Improve Your Performance…Sleep.

If you could do just one thing to increase your mental power, speed, build muscle, and lose fat – would you do it? Yes? All you have to do is sleep. Sleep leads to performance.

Runners are always looking for the next best shoe, apparel, supplement, training plan to improve their performance. We spend millions of dollars trying techniques or products that will keep us injury free and achieving that elusive PR. I have found the “magic” pill, it will not cost you a thing! sleep. Sleep is one of the most overlooked aspects of training by runners, even though it is the most important aspect in preventing injury, enhancing your recovery, building strength, and improving speed.

Elite runners all know the value of sleep. Rare is the pro athlete who doesn’t nap and get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Paula Radcliffe, women’s marathon world record holder, sleeps around nine hours each night and takes 1-2 hour naps in the afternoon. Why all the extra sleep? So she can rebuild stressed and damaged muscles faster. During the deepest stage of sleep the body releases human growth hormone for repairs. During this time the muscles are paralyzed allowing maximum healing. So by sleeping twice a day, she gets a double hit of the growth hormone to accelerate her recovery.

For those of us without the luxury of taking two hour naps in the middle of the day, it is important to go to bed early and get at least 7 to 8 hours of good sleep. What is early? At or before 10pm is best. When you fall asleep, you go through a 90-minute cycle of non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep. From 11pm to 3am (the early part of the night) the majority of the cycles are deep non-REM sleep (stages 3 and 4). These deep sleep stages are essential for runners because it is where our body regenerates and repairs tissue and engages in other restorative processes. If we don’t get enough deep sleep, we can’t rejuvenate and heal.

There are many other benefits to sleep besides repairing your damaged muscles. You cannot be healthy without adequate sleep. End of story.

Among other things, a full night’s sleep:

  • enhances memory and mental clarity
  • improves athletic performance
  • boosts mood and overall energy
  • improves immune function
  • increases stress tolerance

You may think that you can ‘burn the candle at both ends’ but unfortunately the body doesn’t forget the importance of sleep. It’s absolutely essential for basic maintenance and repair of the neurological, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal and digestive systems. There is no muscle growth, tissue repair, or speed development during training workouts. After a hard run or speed session muscles contain micro tears and break down. These tears can be repaired making you stronger but this repair occurs predominantly during sleep. Research at Stanford University shows that athletes who get sleep have improved ability at sprinting, faster reaction times, and improved moods.

Robbie Ventura, the founder and owner of Vision Quest Coaching and a professional cyclist on Lance’s U.S Postal Team, believes so much in the value of sleep that he requires all his athletes use a ZEO (Zeo Sleep Manager allows consumers to track both their sleep quantity and sleep quality in the comfort of their own beds and also helps people manage and improve their sleep using their iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, and popular Android-based smartphones). “Sleeping is where a large part of the response from the training load happens- Sleeping “well” is a process that can be trained. To train yourself to sleep well, will allow your training to become more profitable”.

Sleep is something coaches need to be aware of when working with their athletes because “once they have learned to sleep well and have developed a sleep routine [coaches’] can then look at sleep patterns and determine if their athlete is overcooking it a bit. If they cannot sleep well (and they were able to) I have found the athlete is agitated and often is reflected in being over stressed and if the training loads are very high chances are he is not fully recovering. So I use poor sleep scores as a sign the athlete needs a break”.

When runners deprive themselves of sleep, getting 6 hours or less, the negative consequences come fast and furious.

  • Weakens your immune system {2}: getting sick = less training, poor training
  • Leads to Obesity{3}: Recent studies have shown that even one night of poor sleep can result in changes in appetite and food intake. Sleep deprivation also impairs carbohydrate tolerance, insulin sensitivity, and glucose uptake. When glucose uptake is inhibited, you aren’t able to refuel before, during, and after your workouts.
  • Intellectual Decline {4}: sleep deprivation negatively impacts short-term and working memory, long-term memory and the generation of nerve cells – all of which affects our ability to think clearly and function well.
  • Inflammation{5}: Sleep deprivation causes chronic, low-grade inflammation. Inflammation is the root of all modern disease and severely inhibits the bodies’ ability to repair muscles, tissue, and tendon damage.
  • Injury: When you don’t get enough sleep your motor responses are dulled, this leads to bad form, inefficient neuromuscular patterns and injury

Basically there is no disease or condition (physical, mental, or even spiritual) that sleep deprivation doesn’t either contribute to directly or make worse.

You can follow the perfect training plan, eat a pristine diet and take all the right supplements, but if you’re not sleeping well and managing your stress your performance and health will suffer period.

Dr. Shawn Allen, of “The Gait Guys” and ACO, treats many high level athletes. “[He] finds that two things are commonly abused when it comes to effective training, recovery and sleep. Many athletes overtrain and ignore the restorative benefits of ample recovery days but of the two, sleep is the most abused. In this day and age of productivity in the work place and family demands the average athlete has little time to train, work and recover adequately. And since work and family demands are less flexible, sleep for many tends to take a back seat.” Dr. Allen explains that there is no nutritional supplement or drug that can replace the benefits of a sound night sleep. “And yet, we continue to do what we need to do to get our workouts in, a valid yet jaundiced attempt to benefit our bodies, while at the same time sacrificing the beneficial aspects of health and recovery that can come only with sound repeatable sleep”.

Let’s define sleep or rest. For most people resting means searching the web, watching TV, or using some other electronic device. This is NOT restful for the brain or the body. People have forgotten the value of rest and how to do it. So let’s go over some things to help you get a good 8 hours.

1) No Artificial light 2 hours before bed: Artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythm and throws off our sleep. Artificial light (think TV, computer screens, digital clocks, street lamps) at night disrupts the circadian mode of cell division, this severely impacts our sleep, and can even increase our risk of cancer {6}. How do you reduce light exposure?

  • Use a sleep mask
  • Turn off the electronics in your bedroom that glow or give off light
  • Use blackout shades
  • Cover your alarm clock
  • No computer or TV 2 hours before bed

2) Manage your stress during the day, including training stress:

  • Change in sleeping habits is an early warning sign of overtraining or too much outside stress from work or life. The physical and psychological stresses of training beyond what your body is capable of stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, this leads to irritability and reduction in the quality and quantity of sleep. When you have unusual difficulty sleeping, you could be training too hard, too frequently, or overdoing it in other areas of your life.
  • Yoga
  • Deep Breathing Exercises
  • Reduce your training intensity and/or volume
  • Re-evaluate your time management skills

3) Nap:

  • A short nap of even 20 minutes will give you a period of REM sleep to help get you out of any sleep debt you may be accumulating at night.

4) Routine:

  • If you can keep a consistent routine it will help you regulate your sleep better. Try to get to bed at the same time every night, and wake up around the same time every morning. A relaxing unwinding ritual can help prepare you for bed. Like taking a bath of Epsom salts, drinking tea, yoga poses, meditation.

So, can you improve your performance, reduce your stress, build strength, prevent injury, and generally enhance your life with one “magic pill”?

The answer is yes.


Please feel free to ask questions and add your own “sleep” techniques to the comments below.

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