Getting in Your ZZZ's for Top Performance

Give yourself a few hours to unwind after a training ride before going to bed.

We all know that we feel good after a night of adequate sleep. Waking up rested helps prepare us for a day of work and training, or for an important race.

But recent research indicates that a good night's sleep may have even more benefits for your athletic performance.

Most Americans have voluntarily decreased their nightly sleep time by 1.5 to two hours in recent years. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that we average about six hours and 40 minutes a night, well short of the seven to nine we require.

While some of the purposes of sleep remain a mystery, we do know that sleep allows the body to rest, stimulates muscle growth, bone building, recovery, and is responsible for the breakdown of fat. Inadequate sleep could also lead to hypertension, cardiovascular problems, and can also impair the body's ability to use insulin.

In fact, chronic sleep loss may be an independent risk factor for weight gain, and developing insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes.

While the benefits of sleep are clear, new research findings suggest that sleep deprivation can also affect your athletic performance. Researchers at the University of Chicago studied the effects of sleep deprivation on young healthy males. For three nights they slept eight hours, then for six nights they slept four hours, and for the last seven nights they slept 12 hours.

After the sleep deprivation phase of four hours nightly, subjects metabolized glucose less efficiently, which could affect training efforts; they also had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with recovery.

At the very least you should avoid sleep debt, which has a snowball effect. Experts believe that your brain records a debt for every hour of sleep that is less than your own nightly requirement. A large sleep debt can only be reduced by extra sleep and paying off that debt.

Determine your own individual sleep needs by paying attention to how you feel on varying amounts of sleep. Do you wake up refreshed? Do you experience daytime sleepiness? Do you need caffeine throughout the day? Pay attention to your mood, energy, and health after a poor night's sleep.

Tips to Sleep Better

If you find that you might be operating and training under a sleep deficit, here are a few tips for better sleep.

  • Consider sleep as a regular part of your training program.
  • Extend your nightly sleep for several hours to reduce sleep debt, especially before an important race.
  • Maintain a low sleep debt so that the need for catch-up sleep can be minimized.
  • Try to keep a regular sleep and wake up time.
  • Finish eating two to three hours before your regular bedtime.
  • Try to give yourself a few hours to unwind after a training ride before going to bed.
  • Limit caffeine to early-morning hours or decrease and limit alcohol, which interferes with sleep.
  • Create a comfortable sleep environment.

When You Travel to a Race

Flying to a race can result in jet lag, which can disrupt sleep, eating habits and your digestive system. Symptoms of jet lag include tiredness during the day, disturbed concentration, reduced energy and irregular sleep.

When traveling to a new time zone to race, try to adjust your eating and sleeping schedule to your destination ahead of time. Smaller meals before and during travel may be better tolerated as well.

There is also increased risk of becoming dehydrated during travel. Pack your own fluids and aim to drink one cup of fluid or more per hour of travel. Don't overdo caffeine intake, especially later in the day. Alcohol should be avoided on flights.

While pharmacologic approaches to promote sleep are available, some may be on the prohibited list for athletes or incur next-day drowsiness. Melatonin supplements have been promoted as a jet lag strategy, but can have varying effects. Side effects in habitual melatonin users are not known.

Research your destination and plan ahead. Look into the availability of food at local shops, locations of chain restaurants where you can make good food choices, and pack training, snack and race foods. You can even ship food and sport supplements in advance.

Make restaurant reservations, especially for dinner the night before your race. Eat early and provide time for relaxation and adequate sleep. On your travel day, try to stick with your normal food intake. It can be easy to overeat when bored during car rides and flights.

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