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The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to Sleep (How to Sleep Better So That You Can Perform Better!)

sleepy kitty represents tired endurance athlete

Tomorrow, March 17, 2017, is World Sleep Day.

Why does sleeping get its own worldwide holiday?

Unlike power meters and chamois cream and energy seaweed, which are only valued by a select group of athletes, everyone likes to sleep. And sleep is important for everyone. (If you’re training like crazy, it’s absolutely vital.)

Today we’ll learn some more about exactly why sleep is so awesome and, perhaps more importantly, how you can get better sleep!

What Happens During Sleep

We all know what sleep is. And we know how to sleep – it comes naturally.

But what exactly happens during sleep?

Well, there are five stages that occur during sleep. The first two are light sleep, when your muscle activity, breathing, and heart rate all slow down. These two set the stage (pun intended) for deep sleep in stages three and four. Deep sleep is when your brain is very active, checking on your body and making sure everything is in order. Stage five is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when you dream.

Completing one of these cycles takes around 90 minutes. And you need to complete multiple cycles per night.

Your body performs many critical functions during these sleep cycles! And I’ll cover some of them in the next section…

Improved Sleep = Improved Race Performance

Not only is sleep critical for your overall health and well-being, but it’s especially important when it comes to your fitness and athletic performance!

Here’s why:

Sleep is the ultimate form of physical and mental recovery.

Even if you’re taking relaxing epsom salt baths, eating healthy, and getting massages, none of that matters if you’re not sleeping enough. Sleep trumps all other recovery methods!

Sleep not only allows your body to recover (so it can perform at its potential), it allows your brain to recover, so that you have the motivation and ability to focus that are super important!

Because if you’re motivated, what are chances you get a good workout in? (If you work out at all…)

Turn up the testosterone.

You don’t need any fancy supplements. Simply get plenty of sleep at night and you’ll release testosterone that helps build muscles and keeps you feeling young.

Release growth hormone.

Growth hormone (GH) is extremely important for athletes. This is what’s going to help you build muscle and burn fat! While you sleep!

Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, your body is probably thinking, “this guy get 8 hours of sleep? Too good to be true…”

Get to bed early and you’ll be rewarded with more energy and better body composition – and, ultimately, improved athletic performance!

The Effects of Lost Sleep

Specifically, negative side effects. Because nothing good comes from lost sleep.

Lost sleep can make you fat.

Lost sleep has been linked to immediate weight gain. Ugh.

And while I’m not a huge fan of that particular study – it might have simply been an example of people who slept less had more time to eat – it’s not alone in its results.

Examine.com states that “there appears to be a persistent relationship between less sleep time and greater fat mass.”

Exercise quality suffers after a night of restless sleep.

Not like you really need a study to point this out, but it’s been proven. If you don’t sleep well, the next day’s training will likely suffer a little. Then, if your training suffers consistently, your race performance is going to suffer exponentially. 🙁

“Getting less than 7.5 hours of sleep each night also means that you’re at greater risk of heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death than your pals who get plenty of snooze time.”

Impaired sleep is associated with impaired cognitive function.

Don’t bother with brain training or nootropics supplements unless you’re going to commit to getting enough sleep.

If you want your brain and cognition at the best of their ability, sleep.

You know what the worst part is? Some of these effects are cumulative. In other words, if you have one night of bad sleep, it might take two more nights of good sleep to recover.

So what do you do?

How to Sleep Better

Here are some awesome ways you can get more (and better) sleep:

Exercise on a regular basis.

“Exercise is great for sleep. For the millions of people who want better sleep, exercise may help,” says David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Exercisers report better sleep than non-exercisers, even if they slept the same amount of time. Vigorous exercisers are almost twice as likely as non-exercisers to report “I had a good night’s sleep” every night or almost every night during the week.

Repeat that one more time: Exercisers report better sleep than non-exercisers, even if they slept the same amount of time.

Yeah.

