Want to go faster, get stronger and stay healthier? Don’t underestimate the healing power of shut-eye.
by John Post, MD
The age group triathlete, not unlike a circus juggler, balances a number of demands on their time: work, family, community activities and trying to squeeze workouts in on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Who has any time for sleep?
Triathletes parcel out their training between swim, bike and run workouts, strength training, nutritional counseling and professional massage, but often pay little attention to sleep hours, patterns and habits. “Sleep deprivation is more or less an illness in itself,” writes Matt Fitzgerald in the Complete Triathlon Book. He goes on to suggest that a lack of sleep can increase an athlete’s susceptibility to other illnesses like colds and flu.
The sleep factory
“Missing out on sleep is ironic and unfortunate, as it’s one of the most important things the endurance athlete can do to improve on a daily basis,” says Dr. Brian Bechill, an Arizona-based doctor and USAT-certified coach. But how does something so sedentary improve us as athletes?
First, inadequate sleep has an adverse effect on glucose metabolism. A study at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine showed that after a single week of sleep restriction in young healthy male athletes, glucose levels were altered and led to a rapid deterioration of bodily functions. The authors compared the body’s diminished ability to handle glucose to aging effects seen in the elderly.
We also need sleep to produce HGH, or human growth hormone, the substance critical to post-exercise tissue repair that’s manufactured by the pituitary gland. In short, sleep is required to speed our recovery from training sessions and and racing. When sleep deprived, athletes commonly complain that a race or workout felt harder than expected.
William Winter, MD, director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep lab in Charlottesville, VA, says that slow wave sleep (deep sleep) is the driving force behind growth hormone secretion. He tells every baseball, basketball, hockey and football team he works with that the key to longevity and success is maximizing deep sleep—and thereby growth hormone—every night. “It’s the cornerstone for a long career,” he says.
Measuring the minutes
Deena Castor, who holds the American marathon record, sleeps 10 hours per night and naps for two hours in the afternoon. Most of the rest of us, however, are chronically sleep deprived: according to the National Sleep Foundation, Americans average 6.7 hours of sleep on the average weekday.
Where’s all that time going? We’re an around-the-clock nation. When we’re working more, or spending time on the Internet, we’re borrowing that time from sleep. “Whatever you’re staying awake for, it can’t be worth more than your health. Go to bed. Get those extra 60 to 90 minutes of shut-eye either at night or in the form of a nap,” says Fitzgerald.
Get some shut-eye
By prioritizing sleep, and following a few simple tips, even the busiest of IRONMAN athletes can start logging more productive horizontal time.
1. Honor your circadian rhythms by keeping a regular bedtime and wake time, including on the weekends. By doing so, you can condition your body to expect sleep, and you’ll fall asleep more quickly.
2. Avoid alcohol, particularly after dinner. Even though alcohol might make you feel sleepy at first, it can disrupt sleep later in the night.
3. Limit caffeine after 5 p.m., including coffee, tea, sodas and chocolate.
4. Avoid stressful situations, computer monitors and the 10 o’clock news within an hour of going to bed, and try to avoid going into problem solving mode once your head hits the pillow.
5. Keep your bedroom dark and free of lights and electronics. Yes, that means smartphones.
Don’t drop the ball in your triathlon juggling routine; strive to hit your goal sleep hours, and when you do hit the sack, sleep tight.
John Post is a six-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher and serves as the medical advisor for Training Bible Coaching and The Rock Star Triathlete Academy.