Triathletes who sleep better, train better

Getting plenty of sleep and rest is one thing you can do to minimize the duration of an illness.  Credit: Photodisc
The jolt of the clock radio triggers a new day. Before jumping out of bed, you tally the hours of sleep you just logged and wonder how it will affect the days workout or the days race.

Triathletes have good intentions: They all mean to give their body the rest it deserves, but being tired seems to come with the territory. Its nearly impossible to avoid. You have to train, you have to work, you have to eat. You have to pay the bills, do the dishes, and not forget to call mom. You also have to sleep. But do you get enough?

Its a battle, says Anthony Warner, 42, of Columbia, Md., an Ironman specialist. Im never sleep-deprived, but I can fall asleep at any time.

Its no wonder. His Ironman training schedule includes running eight miles every weekday and doing three 100-mile bike rides a week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are off days, he says about the days he just runs and swims. Thats only about two hours of exercise opposed to more than six hours on the other days.

While Warner never schedules a day off, he does pack in close to eight hours of sleep every night and finds that about every 10 days his body screams for a day off. When he obliges, he uses the extra time to snooze.

Releasing human growth hormone while at rest

Eve Van Cauter, an endocrinologist at the University of Chicago, says Warner is making good use of that time. Thats when the body releases HGH, or human growth hormone a major anabolic hormone.

"While youre asleep, HGH goes in and cleans up the mess youve made after an intense workout; it repairs muscle cells, strengthens bones, restocks the immune system. If youre a busy triathlete looking to find an extra hour in the day, this is not where you want to take it."

At least intuitively, triathletes seem to know this sleeping is an integral part of the training equation. The common denominator between the two is that hormone again HGH. Van Cauter says more of it is found in people who exercise.

It partly controls the amount of muscle versus fat in the body, she says. The less growth hormone, the less muscle mass, the more fat.

Its hard to say whether HGH is fond of athletes because they exercise more or because they sleep more. Rest assured, the combination will keep you lean and healthy.

Sometimes, though, seven or eight hours in the sack dont produce the intended results.

Moderate physical exercise can improve sleep, Van Cauter says. But, if [exercise] becomes more intense and prolonged, then its a stress to the body and compromises sleep.

Lynn Vocelka, 39, mother of two pre-teen boys in LaGrange Park, Ill., feels like her seven hours are ideal. In fact, she feels fortunate to get this amount after a day at work, carting her kids to baseball practice and squeezing in her own workout. But shes still tired.

It would probably be enough if I slept better, Vocelka says. I wake up a lot. Ill say, Oh, its only 4 oclock. I still have a few hours.

Then the alarm bell rings, and ultimately you feel like you might as well have played solitaire all night.

Vocelka never lets an off night of sleep interfere with her workouts, but admits, psychologically, it would be better to think you got a good nights sleep especially during a race.

A good sleep equals a clear head

A single nights sleep deprivation wont harm performance, according to Shawn Youngstedt, a researcher studying sleep and exercise at the University of San Diego. However, We do know chronic sleep deprivation impairs alertness: the ability to think, he says. It also influences the immune system and makes one more susceptible to getting sick.

To make the most of your sleep, Youngstedt recommends going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. And going to bed really means going to sleep. Avoid watching TV, analyzing race results, eating dinner or doing other activities that make you think there is too much to do on the box springs besides sleep.

If youre already conditioned to poor sleep, because you worry about it and associate your bedroom with wake-filled nights, simply going to bed in a different room can help you sleep better.

For those who have a delayed body clock, as in night owl or not a morning person, the early hours may not be your preferred training time. This can make adequate training difficult especially when early mornings are needed to squeeze in two workouts a day, or any workout at all, depending on your personal and professional schedule. Forget the supercharged, high-decibel alarm what a delayed body clock really needs in the morning is bright light.

Youngstedt recommends a halogen lamp or bright fluorescent light of 5,000 to 10,000 lux. Light boxes are a product typically found in the North where sunlight is sparse and seasonal affective disorder is common. But they are also helpful in adjusting a delayed body clock. You can purchase a 10,000-lux light box for anywhere from $230 to $525, depending on the size you need. Companies to check out include Apollo Light Systems, Bio-Brite Inc., and SunBox.

Sometimes, a sound sleep can be found by taking it easier when youre awake. Poor sleep signals overtraining. Coupled with an elevated resting pulse in the morning, its a sure sign you should back off.

A nap might do more good than exercise when youre on the brink, advises Youngstedt. Its a fine line, because overtraining is necessary to push to new levels. Whats ideal is intense training with optimal sleep.

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