As athletes, we love to keep track of our training load, our workouts, our personal records, and even our nutrition. And it is often with some bravado that we will sacrifice sleep to ensure that we get that extra hour on the bike or in the pool. To be fair, we all know that sleep is important. That’s nothing new, but the majority of us prioritize it somewhere below fartleks but just above doing our taxes.
Most athletes struggle with sleep at some point, if not chronically. For some, sleep quality is hard to come by. They toss and turn, rarely getting a restful night’s sleep. For others, it’s the quantity that is elusive. Work, family, and training conspire to ensure that there are never more than five or six hours to spend in bed each night. In either scenario, it’s certain that the athlete is not reaching their potential with regard to their health or their performance.
Training provides a stress that signals the body to adapt and improve. This adaptation process occurs, to a large degree, while we sleep. Without sleep, we have insufficient time to adapt and improve. Not only does proper sleep promote improved performance, but sleep deprivation has been tied directly to an increased injury rate.
Sleep occurs throughout the night in stages. You are probably familiar with this concept to some degree. Different processes occur during each of these stages. The primary restorative stages of sleep are REM sleep and Deep sleep.
REM - “Rapid Eye Movement” is the stage of sleep during which the brain recovers. This is the time each night when you process your experiences, solidify memory, and generally perform maintenance on the hard drive that is your brain.
Deep - Deep sleep is the time when your body recovers. The need for deep sleep is proportional to the amount of activity you have engaged in. During deep sleep, you adapt to the day’s workout and become stronger and fitter. Skimp on this, and you are not getting the most out of your training and effort!
A subjective evaluation of our sleep quantity and quality seems like it would be a valid measurement of our actual sleep health. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. An objective measure of sleep can help you know if you’re lacking. Additionally, newer tools can tell you if your “sleep architecture” (ie time spent in various sleep stages) is adequate or optimal. As an athlete, many of you measure the time you spend training, your speed, your heart rate, your power output, and even the calories you consume. Many fewer athletes are as detailed about their sleep patterns, but they should be. I’d argue that you can gain much more benefit from focusing on sleep than you can from worrying about calorie intake.
An evaluation of the various devices available for monitoring your sleep is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many out there. Look for one that has been validated against clinical sleep study equipment! The quality of devices runs the gamut. It’s important to have reliable data if you are going to act on that data.
Measuring sleep is great, as long as you have a plan to address deficiencies. The process of setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep is termed “sleep hygiene”. Here’s what are considered tenets of sleep hygiene.
Darkness - Even a small amount of light can disrupt the hormonal signals required for good sleep. Ensure that your bedroom is entirely dark, with no intrusions from outside light or even small LEDs from electronic devices. By the same token, you should avoid screen time for an hour or two before bed. The light emitted from your TV, phone, or tablet will delay and decrease your body’s natural production of melatonin. On the Cannondale - Drapac Pro Cycling Team, our riders have been provided with special glasses from POC with blue-light-blocking lenses that decrease this effect on melatonin when they are watching movies before bed.
Daytime light exposure - In the same way that darkness is needed at night, people need exposure to natural light during the day in order to have the best sleep at night. A twelve hour day at your desk, under fluorescent lights will surely have a negative impact on your sleep. Get up, get out, and enjoy a walk, run, or ride in the sunshine.
Cool Temperature - While there is certainly some individual variation, the vast majority of people sleep best when the room is cool. In fact, the environmental “sweet spot” seems to be right around 64 degrees Fahrenheit (60-67 degrees). Turn your AC down or, better yet, open your window on a cool night. It can be difficult to find European hotels with air conditioning up to this challenge, especially during the heat of summer at the Tour de France. Last year our team started traveling with a device called ChiliPad which circulates cool water under the athlete as they sleep. Something like this can be a great benefit when trying to ensure a good night’s sleep!
Avoid stimulants - This seems rather straight forward, but stimulants can be a major hinderance to sleep. For athletes, this can be an especially common problem. An intense afternoon workout fueled with a caffeine-containing gel or a buzz-inducing pre-workout beverage can lead to hours of insomnia. Consider this when choosing your post-lunch workout fuel.
Heavy meals - Similar to stimulants, a large and/or heavy meal can make it difficult to fall asleep at night. After a hard workout, you might be craving something fatty or spicy, and you may think you’ve “earned” a big meal. However, indulging may lead to a restless night and poor recovery.
When sleep hygiene goes awry, many athletes reach for supplements or medications to help them drift off to sleep. Let’s take a look at some of the options, their potential benefit, and some of the down sides.
Melatonin - Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland in the brain. It helps to regulate your circadian rhythms, or your sleep-wake cycles. Taking a small dose of melatonin can help encourage you to fall asleep, and it can work quite well. I think it should be used sparingly based on circumstances. It can be great to help adjust to a new time zone when traveling or when amped up after a big day of training or racing. I’m not a fan of using it as a every day supplement or in higher doses.
Magnesium - Magnesium is a mineral that has many uses in the bodies of athletes. It is purported to aid in sleep by relaxing muscles and reducing stress. Many athletes find that a dose of magnesium at night helps them fall asleep more easily.
5-HTP - This is a plant-derived supplement which serves as a precursor to serotonin and melatonin in the brain. It can be used to treat insomnia and jet lag, but it should not be used when taking certain prescription medications. As with any supplement or medication, you truly should check with your physician before starting a treatment regimen!
Sleep Medications - Drugs such as zolpidem or temazepam fall into the category of prescription sleep medications. They are commonly used by athletes and non-athletes alike. However, their use should be kept to a minimum or avoided entirely. While they will knock you out, your sleep architecture (see above discussion on sleep stages) is markedly disrupted. You may be “asleep”, but the quality of that sleep is quite poor. Not only is the sleep unlikely to be restorative or beneficial, studies have shown that sleeping pills can lead to earlier death in those that use them!
For an athlete to perform at their best, adequate sleep is a requirement. If you are not sleeping well or enough, you are not reaching your potential as an athlete. It’s that simple. Take the time to monitor your sleep, ensure good sleep hygiene, and address issues that contribute to your lack of sleep. It is well worth your time to address this issue. The guidance of a physician can be very helpful as well, as it may be important to look at medical contributors to poor sleep, such as sleep apnea. Give this topic its due respect, just as you would nutrition or training principles. Your race season will only be better for having addressed this.