Why Sleep Is So Important For Optimal Training.
It seems odd to think of sleep as having any tangible impact on our training beyond the obvious – feeling more tired during a session if we didn’t get enough shut eye the night before, or, feeling fresh and raring to go if we did. But, it actually goes much further than that when it comes to our fitness, training and overall health.
Consistent and regular sleep is a vital component to a truly ‘healthy’ lifestyle – even if you’re the sort of person who is a self-confessed ‘early bird’ and you feel like you function just fine on a few hours and a strong coffee. If you’re not getting enough sleep you won’t be training at an optimal level.
Well, without enough sleep our body can’t heal and repair damaged blood vessels and muscle. More importantly, sleep deficiency is unfortunately linked to increased risks of heart attacks, obesity, diabetes, a weakened immune system, mental health problems, low sex drive, lack of motivation, weight gain, and … the list goes on.
Just glancing at that is enough to want to make us jump back under the covers, and we aren’t alone! According to the Centres for Disease Control and prevention, 1/3 adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis. A lot of the time sleep is last on the ‘to-do’ list, and if you’ve got a busy work life and training schedule it gets pushed back to make more time in the day – but it really should become a priority.
Is All Sleep Created Equal?
Not quite. We generally have two main ‘types’ of sleep when we get our shut eye and we cycle between them throughout the night (or, whenever we are getting our rest if you’re a shift worker). For anyone who tracks sleep with a smart watch you’ll notice your sleep patterns are broken down and analysed to show you when you were in a ‘deep sleep’ state or a ‘light sleep’.
So, what are the main stages of sleep? REM and NON-REM. REM just stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is the phase of sleep where we usually experience dreams. Typically we go though a phase of non-rem sleep first, then rem sleep before the cycle begins again.
What is the difference between the two?
REM SLEEP (active sleep)
REM sleep is when your brain is most active during your sleep. Your heart rate increases and breathing is sped up too. It’s a really important component of our sleep as it stimulates the parts of our brains that help us with learning, committing information to long-term memory and producing proteins too.
NON-REM SLEEP (deep sleep)
There are various stages to NON-REM-sleep that last anywhere from 5 – 15 minutes each.
- It’s easy to wake up in the first stage of NON-REM sleep. You might be feeling drowsy and your eyes will be closed but you are in a very light sleep state.
- Next your body starts to prepare for deep sleep in the second stage. Your heart rate begins to slow and your body temperature drops.
- The third phase of NON-REM sleep is known as ‘deep sleep’. And, this is where the ‘magic’ happens. Your body is repairing and regrowing cells and tissue, building bone and muscle, strengthening your immune system and building up your energy levels for the next day too.
Why Do We Need Sleep Specifically For Training?
As well as being so important to our overall health, sleep is essential when it comes to muscle recovery. During NON-REM sleep our breathing is deeper and slower, our brain is in a resting state and blood supply is able to increase and flow to our muscles. This takes with it oxygen which is essential to nourish and rejuvenate tissues and muscles. During this resting state our hormones can re-balance and our pituitary gland releases specific growth hormones that help stimulate muscle mass and repair – this is especially important if you’re recovering from injury or illness. When we are regularly training, especially with intense CrossFit and Functional Fitness programmes, our muscles are being constantly fatigued. It is vital they have time to recover properly to avoid injury and also to help them strengthen (& so we can make gains!)
If you are looking to change your body composition then getting enough sleep also goes hand in hand with weight maintenance or leaning up (depending on your goal). Sleep is an essential element of energy metabolism. Those who are sleep deprived often have fat calls which don’t function properly and can’t regulate insulin levels as effectively. Obviously this is a problem for unwanted weight gain and even obesity, but an inability to regulate insulin has much more serious long term implications such as diabetes.
Getting consistent, quality sleep regularly can help us maintain a healthy weight, build stronger muscles, recover more quickly from injury and therefore is an essential element for optimal training.
How Much Sleep is Enough?
The amount of sleep we need actually changes throughout our life. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘I slept like a baby!’ to refer to a great night of sleep – and for good reason! Babies need anywhere from 14-17 hours every single day until they are 3 months old! They spend much more time than adults in the REM phase of sleep and this is thought to be because their brains are busy handling information they’ve taken in and processing it to learn and understand from it.
The hours we ‘need’ gradually lessens as we age and by the time we’re adults we generally need between 7 -10 hours of sleep. The difference of three hours might seem quite significant and this is because it is dependent on our energy output – very active adults need more recovery time (more sleep).
Some experts refer to the time we should be sleeping as a ‘bank’ where we deposit hours. So, if you have an ‘off-night’ and only manage a few hours for whatever reason – whether you’ve been out on a big night out, have been struggling to fall asleep because you have something on your mind, or just have a really early alarm the next morning – you are in ‘sleep debt’. This means you need to make that time back up later. Don’t just carry on as normal and write off the debt – try and ‘repay it’ by sleeping longer the next night, or if you can fit in a few quick 20/30 minute naps over the week instead then do that.
How Can I Get a Better Nights Sleep?
Always struggled to drop off to sleep? For some it’s definitely easier than others, and for those of us who struggle to fall asleep each night or spend time tossing and turning it can be off-putting even thinking of trying to sleep for longer every night.
But, by developing routines and sticking to them consistently before we go to sleep we can achieve better quality sleep and ensure we are cycling through REM and NON-REM sleep throughout the night.
You have probably heard some of these before, but this time when you read them make a conscious effort to implement them into your schedule and just see if they do make a difference over a 2/3 week period.
- No electronic screens a good hour before bedtime (2 or more if possible)
- Switching off mentally before bed – don’t reply to a stressful work email moments before you head to sleep!
- Go to sleep at roughly the same time (we know this one is impossible for some people due to work!)
- Avoiding huge, heavy meals or caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime
- Making sure not to be hungry before bed – a light snack an hour before bedtime can help
- Creating a calm environment in your sleeping area (see below)
To create a calm atmosphere you might want to try diffusers with essential oils like lavender, or essential oil pillow sprays that can help promote a deep sleep too. You can also try sound machines, or listen to a relaxing playlist while you sleep if you find that helpful.
Anyone else feeling tired after reading all that? 🤣 Us too! Make sure to get yourself some quality shut-eye tonight and set yourself a goal of developing a sleep routine over the next 2 weeks and see how it impacts your overall feeling and training!
Love & High Fives,