Animals and children know something about sleep adults seem to forget. Learn from them!
Diet, the perfect training plan, massage, icing, mind strength. The list goes on and on. These are all incredibly important aspects to help one reach their athletic potential. Often, one of the key ingredients we don’t take seriously until it is too late is proper rest. How many hours of sleep do you get per night? Do you take days off? What about tapering? What about just listening to your body for signs when it needs a break, even when the schedule screams, NO!
Over the years I have seen many talented athlete’s bodies break down and experience injury. Heavy burnout or a serious illness comes about right when the season was reaching towards the biggest races. And what? Their season ends early as the body simply can’t go on. Or perhaps they make it through the races with less than stellar performances as compared to their capabilities.
This is almost never about too little training, or not enough calories. If there is an injury or illness involved, how could that have been prevented? An often over looked prevention mechanism is sleep. Many things happen when we sleep. Often we think that it is the workout that makes us stronger. What a workout actually does is break down body tissues and use up cellular reserves and minerals and other important substances. We know that workouts to the point that we can handle this stress, and then recover from it, are what makes us stronger, faster, better athletes. Yet how we recover is complex. We know good massage, a nutrient rich diet, cross training, easy days, etc. are important. Yet, it is sleep that allows it all to come together.
Proper sleep–for endurance athletes seriously should be about 10+ hours per night during heavy training–is so incredibly important. When we sleep, here are just some of the things that happen.
We release human growth hormone (HGH), which is how we rebuild our cellular structures. Here are some of the things HGH allows in our bodies:
- Conversion of body fat to muscle mass
- Growth of all tissues
- Increased energy levels
- Tissue repair
- Whole body healing
- Cell replacement
- Bone strength
- Brain function
- Sexual function
- Organ health and integrity
- Enzyme production
- Integrity of hair, nails, skin and vital organs
Wow! All extremely important for our sports performance and overall health in general. Sleep also is what maximizes glycogen storage. Again, on this one, diet comes largely into play, but at what point is the glucose broken down into glycogen and stored? Sleep! If an athlete doesn’t get proper rest, their ability to store glycogen in the liver and muscles can be extremely hindered. This is our main source of energy during endurance exercise. Not to mention, our brain uses a huge amount of glucose to function. If we are low on reserves, we may not feel the motivation, or perhaps we make critical errors we would not otherwise make in training, What about our ability to reason in general, and make decisions to rest when we know we need to? And the list goes on.
With lack of sleep, a hormone that is over-produced is cortisol. Cortisol is produced in response to stress. This is crucial for emergency fight or flight responses. But too much impedes our ability to break down fat properly, slows healing times, and creates blood sugar imbalances among others. Thus an athlete with an incredible workout regime and diet, whom can’t get rid of his/her doughy midsection should question their sleep patterns and overall stress levels in general. There are many other things that lack of sleep doesn’t help, and proper sleep is the miracle solution!
But knowing this, many people will say, but I can’t sleep! Here are some suggestions:
- Do not take in caffeine in the afternoon or evening hours
- Eat your biggest meal midday, so in the evening you can eat lightly and the body can focus on healing instead of breaking down large meals
- Practice Yoga
- Visualize–just as you visualize a big race or workout, see yourself getting the best night sleep ever, letting go of all worries, etc. This is huge!
- Keep a peace journal. Each night when you go to bed, take a few moments to write down all the things that you love, make you happy, that bring you joy, etc. It is amazing how this can effect your life for the better in general. What you think upon grows!
- Pranayama (this is the breath work in yoga) there are very specific breathing exercises that promote relaxation.
Take home message? Athletes are in general highly motivated individuals who do a lot of things right. An often overlooked, yet imperative component is sleep. If you want to achieve your potential athletically, and in life in general, get enough sleep and see your entire world improve for the better!