As endurance athletes, we are always looking for the most effective way to recover, the newest “lever” we can pull to recuperate more quickly, and train harder. We will spend incredible amounts of time and money on massage guns, compression boots, massage, supplements, sauna, and cold therapy when really our best tool for recovery is free of charge and innate (we already spend a large chunk of our day doing it).
What’s even more surprising is that most of us sacrifice our #1 recovery tool in order to train MORE (4 am wake up call sound familiar?). So why is sleep so imperative to recovery? At its core, sleep is a biological function that exists to repair and replenish our bodies and minds. It is that simple.
Phases of Sleep
Put simply, sleep can be broken down into two phases- non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). NREM sleep occurs first followed by REM sleep. As we sleep, our body cycles through non-REM and REM sleep. A full sleep cycle lasts about 90-110 minutes. In the beginning of the night, we get more NREM sleep and as sleep progresses, we gradually spend more time in REM and less time in NREM. On average, we should spend about 75-80% of our total nights’ sleep in NREM, and about 20-25% in REM sleep.
NREM sleep, commonly referred to as “deep sleep,” is vitally important for restoration of all bodily tissues. During deep sleep, our we secrete human growth hormone (HgH). HGH is involved in repair of all cell types and tissues and is involved in metabolism. Simply put, NREM “deep sleep” is the time our physical body repairs and rebuilds itself.
REM sleep involves more brain activity than NREM sleep, and it is during this phase of sleep that we process new information, thoughts emotions from the previous day. Getting sufficient REM sleep allows for better mental clarity and concentration, as well as mood regulation. Given the high levels of brain activity during REM sleep, it is no surprise that during this phase of sleep our dreams tend to be more vivid and emotionally charged. Lack of REM sleep contributes to impaired immune system functioning and can lower one’s threshold for pain (which isn’t surprising when we consider the integral role that our brain plays in our perception and experience of pain).
Often when thinking about sleep, we focus on the number of hours we must get per night. And for most people, this is between 7-9 hours of QUALITY sleep per night. Most of us can hit the mark on hours spent snoozing, but we often fall short on the quality of our sleep. When it comes to sleep, it is quality AND quantity. Below are way in which to optimize your sleep and ensure sufficient recovery:
View sunlight by going outside within 30-60 minutes of waking. In the late afternoon, do that again prior to sunset. Sunlight viewing should be done without sunglasses on and without any glass or screen between you and the light (so actually going outside vs viewing light through a window, or car windshield). This helps set your body’s circadian clock and can promote wakefulness in the mornings, and cue our bodies to “wind down” or prepare for sleep in the evenings.
Avoid caffeine within 8-10 hours of going to bed. Caffeine has a half life of 10 hours, which means it takes 10 hours to completely clear your bloodstream. When caffeine is still present within the body at bed time, it disrupts your deep or NREM sleep. So unless you plan to be awake at 12am, it is best to avoid that 2pm cup of coffee.
Wake up at the same time each day and go to sleep when you first start to feel sleepy. Consistently waking up and going to bed at the same time reinforces our circadian rhythm. When our circadian rhythm is healthy, our emotional stability, digestion, immunity, concentration and creativity are enhanced. Going to bed when you first feel sleepy vs pushing through this fatigue and going to sleep too late (for you) Pushing through the sleepy late evening feeling and going to sleep too late (for you) is one reason people wake up in the wee hours of the morning and can’t fall back asleep.
Avoid viewing bright lights—especially bright overhead lights between 10 pm and 4 am and dim lights 1 hour before bedtime. Bright lights of all colors disrupt our circadian rhythm and thus our sleep. At least one hour before bedtime, turn off overhead lights and opt for dimmer, lower level lighting such as lamps and candles. It is also best to refrain from screen time at least 1 hour before bed as the blue light from our phones, tablets, and computers stimulates our brain and further interferes with our circadian rhythm.
Keep your sleeping environment cool and dark. In order to fall asleep and stay asleep, our body temperature needs to drop 1-3 degrees. Increases in body temperature are one reason we wake up. Many sleep experts recommend setting the thermostat to 60-67 degrees at night for optimal sleep conditions. Layer on those blankets and remove as needed.
Avoid alcohol and cannabinoids (this includes CBD). Consuming alcohol and cannabinoids may help you fall asleep easier, however these substances greatly impair the QUALITY of our sleep and you will pay for it the next day.
Meditation. Diaphragmatic breathing, body scans, and yoga Nidra are great tools to aid in falling asleep. To learn more about meditation, check out our blog on meditation here:
As athletes, it is time we start prioritizing and being intentional with our sleep. It is indeed our best recovery tool and allows us to train harder and better handle the physical, emotional, and psychological demands of training, competing and racing. Catch some zzz’s and unlock your greatest superpower!