The foundation of your improvement in swim, bike and run or any endurance sport is consistency. Most athletes understand the premise behind training smarter but fail in their recovery practices. Endurance athletes are predominantly A-type athletes, highly driven and goal oriented, meaning that we run the gamut of what our bodies can handle more often than we should, but fail to understand that without great recovery practices, there can be no training adaption. Training is a double-edged sword, both a stimulus and a stress. Recovery should be treated like a session, as important as other key training sessions. At PB3, we have no shortage of passionate athletes, but I am yet to meet a high performing athlete, that sleeps less than 8 hours a night. Quality sleep is so important in endurance training and racing if your body is to adapt to the training stimulus. To be better appreciated it needs to be viewed as a productive choice, it needs to be prioritized and understood as a crucial element towards growth and ongoing performance success.
The highest quality sleep we get is at the later stages, during REM (rapid eye movement). Whilst only 25% of our sleep is in this state, the longer we sleep the more of it we spend in REM because we increase the amount of sleep cycles we go through. Therefore, the sleep we get from hours 7 – 9 can be the most powerful (Stulberg & Magness, 2017,106). Neuroscientists and researchers are starting to understand more and more the crucial cognitive and physical role that quality sleep plays in our daily lives. In studies done on healthy subjects that are put through short periods of sleep deprivation, increased levels of inflammation are noted along with vascular dysfunction (Sauvet et al. 2010, 3). In fact, a vast array of early onset diseases can now be linked to a consistent lack in quality sleep based on studies done with sedentary individuals, so you can only hypothesize that the effect is amplified in endurance athletes, experiencing consistently higher levels of stress.
When we sleep, an amazing physiological array of rebuilding happens. Sleep is far from a waste of time, and the body is incredibly productive through this period, with our brain replaying, processing, learning and extracting valuable information. Melatonin is released, heart rate and blood pressure slow, allowing the body crucial time for specific restoration. Critical metabolic and immune processes are known to occur during specific stages of sleep. A strong relationship exists between physiologic recovery during sleep and an athlete’s ability to continually train and enjoy optimal results, minimizing the fear of overtraining or chronic fatigue, brought on by immune, endocrinological and musculoskeletal factors combining to negatively impact ongoing athletic abilities (Samuels, 2016, p.172). Typically, chronically over trained athletes experience elevated cortisol levels leading to a catabolic state. Cortisol is a hormone released by the body to deal with physiological or mental stress (fight or flight response), but when elevated for long periods of time can lead to muscle breakdown, fat being stored, lethargy, menstrual cycle disruption, and poor diet choices. Whilst a multi-faceted approach is vital, more quality sleep will be an excellent starting point to reversing this trend.
Sleeping less is now more common than ever with studies suggesting 6 hours is the norm (Konnikova, New Yorker, 2015: 2). For busy age group endurance athletes, it is typically the first thing that is abandoned. When sampling my small squad for this article, the median hours of sleep landed at 6.5 hours with many reporting that weekend “catch up” sleep played a pivotal role. Whilst there can be multiple factors affecting sleep, prioritizing it by following known and simple key tenets will produce excellent results for most people. Limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption close to bed, no TV or phones in the bedroom, making the room as dark as possible, using the bedroom for only sleep or sex, perhaps 10 minutes of meditation, have all been shown to be highly effective methods of “sleep proofing”. Prioritizing quality rest is quite simply one of the most crucial ways to maximize your performance gains and should form the cornerstone of any quality program in combination with the correct periodization of training and diet.
Don’t forget to check “Smarter racing techniques for endurance athletes”.
Konnikova, M. 2015, ‘Why can’t we fall asleep’, The New Yorker, July 7, 2015
Fabien Sauvet, Georges Leftheriotis, Danièlle Gomez-Merino, Christophe Langrume, Catherine Drogou, Pascal Van Beers, Cyprien Bourrilhon, Geneviève Florence, and Mounir Chennaoui, ‘Effect of acute sleep deprivation on vascular function in healthy subjects’, Journal of Applied Physiology 2010 108:1, 68-75
Samuels, C., James, L., Lawson, D., & Meeuwisse, W. (2016). ‘The athlete sleep screening questionnaire: A new tool for assessing and managing sleep in elite athletes’. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(7), 418. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.une.edu.au/10.1136/bjsports-2014-094332
Charli Sargent, Michele Lastella, Shona L. Halson & Gregory D. Roach. (2014) ‘The impact of training schedules on the sleep and fatigue of elite athletes’. Chronobiology International Vol. 31, Iss. 10, 1160 – 1168
Stulberg, B., Magness S., 2017, Peak Performance, Rodale, New York.