Sleep: How important is it?

Updated: Jan 1

Being a notoriously light sleeper, over time I feel I’ve developed a decent grasp of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to getting to sleep, and having suffered with insomnia in the past I can share first hand the impact it can have on training, racing and in day to day life. Why do we sleep? In short, we don’t really know! There are a number of theories as to why sleep is important, some of the more well established theories state that sleep holds important restorative and consolidatory functions (particularly important functions when training as a triathlete!). While others state that sleep can eliminate unwanted by products in the brain, saving itself energy, and that we sleep to dream (which some scientists say can help in the processing of events). How much sleep do you need? The first thing to say is that sleep is a very individual phenomenon (and also one that is still not completely understood!) and there can be vast discrepancies in what constitutes a decent night sleep between one person and another. You will often hear people say that 8 hours is the optimal duration for a good nights sleep. However, in reality some people can perform at their best after 4 hours sleep a night, while others may need 9 hours to feel on top form (N.B. for most the optimal amount of sleep will be somewhere between 7-9 hours) Is it possible to function on very little to no sleep? Well for me personally, I feel in the short term yes, but in the long term probably not. For example, I’ve raced an Olympic distance triathlon having had about 30 minutes sleep the night before and was still able to perform surprisingly well! On the other hand I’ve gone through periods where I have had 4 hours sleep for 3 to 4 consecutive days (with an optimal night sleep for me being around 7.5 hours) and have found by about the 3rd or 4th day, day to day functioning (let alone training) becomes a real struggle. During these times, I have a feeling of fuzzy headedness marked by poor concentration, loss of coordination, and word finding difficulties. I am also more irritable, feel physically fatigued and lethargic and will often get headaches or migraines. I can totally forget what it feels like to be fully rested and find thoughts of tiredness very difficult to escape from. The mental and physical fatigue that arise are probably a result of ‘sleep debt’, due to partial sleep deprivation. When going through periods of poor sleep, it can become very frustrating, particularly when lying in bed wide awake for hours on end waiting for sleep to come. I’ve found that the best solution during these times is accepting that you are going through a difficult period of sleep and that it’s not the end of the world! The more you think about not being able to sleep and the impact it will have on you the next day, the more difficult sleep will become. This just isn’t helpful! How to structure your sleep schedule A sleep schedule is important, as consistent sleep and wake times over the course of the whole week (not just weekdays!) ensures our natural sleep cycle remains in sync. Irregular sleep patterns can confuse this natural cycle. For those of you that enjoy your weekend lie-ins there is evidence to suggest that this can actually make you feel more tired, due to the way this interferes with our natural sleep cycle (Jernelov, 2016). When structuring your sleep schedule it is important first to become aware of your own natural circadian rhythm (your internal body clock) and identify whether you are a morning type of evening type person. If you are a morning type person you will typically perform at your best and be at your most productive during the morning, and vice versa if you are an evening type person. When structuring your training it is important to try and capitalise on these productive periods and schedule in key sessions at these times. You may already be familiar with the ‘post lunch dip’, that feeling that occurs in the early afternoon (usually between 1 and 3pm) where you can be overcome by drowsiness and all you want to do is crawl under your desk and sleep. I know this always hits me particularly hard! Although, this feeling can be somewhat related to diet, this time of day is also a natural resting phase that occurs in our circadian rhythm. It can often be hard to push through this period and you may find your productivity massively dips during this time. So why try and power through? Why not just schedule in a 20 minute power nap? I know this can be difficult with the demands of full time work, but you could try and find a dark, quiet room to nap in during part of your lunch break, or even have a nap in your car (I’ve done this before on many occasions). It is surprising how rejuvenated this 20 minute nap can make you feel and can really boost your productivity for the rest of the afternoon. Another natural resting period during our sleep/wake cycle occurs from around 5-7pm. So this can be another important point in the day to try and schedule in a power nap, particularly if you’re training that evening. This nap could be on the train home from work or as soon as you get in the house. I’ve found in the past that this can massively improve my performance in training that evening, so why not give it a go! Adopting a polyphasic approach (sleeping multiple times during the day) to sleep, aligns our sleeping patterns with our natural circadian rhythm and some of the reported benefits include having more time in the day (due to sleeping less during the night, e.g. 6-7 hours, as opposed to 8-9 hours), elevated mood, improved performance (both at work and in training) and even living longer! Sleep Quality Like most things a ‘good sleep’ is determined by quality as well as quantity. For example, you are probably better off getting 4-5 hours of high quality sleep, rather than 6-7 hours of disturbed or broken sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation the following criteria are key determinants of ‘good quality’ sleep:

  • Sleeping more time while in bed (at least 85 percent of the total time)

  • Falling asleep in 30 minutes or less

  • Waking up no more than once per night; and

  • Being awake for 20 minutes or less after initially falling asleep.

If you are finding it difficult to meet some, or all of these criteria it is worth considering whether there may be any stressors present in your day to day life that may be impacting on your sleep quality. I have always found that for me poor quality sleep is linked to feeling stressed. Poor sleep and stress often go hand in hand. Therefore, the best way to improve sleep quality may be to identify and attempt to remove the presence/impact of these stressors. However, this can sometimes be difficult or take a long period of time to achieve. Engaging in healthy sleep habits (sleep hygiene) can be another way to improve sleep quality. Promoting Good Sleep Hygiene I’ve found that following a list of things to do or avoid just before bed (below) can help prepare the mind and body for sleep, and increase the likelihood of you getting a good quality sleep:

  • Ensure you have a dark, comfortable sleep environment

  • Engage in a low-stimulus activity (e.g. reading a book)

  • Reduce exposure to ‘blue-light’ (e.g. looking at a phone screen)

  • Have a warm shower

  • Use your bedroom (or bed if this is not possible) solely for sleeping (not work!), to increase the association between being in your bedroom (or bed) and going to sleep

  • Keep a diary or notepad close to your bed to jot down any nagging thoughts (to avoid you ruminating on these thoughts when trying to sleep)

  • Make a to do list

  • Try to avoid eating fatty foods (e.g. chocolate) or foods high in protein (e.g chicken) late at night

  • Try to avoid drinking alcohol or drinks high in caffeine (e.g. coffee or energy drinks) at night (I normally try to give myself a 4pm cut off for caffeine consumption, as the half-life of caffeine is approximately 5-6 hours)

  • Avoid high intensity exercise late at night

  • Get out of bed if sleep does not naturally come In summary, sleep is vitally important due to it’s restorative and consolidatory functions (particularly as triathletes). Sleep is also a very individual and complex phenomenon, and therefore the more aware you are of your own natural sleep cycle the more you will be able to adapt your sleep schedule to ensure you feel rested and alert throughout the day. A ‘good nights sleep’ is determined by both the quality and duration of sleep. If we are not getting enough sleep and/or our sleep is poor in quality it can have a significant impact on both out physical and mental functioning. Finally we can improve our sleep quality by adopting healthy sleep habits, promoting good sleep hygiene.

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