Warren Zevon's greatest hits album title is "I'll sleep when I'm Dead", unfortunately athletes should start to live by a more conservative and less catchy motto, “I will get my 8 plus hours”.
Getting quality sleep will affect your waking life, especially your training.
As a modest example; if you were to train 1hour a day, and train once a day, over the course of a week you would be training for 7 hours. The average Brit gets around 7 hours sleep a night, that gives us 49hours spent sleeping a week. We sleep for 7 times as much as we train, but I bet that most of us spend all our time thinking about training and none getting quality sleep. We spend a fortune on gadgets, recovery drinks and kit, yet for an activity we do more than exercise we take it for granted. Now I know that you need to train to get fitter, but sleep is currently viewed as a distraction and that perception needs to be changed. With very little effort we can make some great strides in sleeping better and improving performance.
In order to understand why, we need to understand sleep better and it is an area that scientists have spent a considerable amount of time and research into understanding.
I will start by answering four questions
1. What is sleep?
2. What happens when we sleep?
3. Why do we sleep?
4. How much sleep do we need?
Once those simple questions are out the way, I will create a guide as to how to make some real changes to your sleeping habits and look at some amazing products that can really help.
1. What is sleep?
To learn more about sleep, we need to have an understanding of the Circadian rhythm. The Circadian rhythm is roughly a 24 hour cycle that living beings, including humans go through. It is internally created, external cues can affect it, yet it will persist even in constant conditions. It is present in the sleeping and feeding cycles, as it affects body temperature, brain wave activity and other biological activities. Your sleep time is controlled by an internal circadian clock. It works to release adenosine (a neurotransmitter designed to induce sleepiness) during the day. Your body temperature will drop as night begins, and reaches a minimum right after you go to bed. Light can heavily influence the circadian rhythm.
The main point to take away from this is that our bodies have a cycle which they travel through, and to sleep well we have to get to know our own circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is what makes it difficult to cross time zones and causes the 'jet lag' phenomenon. It can take more than a week to adjust to travelling across several time zones as the body adjusts to environmental cues.
Sleep is a naturally recurring state where we have a reduced consciousness and inactivity of nearly all our voluntary muscles. It is a heightened anabolic state, where growth and the rejuvintion of the whole body is accentuated.
Sleep has been divided into two categories, NREM (non-REM, non rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) Sleep.
NREM is split into four other stages, intelligently named N1 (light sleep), N2 (true sleep), N3 (deep sleep) and N4 (deep sleep)
2. What happens when we sleep?
During these stages different things happen in our body.
N1, or light sleep - it is the first stage, and we are easily awoken. Muscle activity slows down and slight twitching may occur. It will take around 10 minutes to enter N2
N2, or true sleep - this will last around 20 minutes. Our breathing pattern and heart rate will slow. It will occupy around 45 - 55% of total sleep in adults.
N3, or deep sleep - the brain starts to produce delta wave, and breathing and heart rate are at lowest levels.
N4, or deep sleep - this is characterised by limited muscle activity and rhythmic breathing. This is when the body repairs itself. Researchers have speculated that it is during this phase of sleep that the body releases growth hormone. This stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building, fat burning and all round recovery. It is the ultimate training session.
REM sleep will usually begin between 70 - 90 minutes after we have fallen asleep. There are 3 - 5 REM episodes a night. The brain is very active, our eyes dart around (hence the name) and blood pressure and breathing rates rise. REM is important for helping you feel refreshed in the morning.
The cycle will usually follow the following cycle; N1 - N2 - N3/N4 - N2 - REM. N3/N4 are greater earlier in the sleep cycle. The proportion of REM increases later in the cycle as we get closer to a natural awakening. The pattern is very predictable, moving back and forth between deep restorative sleep (deep sleep) and more alert stages and dreaming (REM sleep). Together, the stages of REM and non-REM sleep form a complete sleep cycle.
The amount of time you spend in each stage of sleep changes as the night progresses. For example, most deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night. Later in the night, your REM sleep stages become longer, alternating with light Stage 2 sleep. This is why if you are sensitive to waking up in the middle of the night, it is probably in the early morning hours, not immediately after going to bed.
3. Why do we sleep?
It has been a subject for much scientific discussion over the years with no real conclusive proof. However,looking at the question from another angle and seeing what happens when we don't sleep provides some answers.
When we don't sleep our bodies, especially brain function diminishes. 17 hours of sustained wakefulness will lead to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, which is the legal drink drive limit in the UK. Our bodies are unable to function without sleep.
