Sleep-Deprived Triathletes Face an Uphill Battle

For athletes, adequate sleep is an essential--but often overlooded--part of training.

When I was an internal medicine intern, my friends used to tell me I was nuts. Back then I would work and work and then work some more, often on no sleep. A typical call day would start at 6 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. the following day. If I slept for an hour during that time I considered myself lucky.

After my shift, I would head to the pool, go for a run or get on my bike for a workout. Sleep became a luxury (not a priority) as I tried to fit everything into my hectic schedule.

Despite the long hours at work, I was determined to stay in shape and keep competing in triathlon. Often I would feel dizzy or lightheaded during these workouts, but trudged through them regardless. Sometimes when I was spinning at the gym I would close my eyes and take one-minute naps. This ludicrous behavior finally ended when I fell asleep and drove off the road returning home from the pool. After that, sleep grew as a priority.

Sleep Isn't Negotiable

Does this behavior sound similar to your own? As triathletes, we may also wear many other hats in our lives: parent, spouse, busy professional, student or community leader. Juggling it all and finding time to train for triathlon can be difficult.

As a result, triathlon tends to attract disciplined individuals who are successful at multi-tasking behavior, but sometimes it also attracts those who simply take on too many tasks. As we strive to fit in more and more commitments each day, something ultimately gets sacrificed. That something is often our commitment to sleep.

But sleep is not negotiable, and an accumulated sleep deficit can lead to serious consequences both for our health and our performance. In addition, it's estimated that sleep deprivation and sleep disorders cost this country over $100 billion annually in lost productivity, medical expenses, sick leave and property and environmental damage.

So what about the guy in the office who brags he only needs five hours of sleep a night to function? Well, here is what else he may not be telling you.

Before adulthood we slept all the time, and adequate sleep was essential for growth and development as an infant, child and adolescent. Remember the good old days when we had naptime? Then in early adulthood, we accumulated sleep debt from partying all night or studying late for exams. However we made up for it: we slept late on weekends, took afternoon naps and slept through class in college.

Later, in adulthood, life's daily tasks increased in number to include career, marriage, children and myriad extracurricular activities. Sleep suddenly became something we did less and less of as the complexity of our lives increased.

But do we really need sleep? The short answer is yes. Sleep is part of an innate biological rhythm that alternates with wakefulness. Controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain, this endogenous rhythm persists even in the absence of time cues, light or dark. During sleep, the heart rate slows, the blood pressure drops and we progress from non-REM sleep to REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. It's during REM sleep that we dream.

Sleep allows the body to slow down, repair itself and recover. It's as important as eating, drinking or exercise. For athletes, it's also an essential part of training, yet for many it's thoroughly overlooked.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

The National Sleep Foundation, in their annual review in 2005, estimated that 71 percent of those surveyed slept fewer than eight hours a night, with 16 percent sleeping fewer than six hours. In addition, on average men slept less than women, 6.2 versus 6.8 hours respectively.

And since 1998, the problem seems to be worsening. It's estimated that more than half of the country's young adults wake up feeling tired. Those reporting they're not getting a good night's sleep also reported more errors at work and daytime sleepiness.

Perpetual sleep loss or deprivation can also be detrimental to our health. Sleep is essential for proper immune function, and chronic sleep deficits can decrease immune cell number and function and increase susceptibility to infections. Accumulating sleep debt can impair motor function and delay visual and auditory reaction times, increasing the risk for motor-vehicle accidents.

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