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Getting In Your ZZZZs for Top Performance

By Monique Ryan

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 of a direct impact on your athletic performance than just preventing the brain drain of inadequate rest. Chances are you may sometimes fall short of your optimal amount of sleep.  

sleepDo any of your training buddies brag about needing only six hours of sleep per night? According to self-reported sleep time, most Americans have voluntarily decreased their nightly ZZZZs by 1.5 to 2 hours in recent years. The National Sleep Foundation estimates that we average about six hours and 40 minutes of nightly shut-eye, though most adults actually require anywhere from seven to nine hours.

The Purpose of Sleep
While some of the purposes of sleep remain a mystery, we do know that sleep allows your body to rest. Growth hormone, which stimulates muscle growth, bone building, recovery and is responsible for the breakdown of fat, is secreted when you sleep. Studies indicate that sleep deprivation slows down the release of growth hormone. Blood pressure usually takes a drop during sleep, and inadequate sleep could lead to hypertension and cardiovascular problems. Insufficient sleep can also impair the body’s ability to use insulin.

Inadequate sleep also affects the hormones grehlin and leptin, resulting in increased appetite and one recent study found that inadequate sleep is associated with elevated levels of vistafin, a hormone secreted by abdominal fat and related to insulin resistance. In fact, chronic sleep loss may be an independent risk factor for weight gain, and developing insulin resistance, and Type 2 diabetes.

Your brain is actually quite active at night, but does get recharged during the architecture of sequential states and stages experienced during continuous sleep. Alternating every 90 minutes or so between REM (rapid eye movement) and NREN (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) provides the most restorative sleep. During REM sleep you dream, consolidate memories, restructure information and problem-solve, and process the learning of new skills.

Sleep and Performance
Evolving research now indicates that sleep deprivation could actually 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, and had higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that can interfere with recovery.

Another study conducted at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory followed the Stanford women’s tennis team for five weeks as they attempted to get 10 hours of sleep each night. Athletes who slept longer ran faster sprints and demonstrated more accuracy in their shots. Researchers have studied other groups of athletes at Stanford and believe that optimal performance can only occur when sleep habits are optimal.

In one recent study, even one night of sleep deprivation decreased treadmill endurance performance, even though subjects perceived they were running just as hard. Another study measured that 30 hours of sleep deprivation was associated with reduced levels of muscle glycogen and reduced sprint performance.

Minimize Your Sleep Debt
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.  

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

  • View sleep time and the optimal hours that you require 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 workout before going to bed.
  • Limit caffeine to early morning hours or decrease and limit alcohol which interferes with sleep.
  • Create a sleep-conducive environment.

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Monique Ryan, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN is the leading endurance sports nutritionist. Her nearly 30 years of professional experience working with Olympic (consultant to USAT and USA Cycling), elite and age group endurance athletes and professional sports teams make her one of the most experienced and qualified sports nutritionists in the U.S. Ryan is founder of Chicago-based Personal Nutrition Designs and the best-selling author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes (3rd edition, VeloPress) and three other sports nutrition books. PND provides detailed nutrition plans for triathletes across North America competing in all race distances, with programs at  Ryan is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.