4. How much sleep do we need?
Finally he gets round to answering a useful question. However I feel that the answer to this is anything but. Jim Horne from Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre thinks that: "The amount of sleep we require is what we need not to be sleepy in the daytime", the average adult wants close to 7.5 hours. The natural amount of sleep we will need is directly influenced by our circadian rhythm
Struggling to wake up in the morning is an issue a lot of us suffer with, and it is usually because we are waking up during the middle of a sleep cycle, rather than at the end of it. When you are in light sleep your brain and body are close to wakefulness so the transition is easier. That is why it feels better when you naturally wake up.
It is recommended that adults get between 7 - 9 hours but I will cover this in more detail later. There is also a gene that enables people to sleep on 6 hours a night and do well. However the gene is very rare and appears in less than 3% of the population
Sleep Debt is the difference between the amount of hours of sleep you need and the hours you get. Research has shown that as little as 20hours of sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on sports performance. If you loose an hour you need to make that hour back somewhere else. Being sleep deprived means that the growth hormone release is slowed down.
It sounds like a great idea to recover all that debt in one hit on the weekend, but if the sleep debt is chronic then that isn't going to work. It can also affect your sleep-wake cycle so that when Sunday comes around, it is much harder to get to sleep because you have overslept on the Sunday morning.
It also isn’t just quantity of sleep, but quality. You need to allow the body to go through the sleep cycles and get into the deep sleep stage, and go from NREM to REM sleep.
Sleep is a very important part of our lives, especially for athletes. Studies have only been small but Cheri Mah, of Standard University, got 5 swimmers to increase their sleep time from 6 - 9hours a night to 10. Their reaction times off the start block improved by 0.15seconds and so did turn rate and 15 metre sprint time. Another study at Stanford, this time over women's tennis, had them attempting to get 10hours sleep each night. Those that managed it ran faster sprints and hit more accurate shots. Research is speculative as to why this may be the case, but it may have something to do with more growth hormone being released.
One thing to not worry about is one sleepless night, especially that before a big competition. It is very unlikely to hurt performance.
Athletes have other issues to worry about when they are competing, with anxiety about events but they should concentrate on creating an optimal sleep environment:
•Darkness --- it is very important that there is little light, as the body will take the cue of darkness to begin winding down and sending you to sleep.
•Temperature --- having control over the temperature is important, and cooler is better than warm. Being cooler also means you can add blankets if it is too cold. The body cools down when it is going to sleep, so heating it back up sends the wrong signals.
•Personal comfort --- it is critical that you are comfortable when you sleep. See here for more info.
•Snooze alarms are the enemy of good sleep, it can feel better using the alarm but it will not help the circadian rhythm.
•Being woken up during the night can also affect sleep rhythm, and not allowing you to get into deep sleep
•Night shifts -- affect sleep as it can be difficult to sleep during the day due to noise/light
•Smoking and drinking --- alcohol and nicotine disrupt deep sleep.
•No computers/screens --- Bright screens, like the one on your TV or computer, emit blue light which suppresses melatonin, the hormone that encourages your body to sleep
•Take your mind off it --- Clear your mind before you go to bed. Write down all the things you have to do tomorrow. This will quieten the mind and allow you to get to sleep easier.
An action plan of what you can do at home
So, what can you do at home.
•First off there needs to be a shift in perception, and sleep must become part of your regular training plan.
•Start by keeping a sleep diary. Record when you go to bed, when you get up, your total hours of sleep, and how you feel during the day. As you keep track of your sleep, you’ll discover your natural patterns and get to know your sleep needs. It can even be as simple as hours slept. If sleep becomes recordable you will start to treat it with the same respect as a threshold session. There are some great gadgets that can help here
•Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, if possible.
•Once you have worked out your natural sleeping pattern, keep on top of sleep debt by paying it back in one to two hour stints.
•A slightly more extreme plan, but maybe necessary if you are in chronic sleep debt. Take a sleep vacation to pay off long term sleep debt. Go to bed at the same time each night, but allow yourself to wake up naturally. If you do this for a 2week period, you will eventually recover from the sleep debt and arrive at a plan that will work wonders for you. This sort of method can be employed to make sure you are out of sleep debt before a big competition.
How to have better sleep?
Your bed has to be a comfortable place, and a good mattress and sheets are vital here.
I have used a Mammoth sports mattress and have noticed a huge difference in the quality of sleep because of it. The mattress uses high specification foam, which is designed to work with people of all shapes and sizes. This is complimented by a uniquely cut mattress which make sure you are sleeping in a good position. The mattress is backed by huge amounts of research, including The Department of Health, so you should have faith in the product. You can purchase the mattress in a variety of sizes and depth to the foam if you are looking for a more luxurious feel. It is so comfortable to get in after a hard session, and the temperature regulation system is very useful for those suffer from night sweats. It worked wonders for me and I notice the difference when I am out on the road and not sleeping in my bed! Prices start at £649 for a single bed.
