If you’ve been training hard and doing everything possible with your diet in order to achieve maximum results but feel as though you’re not quite there, this may be because of one critical element you’re missing out on:
We’ve all heard the expressions “sleep is for wimps” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, but the reality is sleep is such a huge element in boosting your performance that if you’re not getting enough there’s a good chance your body just won’t be able to improve.
In the modern world, most people are chronically sleep deprived and many try to get by with only 5-7 hours of sleep each night. Whilst you may be able to survive on this number, you will never truly thrive. Optimally, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between the ages of 26-64 years of age get 7-9 hours of sleep. If you’re involved in intense workout sessions or have a psychologically demanding career, you’ll probably need at least 9 hours per night, but how do you ever find the time for that?!
Let’s dive into this topic a little further so you can begin to understand why you really need to take sleep more seriously.
Your Circadian Rhythm
We all have our own internal biological clock and without the demands of work, family and life events, naturally our sleep would follow this cycle. When you try to work against this clock, major problems can start to occur. This is why working long hours and traveling to different time zones will give you such a hard time adapting and sleeping in your normal cycle.
Adults have the largest dip in energy between 02:00am and 04:00am, when you should be sleeping deeply, as well as after lunch at around 1-3pm. If your body clock is all over the place due to travel and it doesn’t really know where it is, then problems will inevitably occur.
If you are very sleep deprived you’ll notice these dips far more, to the point where you might be struggling to keep your head off your desk after lunch! This is a pretty clear sign that you could use more sleep.
The Stages Of Sleep – Why This Matters
It’s important to note that you move through various stages as you sleep and each stage has it’s own purpose:
Stage one takes place right after you drift off to sleep and during this time, the brain produces alpha and theta waves. Your eye moments slow down and you are considered to be in light sleep and can be woken easily. On average, this stage lasts for approximately seven minutes.
Stage two is still considered light sleep, however the brain has higher frequencies known as sleep spindles, which also causes the brain waves to slow down. For those who are big nappers, this is the optimal stage that you reach that enables you to recharge, but if you go beyond this stage you’ll wake with that groggy feeling.
During this stage, your temperature drops and your heart rate slows down. This is a dreamless state and will carry on for about 20-30 minutes longer.
Stage three and four is where the very slow delta waves are seen, usually mixed in with smaller, fast waves. This is considered to be deep sleep and is where dreaming takes place. This is also the stage where people experience sleep walking, nightmares, or talk in their sleep. This is the most restorative sleep so the most important to get. Your body will be repairing muscles and tissues, promoting growth and development, and strengthening the immune system.
REM Sleep Finally, the last stage of sleep is the REM sleep and this happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. The REM stage is where dreaming occurs and this stage gets longer the deeper into the night you go, which is why you may find yourself awakening in the middle of a dream. Each REM stage can last for up to an hour and you may have five or six cycles each night. This is the primary stage of sleep where the brain consolidates memories, so is really important for cognitive health. If your memory is getting worse, you’re definitely missing this vital stage of sleep.
The Ugly Truth About Sleep Deprivation
If you are someone who doesn’t get enough of stage three and four sleep, your performance will definitely decrease. Some of the side effects you can expect to notice include:
- Decreased time to exhaustion during aerobic or anaerobic activities
- Reduced insulin sensitivity which may mean increased risk factor for weight gain and diabetes
- Increased appetite and food cravings, also associated with a higher BMI
- Reduced immune health meaning you won’t recover as quickly between exercise sessions
- Reduced reaction time and motor performance, which is noted to be the equivalent of being intoxicated with alcohol
- Increased risk factor for heart disease, coronary artery disease and high blood pressure.
All in all, some pretty scary consequences due to a lack of sleep!
From a performance perspective, it is reported that Roger Federer and LeBron James sleep an average of 12 hours per 24 hour period – two high performance individuals who are arguably performing at their peak in the twilight of their careers! Usain Bolt, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova are known to sleep 10 hours per day. These athletes recognise the importance of sleep and since performance is their career, they treat sleep like a job.
How To Make Do On Less Sleep
I’m sure you’re thinking this all sounds like great advice but have you seen my schedule? There’s no way I can sleep 10-12 hours per day and as a business owner and new father I know I’m really going to struggle to follow my own advice over the next few months!
Fortunately, if you can’t find that much time every night, there are plenty of things you can do to lessen the damaging effects of a bad night’s sleep…
If you’ve never considered practicing meditation, now might be the time to start. Many people believe that practicing meditation can reduce your need for sleep, by an average of 30 minutes less per night. Plus, you’ll reap all the other beneficial effects meditation has to offer.
In some Buddhist texts, it’s noted that among proficient meditators, only 4 hours of sleep each night is required to optimise bodily function. Whilst you’ll probably never get to that level, this could definitely recharge the batteries and help make up for your lack of shut-eye.
Have A Power Nap
Don’t underestimate the benefit of power naps. Whilst you probably won’t have the opportunity to nod off for 3 hours like a number of professional athletes are prescribed, being able to have at least 20-30 minutes at some point in the afternoon could help you refresh your body and begin to feel better. Just be sure to set the timer so you do wake up before you move into stage three and four sleep, otherwise you will likely wake up feeling worse than before!
Focus On Relaxation
If power naps and meditation aren’t your thing then try some relaxation tools like deep breathing, writing in a stress journal or going for a quiet walk. Whilst it won’t be the same as sleeping, these exercises can help reduce cortisol levels, lower heart rates and help you feel healthier overall.
Catch Up At The Weekend
This is a bit controversial and has mixed opinions, but I’m a big believer that whilst you may not be able to hit your nightly sleep target, being able to get closer to your weekly sleep goal will improve your overall health and performance.
Surviving night after night on insufficient sleep affects your energy levels, your metabolism, your performance and your mood as well as your health. In the same way that a power nap can give you that well needed boost, a few nights restorative weekend sleep can make a huge difference to your performance and wellbeing.
So, before you go dragging yourself out of bed for that early Saturday morning run just know that you’ll probably find your times will likely improve if you went a bit later in the day!
Keep these sleep tips in mind and before you start making changes to your training or nutrition programs, work out if a few adjustments to your sleep program is what you really need for optimal performance.