You might feel like you hit the off switch when you sleep, but in actual fact many things are happening to your mind and body while you get your snooze on. High quality sleep is critical for athletic performance as well as being a key factor to a healthy heart and immune system. Unfortunately it’s the one thing many of us take shortcuts on in order to fit everything into our busy lives. Not getting enough sleep can have short and long term side effects. Once you understand the full science of sleep, you are in the best seat, and bed, to reap incredible benefits.
Your body and brain perform a range of activities the whole night through in order to keep you healthy and fit. When you consistently get 7-8 hours night-time sleep you give your body a chance to complete a series of cycles through the three sleep stages. Each phase has different jobs to perform. A good nights sleep ensures you are ticking off the to-do list in order to wake up feeling fresh and ready to ride.
While you are in deep sleep your body repairs muscle, organs, and cells. In deep sleep mode your blood is charged with chemicals that strengthen your immune system as well as increasing your levels of growth hormones and decreasing cortisol. The change in hormones also helps regulate your body and system, which is why, when you consistently don’t get enough sleep you might notice increased weigh gain due to an inability to regulate your appetite.
If you shorten your sleep you skip REM sleep cycles (the sleep pattern where you dream the most) or at least shorten them, causing a backlog of waiting REM time which your body will make up the first time you get a solid sleep in, which can have terrible consequences. More time in REM means less deep sleep time. It’s the deep sleep phase where your blood pressure and pulse lowers, giving your heart and blood vessels a chance to rest and recover. Without this, you are putting stress on your body, particularly if you have completed an event or been especially active.
As the warm weather and blue skies become more frequent it can be tempting to up your cycling time and cut your sleep short. Preparing adequate rest time takes dedication and discipline, just as much as event training, bike maintenance and dietary intake. The starting point is to really understand how much sleep your body requires and how essential a good night’s sleep is to your performance, both mental and physical, before and after a demanding training ride or event.
Your day, and night, will go more smoothly if you are in a routine. While we would all love to ride and get paid for it, the majority of cyclists have a fulltime job they need to attend to as well as training, getting to events and looking after their loved ones. Set yourself a steadfast bedtime and wind down with low lights and non-electric chores leading up to it (no phone, computer or TV). Going to bed at the same time and rising at the same time consistently sets your internal clock so your body knows what to expect and can prepare and plan ahead.
7-8 hours sleep is recommended for adults by the National Institute of Health, however, athletes need more sleep than this because there is more work to do to repair and recover. If you are racing or training hard remember to get to bed earlier than usual and increase your overall sleep time.
It’s true: For every day of racing a professional cyclist can spend 10 to 12 hours sleeping. That’s some dedicated bed time!
If you can’t get a full night’s sleep, and let’s be realistic, it’s not always possible, especially after an event when you need to travel early or your roommate is posting videos online all night. If so, make sure you plan a decent nap, at least 1-2 hours after a strenuous event or training ride. Once you are off the bike, stretch, hydrate, get a massage, eat something, cool down and sleep. Make sure your nap ends before 3pm or it will interfere with your night time sleep. Be sure to stretch again when you wake up to help elongate those tight muscles.
A colder room helps improve sleep, just make sure you are still comfortable, too chilled and you will have difficulties getting into deep sleep. If you have trouble waking up after a sleep then warm up to shake the fogginess. A few push-ups, star jumps or a light jog when you rise warms your temperature and gives you a mental lift.
Think losing sleep is an okay price to pay for a busy lifestyle and time on the bike? When you are deprived of sleep your mental function declines, you become more at risk to infection and your heart doesn’t get recovery time.
The results are poor concentration, higher resting heart rates, decreased endurance and a significantly lower power output on the bike.
Adequate rest through sleep is just as critical to your cycling performance as training and diet. Getting your sleep right is a fast and easy way to improve your ride and stay out there longer.
Sleeping your way to improved performance on the bike? That’s freedom!