Often overlooked are the sheets that you use. It is similar to spending lots of money investing in a pair of running shoes and then wearing a pair of old cotton socks, making your feet sweat lots and not getting the most out of your investment. You would spend the money on the better socks because you can see the benefit when you run, and the same can be said of the sheets. Athletes can sweat a lot more than normal people, and I am very prone to allergies, especially during the summer months. There is a company called DermaTherapy that produce a range of specialist bedding, which is designed to channel moisture away from the skin by using the uniquely structured microfibres. DermaTherapy is 37% smoother than cotton sheets and feels a lot nicer on your body than normal sheets. A wonderful side affect of all this technology is that the sheets will dry much quicker than normal sheets, just like all your moisture wicking running tops you own. I used the sheets during the summer when I suffer very heavily from Hay Fever and they really helped reduce the amount of irritation that I was suffering with. The sheets are fantastic at controlling temperature when you are sleeping, which can be a huge contributory factor to not sleeping well, so well worth your investment. There is also a case study done, where the sheets have stopped a child from suffering from his night terrors, so they really do work. Prices start at £58.95 for a fitted single sheet.
As I mentioned, light stimulates the production of sleep hormones; the more light there is the less sleep hormones produced. At night you want to be sleeping in a room which is a dark as possible, to tell the body that it is time to sleep. Making your room as dark as possible is really important and this can be achieved with some blackout material. I used a company called EasyBlinds. The blinds are really easy to set up, and have certainly helped me fall asleep at night. Prices start at £19.95.
Let there be light
Setting up a nice dark room is fantastic, but you will want lots of light in the morning to help you wake up. Invest in a dawn simulator alarm clock. The clock has a light which will gradually get brighter and wake you up in the morning. Lumie make a range of Bodyclock alarms and they come highly recommended. The light will wake brighten up over a set period of time, and some models come with FM radio. They take a week or so of getting used to but they really improve waking up in the morning by flooding your room with bright light over a period of time. Click here for a full review.
Having made the investments in your sleeping environment, it is important to put technology to good use and start tracking your sleep
Sleep Cycle is a £0.69 iOs app that works by placing your iPhone under your pillow at night and it uses the phones accelerometer to track movement during the night to work out which phase of sleep you are in. It has an alarm built in that will ring in when you are in your lightest phase of sleep, within a 30 minute window. The basic principle being the more movement the lighter phase of sleep you are in. Whilst it works, the analysis is rudimentary and when compared to the Zeo below it pales into insignificance. I have found I am awake and shaking the bed before the alarm decides to kick in.
Zeo Mobile and Zeo Sleep Coach. There is a full review here; but for the purpose of this article I want to give you a summary. The Zeo is a comprehensive sleep manager designed to help you improve your sleep, yet it requires you to wear a headband to track your sleep during the night. Whilst that can sound daunting, after a few days it becomes rather natural, and you can't really notice in when you sleep (I can't say the same about what your partner will think!). The device tracks your actual sleep stages, so each morning you can see exactly how much restorative sleep you got. There is a mobile version which works with an iPhone/iPad app, and this is perfect for those who travel a lot, or don't want the full alarm clock version version. Once you have woken up, you can look at the data on the phone and see how well you have slept. This is great as you can start to work out under what conditions you sleep well in, and those that really don’t work. The alarm clock version is a lovely looking bit of kit, it will do the same thing as the mobile version but has its own alarm clock and uses an SD card to transfer data to your computer and online portal. Both versions of the Zeo have a smart alarm feature that will wake you up when you are in a light phase of sleep and the feature is a lot more accurate than the same one used in Sleep Cycle.
Using a gadget to track your sleep is important because it will help you identify areas you can improve in your life to sleep better. Do you sleep better in complete darkness or does some light work? Are your sheets really that good? What if you use two blankets instead of a heavy duvet? This and many more are little tests you can do to find your optimal sleep environment.
Sleep is a fascinating topic and scientists are still struggling to understand it fully, but that must not stop you from trying to get the most benefit out of your time spent sleeping as possible. We spend fortunes, in money and time investing in our training, but for something we spend 1/3 of our lives doing, we take for granted. I hope I have persuaded you that it is unacceptable to continue to hold that line. You must at least invest some time into your sleep and understanding what works for you. Make the investment and you will start to reap the rewards in training.