possible at night. Do what you can. Look into getting f.lux (free) or amber glasses. Read a book instead of catching up on Instagram or Facebook while you’re lying in bed. (Please, no hate mail.)
- Make sure my room is dark and cool. Cavelike is what you’re after.
My Challenge to You
Don’t train unless you’ve had at least 6 hours of sleep. If you find you’re missing more days than you’re actually training, it’s time to evaluate why you’re not getting the rest you really need.
Need more help with training? Check out my ebook, The Paleo Athlete. (There’s more about sleep in there, too!)