*** many thanks to Trudy Sturkenboom for this blog post ***

3.30am and the alarm sounds and you stumble out of bed to the coffee machine, knock one (or two) espresso down and fumble around in the dark (trying not to wake the rest of the house) getting your lycra kit on. Grab your water bottles, gu, jelly babies and bike and head out the door, ready to receive the weird looks you know you'll get from the party animals returning home in a drunk stupor. After 30-45mins of driving out to the middle of nowhere you arrive and meet your other crazy friends for 3+ hours of beautiful cycling in the desert. 

After a quick jog and a coffee/coke/chocolate milk you drive that 30-45mins back to civilisation where everyone else (except your hyper children and dog) are still in a blissful state of sleep. The time is now somewhere closer to 10am. You've completed a 3-7 hour training session on around 6 hours of sleep.

I can imagine that almost everyone reading this can make some sort of connection with their friday morning routine and the above, not to mention early Saturday morning swims, Saturday afternoon 'easy' long runs, Sunday swims, Mondays brick sessions, Tuesdays swim, Wednesdays brick session and if you're 'lucky' another swim/bike/run or a combination on Thursday. How ever your training plan looks I'm almost certain you (like 90% of every other triathlete in the world) are training a stupid amount of hours and spending less time doing anything else.

My question to you is - are you actually getting faster with the long hours of training? Is there something you can change so your body will actually adapt to that training quicker?

Sleep. That beautiful blissful state of unawareness (and/or mad crazy dreams). What if you traded in a third of your training hours to get a full 8 hours sleep each night? Would you get faster? Lets take a quick look at what is going on when you actually sleep…

"Sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realise that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur."  (www.brainpickings.org)

Throughout the 5 stages of sleep our bodies are basically restoring and repairing physically, and storing mentally. The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night. When we sleep our bodies are repairing the damage that days training has done to our muscles and central nervous system (CNS). Ideally, we want our muscles to be rebuilt stronger and faster than they were before the training session - thus maximising the whole effect of training. Our CNS needs enough sleep to avoid suffering from acute and chronic overtraining and from adrenal fatigue - not to mention many more conditions. These conditions affect our training adaption, or in many cases - lack of adaption. If we miss sleep completely or sleep less than we need to, then our body misses its chance to actually adapt to the training… So what was the point of training if you can't get the benefit from it? 

Sleep is connected to many hormonal responses from our body and brain. The most obvious two are the onset of sleepiness when it gets darker (your body is releasing more melatonin), and your body's natural awakening when it gets lighter (an increased release of serotonin). Training also affects many of these hormones (as do our diets which is closely linked but another story for another day).

"Sleep is critical for maintaining a healthy metabolic rate and synthesising essential hormones and protein needed for muscle growth. Human growth hormone (HGH) is produced more abundantly when you sleep; you'll need it for growth stimulation and cell reproduction.Sleep also encourages better eating habits. A not-so-restful night might mean reduced leptin (an appetite-regulating hormone) levels. So, if you ever wake up from a fitful night craving nothing but carbs, lower leptin levels might be the reason. Sleep well and your diet will feel easier. At the same time, sleeping also replenishes critical neurotransmitters (specialised chemicals) that you need to build muscles effectively and safely. These neurotransmitters include dopamine, adrenalin, noradrenalin, acetylcholine and more.These chemicals are responsible for focus, attention, motivation, overall energy levels and muscular contractions. These chemicals are depleted by hard training and everyday activities. Only sleeping allows your body to repair itself and replenish the chemicals that are needed for you to get best results." (www.bodybuilding.com

Now you know a few more facts about sleep and why an adequate amount of it will boost your training and results - lets put it to use. You know you need more sleep if you:

  • Have trouble concentrating and remembering.
  • Sometimes lose your sense of humour.
  • Work in a stressful environment.
  • Are tempted to doze in boring meetings.
  • Hit the snooze button repeatedly in the morning. 
  • Have reduced immunity to disease and viral infections.
  • Feel chilled.
  • Struggle to get out of bed in the morning.
  • Have mood shifts, feel depressed or irritable.
  • Experience weight gain.
  • Fall asleep watching TV.
  • Sleep late on weekends.
  • Think that a Saturday afternoon nap is a necessity, not just a luxury.

(This is just a small list of changes you will experience if you are sleep deprived. If you are constantly exhausted you may have adrenal fatigue - this is worth getting checked out by your doctor as it takes months to recover from and your adrenal glands play a large role in controlling your body's homeostasis).

During my triathlon training I could easily have ticked all the above boxes. We really don't even need this list to tell us that we are sleep deprived. But there are days when you will not be able to avoid a shorter sleep (Thursday evening - when getting up at 2am to get your ride in before the summer sun comes up in the desert for example). So what can we do to improve our sleeping hours? 

  • Use an eye pillow if you are sleeping during daylight hours.
  • If you can fit in a nap, go for it- even 20 minutes has been shown to be beneficial.
  • Try as much as possible to sleep when its dark, and wake up when the sun is coming up.
  • Use melatonin if you have problems sleeping at night.
  • Use magnesium to help you sleep deeper (Mg also helps aid in muscle relaxation).
  • Save your carb intake for your last meal of the day, and stick to higher protein and fat breakfasts.
  • Eat clean and avoid alcohol, that way your body regulates hormones levels much more efficiently.
  • Get regular deep tissue massage to relax the body.
  • Try meditation before bed time.
  • Limit your use of bright lights/tv/computer close to bed time (red or pink lights are better- most computers should have this screen function).
  • Don't eat to close to bed time (at least 60-90minutes digestion time before sleep).
  • Take a casual walk or swim after dinner before bed.
  • Adopt your children out until they reach the 'sleepy teenager' years.
  • Try to keep your going to bed and getting up times the same each day.
  • Schedule your training- know exactly what you are doing when you get there, and stick to it so you can get home at the right time. (I'm a big culprit for spending too much time talking and not enough time training!)
  • Make sure your training plan has an 'easy' week every 3 or 4 weeks where you can get at least 7 nights of full sleep.
  • Follow a decent taper before your race, 2 or 3 days is just not enough for most people. The longer your training build up has been then the longer you should be tapering.

I am totally aware that a lot of these options may not exist for you - but if your training adaptions have become stale, it might be time to think about getting some more shut eye.

As long as we are getting adequate sleep, our bodies are regulating the right hormones at the right times in the right amounts. Our muscles and central nervous system are rebuilding faster neuromuscular connections, larger connection areas across the muscle (think - more muscle recruitment to bike faster and turn your legs over faster in the run), and stronger muscle fibres (not bigger, but stronger) just to name a few optimal training adaptions. 

If we are missing adequate sleep then our bodies become less responsive to internal (hormones, food, drugs, bacteria) and external (light, dark, sound) stimuli. Our immune system drops (hello flu) and our hormone levels are out of whack - less growth hormone means less muscle growth (don't think bulk - think faster and stronger muscle growth) - less muscle growth means less training adaption - less training adaption means less improvement in your finish time at your next race. Sleep is one of the most important and generally the easiest aspect of physical improvement- Are you getting enough of it???

(As a side note- If you're not convinced to trade in a few hours of training for that extra shut eye - take a look at some of our own stars in TriDubai.  I know some of our best performers have have relatively low training hours each week (I am talking less than 10 hours per week) and, even though they may be excellent athletes themselves, their bodies are adapting to their training schedules and they are producing the results).