Sleep to Recover

When we are training and competing we want to maximize everything we do on the water and on land. So often when we consider recovery we think of food and a light spin on the bike. While these no doubt aid in recovery the most important thing we can do to feel fresh the next day or instill those new techniques is sleep.

So how does sleep affect our recover and training? During the four distinct sleep cycles one gets in a night the recovery really happens in stage three and four. During the slow wave sleep we get in stage three, blood pressure drops, respiration slows down and blood flow to muscles decrease. This is the most important stage for athletes as the secretion of human growth hormone peaks which stimulates muscle growth and repair.

Waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day decreases stress as the body knows what to expect and when.

After this we retrace our steps and move into our REM cycle, the important thing to note here is that this is where memories from the previous day are solidified. This includes muscle memory, so all those tacks you worked on? This is where is comes together and locked in.

Now that we know how the body and mind recover during sleep what does a good night of sleep look like? Athletes below the age of 26 should be getting nine and a quarter hours of sleep in a night. For athletes over the age of 26 seven to eight and a half hours are required. As we age less sleep is needed however we still need to hit out requirements to function optimally.

While the amount of time sleeping is important, arguably more important is the routine of sleep that you get into. Waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day decreases stress as the body knows what to expect and when.

The next logical thought that comes to mind is napping, if I sleep more can I recover faster and better? Yes and no, the way sleep work is like a credit card. Your body keeps account of how much sleep you owe and what cycles it requires. If an athlete is optimally rested there is no need for a nap. However, if some sleep time needs to be paid back the napping can be a very helpful tool to recharge.

It is common for people to say the napping makes them tired or they groggy. This is due to the fact that they wake in the middle of certain sleep cycles. To avoid this naps should be kept either 20 minutes or 90 minutes. Naps lasting between 20 and 90 minutes should be avoided, so a timer can be helpful.

Travelling across time zones the de-synchronization of the body natural cardiac rhythm is hard on athletes; when it’s more than two times zones we call this jet lag. When an athlete becomes jet lagged they are less powerful, lose endurance, and see a decrease in alertness. It is a good idea to arrive early to adjust to the new time zone to adjust to the new clock.

If that is not an option then copying your anticipated new time zones prior to travel is a great way to pre-adjust, but make sure this is done gradually and you leave well rested. Important things to note when arriving to a new destination are get natural sunlight to synchronize your body clock, avoid high-intensity activity (light activity is fine), and hydrate well on the journey. It is also important to nap as you are likely sleep deprived, in the short term it is much better to have enough sleep than be on a perfect routine.

An area that is often overlooked for those who struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep is sleep hygiene. Essentially these are the factors that make it easy for us to fall asleep and include:

  • not watching TV in bed
  • not a lot of blue light (phone or computer) within the hour before bed
  • not drinking alcohol within three hours of bed time
  • not drinking coffee after 2:00pm
  • not eating big meals before bedtime

Your bed should not be associated with anything other than sleep or sex. Some people do all these things and can still sleep well but for others, it is very important to avoid these common mistakes.

We all know that sleep is important and hopefully this article clarifies why and offers some strategies to athletes to get more out of their training and competition!


Justin Norton