The common fact that 1/3 of our lives are spent in bed may come as shocking, but it should come as no surprise that most us give little thought to getting better sleep. Sleep is a fundamental restorative practice that promotes adaptation to training, repair of micro level muscle damage and even aids in the generation of new microvascular networks around muscle fibres.
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder related to the persistent inability to sleep or attain restful sleep, and is affected by many things like diet, environment, temperature and other factors such as hormonal changes. As an athlete, it is imperative to consider all the factors you experience on a daily basis reflect on the effect this may on your ability to sleep well and recover. Indeed, athletes training at the highest level with high TSS weeks and months around competition typically experience even lower quality of sleep, counterintuitively so – as with all the effort you’d expect their body to be completely exhausted.
During deep sleep, growth hormone is released from the pituitary gland in the brain and is a potent chemical which promotes growth and repair and is responsible for the majority of the training adaptations athletes see following a training program. So, as athletes, may it be plausible to focus more of our time around recovering, and to improve our chances of getting more time in deep sleep to increase our exposure to growth hormone? This is an approach now being taken by many world class cycling teams, as physiological innovations in exercise training have stagnated. Indeed, most professionals and coaches understand the bulk of the work of what it takes to become an incredible athlete, grand tour winner and champion from a training perspective. Yet, could it be what you do off the bike that has an equally big impact?
Keep a diary
If you find you’re having trouble with your sleep, it may be useful to use a tool like TrainingPeaks to note your hours, quality of sleep and any disruptions in parallel to the training you completed that day. Here, you can establish links and enhance your self-monitoring of your time in bed. Once a month or so’s worth data is collected, you will probably be able to see a pattern as to your quality of sleep and restfulness following big training blocks, light exercise and even complete rest over time. However, reading literature on athletes and sleep may not apply to every athlete, thus it emphasises the importance of understanding individual variability and learning your own body and responses to physiological stress.
Keep your phone off towards bed time
The introduction of light stimuli into the eye through specialised cells called photopigments induces changes in hormonal control and may even influence sleep/wake cycles. Light stimuli promotes wakefulness in all animals and especially humans – ever noticed you wake up sometimes in the morning just around when the sun rises? These archaic, instinctual hormonal mechanisms are particularly troublesome in a day and age whereby illuminated phone screens and computers provide a constant barrage of brightness. To enhance your sleep, try to limit mobile phone/bright light exposure to around an hour before your bedtime and habituate yourself to sitting in a dark room – you may even notice you get sleepy quite quickly.
Get some exercise during the day
Physical activity and exercise during the day has a great effect in regulating hormone levels and inducing changes in the amount of hormones such as serotonin, melatonin and leptin, all of which have roles in inducing sleep/wake cycles. The NHS recommends individuals perform at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, yet athletes typically exceed this amount, even on a rest week. Correlations are found between the quality of sleep and amount of exercise, yet almost in a ‘U’ shaped curve. That is – athletes getting the highest amount of exercise probably get less quality sleep than those doing moderate amounts, and likewise for those who seldom exercise. There is a sweetspot for everyone in terms of stimuli for restfulness, yet it is through practices such as noting and recording your wakefulness patterns which can really aid in you understanding the requirements of rest on a given day.
Optimise your environment and cut the slack
We often consider our bedrooms in a 21stcentury lens – we want screens, comfort, mood lights and other gadgets to make everything modern and comfortable. But creating a space In your room with more primal features may be the key to getting an edge on your sleep. Getting more ambient lighting of natural colour, painting the walls to more relaxing colours and even finding your optimal pillow can all help your sleep quality. A crucial factor is ensuring that the temperature in your room is controlled and regulated well throughout the day, as a goldilocks zone of sleep exists for most of us. As before, limiting television and media use to only daytime rooms can be a powerful change to improve the mental links and association between your bedroom and the desire to sleep.
Through implementing these practices on a daily, if not regular basis, one can expect to find a good benefit to their overall health and training. As aforementioned, it is often the case that optimising exercise performance may have already occurred for most athletes, and it is the optimisation of areas seemingly unrelated to their sport which may vastly improve their performance. Sleep and sleep hygiene changes such as limiting screen time should be made alongside synergistic mechanisms like improving diet for a greater overall benefit. Finally, make sure to create environments and changes with an open mind, as a variability in response to changes may indicate a change in sleep habit may not be correct for you as an individual, and thus a relative approach is advised.
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