When we’re focused on achieving goals to improve our performance, we tend to become fixated on consciously expending energy to achieve them. To achieve the goals we desire we’ll start a gruelling exercise regime, or begin monitoring and modifying our diet, or work on learning routines, routes, skills, or begin cognitive conditioning programs. Sleep and recovery are two of the most important yet undervalued elements within any performance improvement program however, and their inclusion is paramount.
Why bother? I can survive on 6 hours a night.
Anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time learning about sleep will have read about the importance of circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles, how we need 8 hours sleep and that we sleep in cycles. We equally know that we can survive on much less sleep and may enjoy lazy days kicking around in our pyjamas watching films. There is a lot that scientists still don’t understand about the massively complex phenomenon that is called sleep but what is known is:
- Tired muscles recover and new proteins are synthesised during sleep
- We produce neurotransmitter substances when asleep to replenish for the next day
- Some hormones are selectively produced when we’re asleep
- Inattention, disorientation and memory problems result from lack of sleep
- Our emotional and psychological wellbeing is dependent on sleep
- We can become irritable, overly anxious or excitable when sleep deprived
Research has given us some longer term side effects also:
- There’s a 6% increase in obesity occurrence if we sleep for less than 7 hours at night.
- There is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (15 %) and coronary heart disease (23%) on less than 6 hours versus 7 hours sleep.
- Type 2 diabetes risk increases by 28 % if sleep is limited to 5-6 hours per night.
- People sleeping for less than 7 hours are 2.94 times more likely to develop a cold when exposed to a flu virus than those sleeping 8 hours or more.
- The performance characteristics of people sleeping 4 hours per night for 1 week are equal to not sleeping at all for one night.
- Work place accidents increase by 30% at night.
- 20% of vehicle accidents are related to tiredness.
Recommendations from research
General recommendations around sleeping is that we should be getting 7-9 hours sleep each night and we should be going to bed at a consistent time. If you’re considering optimisation of your performance, as part of a performance improvement program, it’s imperative that you are falling within these recommendations.
There’s a useful website that can help you calculate your optimal bedtimes/wake times called sleepyti.me bedtime calculator.
Enhancing sleep quality
While some people reading this article will already have a good sleep routine, others will not. Many of us struggle for example with falling asleep, or waking up during the night and poor sleep quality can be just as harmful as insufficient sleep. Just as we work to enhance our athletic performance, it may be that time needs to be put into enhancing our sleeping performance. The research in this area talks of achieving improved sleep patterns through a process of ‘sleep hygiene’.
What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene involves you looking at a series of correlates to poor sleep then improving them if they pose an issue for you. To start your sleep hygiene program, look at the list below (please note the below list is not exhaustive) and, if there’s an issue, start addressing it today:
- Irregular sleep patterns can disrupt your body clock and lead to loss of cues eg feeling tired in the evening and alert in the morning, so aim to go to bed and wake at a consistent time.
- Daytime inactivity can increase your feeling of fatigue and desire for catnaps. Avoid sleeping in the day as this leads you to need less sleep at night.
- Dim lights in the lead up to sleep as a dark environment prepares our brain for sleep.
- If you are not asleep within 20 minutes go to another room and sit and relax until you feel sleepy.
- Keep stresses to a minimum around bedtime and don’t work in the evenings eg don’t start checking emails in the evening.
- Limit intake of alcohol and caffeine containing drinks (eg coffee, tea, cola). Both decrease sleep quality (even though alcohol initially helps you get to sleep).
- Exercise is beneficial, but avoid especially heavy exercise within 4 hours of bedtime.
- Eat light meals in the evenings.
- Do not use tablets/computers before bed as bright screens increase alertness.
- Long periods spent awake in bed eg watching television, playing computer games, can lead you to associate your bedroom with wakefulness.
- Sleep in a quiet, dark and cool room (approx. 18 °C).
Achieving good quality sleep is essential to improving and optimising athletic performance. If you need to make adjustments, it’s important to make them gradually by making small adjustments in the right direction each day eg adjust your bedtime in 15 minute intervals. Work at resting well and you’ll be surprised by the benefits when you’re awake!
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