Ideally, you’ll perform vigorous exercise on a regular basis – but even light activity is better than nothing. So don’t sit around all day. (Separate from exercise, spending less time sitting may improve sleep quality and health.)

Expose yourself to daylight.

The more sunlight you get earlier in the day, the better you’ll sleep at night. So experience the daylight whenever possible!

This study showed that if you work near a window, you’ll sleep more each night, and you’ll sleep better! And that is each and every night – the benefits seemingly carry over into the weekends.

Once the evening hits though, try to avoid too much bright light, so your body knows that night is upon you.

See if you can get a flexible work schedule.

Penn State researched this, and if employees have more control over their work schedules, there will be less sleep deprivation!

Setting your own hours is easier said than done (although the tips in 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss are quite helpful), but that’s what the research shows, so see what you can do.

Limit food and drink (close to bedtime).

Eating too big of a meal and having to digest it can disrupt sleep. Drinking more than is necessary could lead to you waking multiple times during the night to get up and pee.

Eat and drink early enough that you can go to sleep and stay asleep. The less sugar and caffeine, the better. (Stick with fat and protein – something like mixed nuts would be a good choice.)

Reduce blue light.

Blue light, like that emitted from most electronics, is not helpful to falling asleep.

If you must use a screen, try f.lux, which is free software that helps your computer screen mimic the rest of your lighting conditions, leading to better sleep.

You can also filter out blue light by wearing orange-tinted glasses. There are Gunnars, which are “engineered to reduce eye strain”, but if you’d rather spend $8 (instead of $80), you can grab a simple pair of Uvex glasses.

Develop a bedtime routine.

It’s best if you can go to sleep and wake at the same time every day, so try to create a routine that allows for that.

Something that might help is to practice a relaxing bedtime ritual, like a warm bath or listening to calming music or sleep sounds.

Create a “sleep environment.”

Create an environment in your bedroom that is conducive to sleep.

It should be:

  • Quiet
  • Dark
  • Cool
  • Comfortable

More tips on creating your very own sleep environment coming up next!

Creating Your Sleep Environment

Once your body is prepared for sleep, you want to give yourself the best possible shot at restful sleep. And that comes from preparing your bedroom. As mentioned earlier, it needs to be cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable.

Here are the key steps to creating your sleep environment:

Choosing the right bed and bedding

Obviously, your mattress is very, very important. But every piece of bedding (sheets, pillows, etc.) is important.

When it comes to your mattress, there are options at just about every price point. Mattress stores have plenty of options in the $4000 range, but man, that cuts into my new bike budget!

At a more modest price point ($850), there is the relatively new Casper mattress, which has been getting rave reviews all over the place, including in Consumer Reports. I found out about Casper because they sponsor a few podcasts I like (e.g. Lore and Freakonomics), which isn’t exactly the best research, but it’s a start.

When it comes to mattress research and comparisons, you absolutely must visit the Sleep Like The Dead website! That’s where I found out that a few Zinus brand mattresses (available on Amazon for around $250-350) are also getting rave reviews!

Both the Zinus Green Tea memory foam mattress and the Zinus Sleep Master Ultima Comfort memory foam mattress are found on Amazon.com for under $300 (with free shipping!)

Once that’s settled, add a pillow. There are numerous options here – different shapes, sizes, and materials – all at different prices. I seem to do alright with many of the cheap pillows, but my favorite is the latex foam pillow sold at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It’s very much a personal preference!

If you’re having trouble finding a good pillow, consider Bedgear performance bedding. Their products are used by top athletes all across the nation due to the temperature control, body fitting, and healing effects offered. But make sure you budget $80 for this pillow.

Finally, make sure you cover it all with the right sheets and pillowcases. I personally like bamboo bed sheets. They’re not just eco-friendly; they are naturally thermal-regulating, hypoallergenic, odor resistant, moisture-wicking, and the good ones are even softer than 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton.

