With a race coming up in about three weeks’ time, my focus at the moment is naturally on training and nutrition. I would guess the same might be true for you in the weeks leading up to a race. It’s okay to want to be in tip top shape. However, what I want to talk about today is the third factor, which although often neglected has just as much of an impact on your physical fitness and sports performance as your training and meals. That factor is sleep.
In 2010, Arianna Huffongton (founder of The Huffington Post) delivered a TED talk about career success advising to “sleep your way to the top“. Sleeping little and bragging about it is out, she declared.
I’m here to discuss why the same could apply to your sports performance too, and why sleeping should in fact be part of your training.
Sleep and sports performance
A lot of research has been done into sleep deprivation and its effects on the human body and mind. Neither are spared the negative effects of a lack of sleep, and so naturally this also has an effect on how well we can perform in obstacle racing and sports in general. Particularly problematic is the effect on glucose metabolism as per research conducted by Knutson (Knutson, 2007). Its regular function – to process sugars we get from food into energy sources – is impaired so athletes might not be getting all of the energy they need to perform.
However, we don’t just lose the energy we need. Sleep deprivation can make us less able to fend off diseases and inflammation (Irwin et al., 1994), something that’s especially important in the world of OCR where we jump in and out of mud and dirty waters on every race course. This punch to our body’s immune system can be even higher if the lack of sleep is chronic.
Some argue that athletes especially should be sleeping even longer than the rest. A 2011 study conducted at Stanford University by Cheri Mah (Mah et al., 2011) investigated the performance of collegiate basketball players after they’d gotten at least 10 hours of sleep. Interestingly, their skills on the court (such as shooting accuracy and speed of sprints) improved significantly after 10+ hours of sleep, compared to their baseline performance from before their sleep was extended. However, more research is needed on this topic before we can confidently say that extra sleep might really improve performance.
What we do know for sure, as outlined before, is that a lack of sleep is detrimental to sports performance. Sleep is essential for recovery and you’ll need more than protein shakes to profit on gains after a hardcore workout. This is because the Growth Hormone, responsible for the repair and growth of cells through the body, is secreted while we sleep. It peaks during deep sleep and some studies suggest that its secretion can be influenced by the time we go to bed (going to sleep later than usual for example) or if our sleeping schedule becomes unpredictable from one day to the next.
Oh no – what can I do?
Are these findings leaving you feeling defensive about the amount of sleep you get? That’s at least how I felt when I first found out about them. We hear that sleep is important and perhaps we even acknowledge, but rarely do we give the same amount of attention to optimising our sleep that we invest into optimising nutrition and training. But the two do not complete the picture and increasing amount of scientific research does point towards sleep being a major factor. Just look at elite teams in professional sports – they will always have a qualified sleep coach employed.
The cost of a sleep coach might we be beyond the budget of the rest of us mortals, but optimising sleep isn’t completely out of our hands.
The first step for me was to acknowledge that I might not be getting the amount of sleep that I need to function at my best during the day. Again, scientific evidence rears its head to say that we are poor at estimating how much sleep we need to function well (Durmer and Dinges, 2005). In fact, in a sleep-deprived state, we’re more likely to overestimate our cognitive performance when we are actually performing terribly.
For now, just try to acknowledge that your current sleep pattern might not be your natural sleep pattern. I have also played around with my pattern, by changing times I went to bed and got out of it, to see if a different schedule might have a greater impact on how I feel during the day. Don’t hesitate to track your sleep to see if there are any lifestyle factors stealing your rest.
And, stay tuned for a follow-up post discussing specific action steps you could take to optimise sleep ahead of your next race.