Keep it cool.

Most people sleep best at a cool temperature – around 67 F.

Naturally, there are many products out there to help keep you cool at night. The aforementioned Bedgear performance bedding is supposed to help keep you cool.

Then there’s something called the ChiliPad, which is essentially air conditioning for your bed! It’s extremely popular among people who can afford a $600+ addition to their existing mattress.

I’ve also found something called the BedJet, which is even more expensive, but even closer to air conditioning for your bed. (It also functions as a heater and has the potential for dual-zone climate control!)

If you’re on a budget, consider a cooling pillow case.

Set the right noise level.

Studies show that perfect quiet is best, but that’s not always possible.

You might want to add the right noise (i.e white noise) to help you get to sleep. The Dohm DS is a great choice for a white noise machine (it’s the Official Sound Conditioner of the National Sleep Foundation). It’s available on Amazon for $45.

If you prefer to listen to music or sleep sounds, try sleep-specific headphones (like SleepPhones).

Make it dark.

This can be quite the undertaking, to get your room completely dark. The quickest, simplest method is to wear a sleep mask.

Sleep Tracking Devices and Apps

Tracking your sleep will help you tell if you’re getting good sleep or not. These apps also help figure out how to best improve your sleep.

There’s some neat stuff out there! I’ll talk about a few of the best options.

Note: Most activity trackers will do this to some extent. If you have one, great. If not, no worries!

Sleep Cycle App

This is a smart alarm clock app for your iPhone. I use this myself! It’s free!

Here’s how it works: “While you sleep, Sleep Cycle analyzes your sleep. When it’s time, it wakes you up in your lightest sleep phase.”

(They do have an Android app, but in that case, the phone has to sit in your bed with you. Where as with the iOS app, it can sit on your nightstand. Also, the optional Premium subscription costs $29.99 per year.)

SleepBot App

Another free app, SleepBot is a “revolutionary sleep cycle alarm gently wakes you during your lightest sleep.”

I use both this and the Sleep Cycle app on my iPhone. Which is better? You decide!

Beddit

If you’re not keen on wearing a tracking device or placing your phone on your bed, this super cool device is for you! The Beddit is a thin piece of material that slips underneath your bed sheet and gathers data without disrupting your sleep.

It transmits that data to its corresponding app using a Bluetooth connection to your iOS device. This option will set you back $149.

How to Beat Sleep Deprivation

Didn’t sleep well?

Not enough time to analyze your sleep tracking app’s data and correct the root cause?

This happens a lot. On top of the stresses and obligations of daily life, you might also be dealing with anxiety over an important upcoming race or event where you’ll be pushing your limits.

Or maybe you’re away from home, sleeping in a hotel room, inundated with strange noises and surroundings. That’s the worst because your brain has a safety mechanism that won’t let you sleep deeply when you’re in a strange new place! Literally half your brain stays awake!

Your brain wants to keep you alive – it doesn’t really care if you’re fully rested for tomorrow’s competition!

Here’s what you can do today to make up for it:

Caffeine and creatine to the rescue!

Aside from driving/flying in early and acclimating to your new sleeping situation, you’ll need to rely on caffeine and creatine.

Caffeine probably doesn’t surprise you. But creatine? Yeah!

There was a study done on rugby players that put them through a skills test on either 7-9 hours of sleep (a full night’s sleep) or 3-5 hours of sleep (moderate sleep deprivation). Before each trial, they were given either a placebo, caffeine, or creatine.

Unsurprisingly, the athletes in the placebo group demonstrated a decline in performance when sleep deprived. However, both the caffeine and the creatine groups maintained performance, despite the sleep deprivation!

Creatine is more useful than some give it credit for! It enhances your physical and mental function! Your brain needs it.

To sum things up, everyone can benefit from improved sleep!

 

*Most sleep study data referenced from the 2013 and 2014 Sleep in America annual reports.

Photo credit: Kenny Louie

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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