How To

The sleep cycle: why sleep is vital to recovery and performance

Why sleep is so important - and how a good night's sleep can help you be a better cyclist

With all the focus on nutrition as the key component of recovery from training and racing, it’s easy to forget that the quantity and quality of sleep you get is equally as important. Often, sleep can get neglected, because life pressures and other commitments away from riding can mean pulling late nights and early mornings in order to fit everything in.

It’s common knowledge that sleep is vital for health and well-being – so much so that the NHS has a dedicated area on their website specifically devoted to the subject)  – but it can also have a significant impact on your ability to train and perform to your maximum potential.

We’ve looked deeper into the issue so that you can understand why sleep is so important, and how sleeping well can help you be a better cyclist.

Are you getting enough sleep? (Pic: Deborah Malin)

Why is sleep so important to us?

Sleep is the body’s way of shutting down, so that it can recharge and recuperate for the following day. In fact, it’s a biological necessity; without sleep, the body is unable to function at all. For cyclists, the key and most measurable benefit of sleep is the physical effects it has, says cycling coach, Pav Byan.

“During deep sleep the body repairs all the damage you’ve done throughout the day and through training,” he says.

“Without sleep the hard work you do on the bike will not produce the adaptations you require, meaning your body will not adapt and become better at dealing with the training stress you are putting it under.”

Inadequate sleep doesn’t just mean you’ll stay still and not make progress, but in fact could potentially move you backwards as your body (and mind) becomes overloaded. As a result, your immune system can become compromised, and muscles and tendons more susceptible to pulls, strains and tears, as well as the risk of burnout increasing, too.

What happens in the body during sleep?

If doing exercise is catabolic and breaks down your body’s muscle tissue, then your recovery is when your body is able to be in an anabolic state – where muscle tissue is able to rebuild, adapt and grow stronger to the demands it’s being put under. Recovery after training is key to enable you to do whatever it is you’re doing, more easily with less effort in the future.

“In a nut shell, sleep is where this benefit is maximised,” says Bryan. “It’s when all the hard work you’ve done in training has its effect. Your body is able to repair without distraction: blood vessels, muscle damage, as well as hormone regulation are all addressed when you sleep.”

It’s also crucial for mental health and general wellbeing, according to Bryan. “Think about when you’ve had a bad night sleep; you feel tired, lethargic, with a lack of alertness and awareness for the next day. This is your brain trying to function without adequate sleep, and the same is happening to the rest of your body.

“With a good night’s sleep your body will adapt and recover quicker. One of the best – albeit least practical – recovery methods from hard training is a quick nap after, allowing your body and mind to reset for the rest of the day.”

It’s during sleep that your body rests, recovers and rebuilds following a hard training session or race (Pic: Sirotti)

How can sleep impact on cycling performance?

How important is sleep to performance? Important enough for Team Sky to take personal mattresses around to each and every hotel for riders at major races, to ensure a consistent and good quality night’s sleep in the pursuit of marginal gains.

While Bryan says it is possible to perform surprisingly well on a reduced amount of sleep in isolation, the cumulative effect of a lack of rest and recovery will soon have a negative effect.

“I myself did one of my best times last year in a 25-mile time trial with only an hour’s sleep,” he says, “however I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy to improve your performance.”

According to Bryan, with a lack of sleep, you can expect cycling performance to be reduced in the following ways:

  • Reduced maximum power output
  • Reduced FTP output
  • Compromised recovery from efforts
  • Reduced capacity to ride long distances

However, the downsides of a lack of sleep aren’t isolated to the physical, as Bryan explains. “It’s also dangerous. Lack of sleep can leave a person lacking alertness. On the road, where you need to be ready to react to objects in the road and changing road conditions, that can be a recipe for disaster, for you and your fellow road users.”

In short, someone who gets enough sleep every night will be able to perform better. They will recover quicker between training and will be able to train harder, faster and longer, for repeated days. Additionally, Bryan points out, they will potentially get sick less because their immune system will function better.

Compromised sleep can affect your ability to recover, as well as impact on your performance on the bike (Pic: Sirotti)

How much sleep should I aim for?

The NHS has most recently published guidelines of between 6-9 hours per night for an adult, although recent statistics published by The Sleep Council claim that 70 per cent of Britons get less than seven hours. However, it’s significant to note that the range recommended by the NHS is wide, indicating that each individual has unique needs with regards to sleep. Bryan agrees: “It will really range from person to person but, I always recommend aiming for at least eight hours sleep.”

Training load, as well as other contributing factors such as work pressures and your personal life, also have an influence on this requirement. If you’re particularly busy or stressed, this taxes your mind and body more, so your sleep requirement will naturally increase, alongside the increased need for sleep and time to recover due to physical activity.

Bryan also says you can try to compensate ahead of a race or major ride and ‘build up’ sleep, so that if you do have a compromised night before the big day, the after effects aren’t as bad. Certainly, this has application for long sportives, where the start time can be as early as 7am, and an alarm call much earlier to rise, eat breakfast and get ready.

“When I know this is going to be the case, through travel or perhaps being up very early to get to a start, I try to load my sleep,” says Bryan. “Much like when you load with carbohydrates, or hydrate more in the days leading up to an event, I do the same with sleep. Going to bed a little earlier – around 30 minutes – during the week leading up to an event can mean that, if you do get less sleep the night before, it could have less of a negative effect.”

Is there such thing as too much sleep?

Left to its own devices – with no alarms to interrupt sleep – the body will settle into a regular and natural sleeping pattern. As we’ve already discovered, for some this can generally be as little as six hours, and for others as much as nine.

If you’re finding that you regularly sleep for longer than nine hours and are still feeling tired, it could be time to visit the doctor. “Finding the root cause could reveal other underlying health problems [which could be compromising your training and wider life],” says Bryan.

Turning off from tech is just one way to prepare for a good night’s sleep

How can I improve my quality and quantity of sleep?

Of course, getting ‘enough’ sleep isn’t just a case of counting the hours. The quality of sleep is absolutely vital, too.

There are a multitude of things which can negatively affect sleep, including stress, diet and lifestyle, and these can potentially cause insomnia or, at the very least, disrupt the quality of sleep and your body’s ability to truly shutdown.

A number of devices can help you track the quality and quantity of your sleep, including the Fitbit Blaze smart fitness watch, which automatically tracks your time asleep and time restless so you see how much recovery you’re getting in. By setting sleep goals within the Fitbit app, Blaze can also help to manage sleep patterns.

There are also a number of simple things you can take to improve the quality of sleep and one key step – particularly in the 21st Century – is to remove yourself from artificial light before going to bed.

“The killer for me is artificial light and use of smart phones before bed,” says Bryan. “You should aim to either turn these off, or have a rule about not checking it after a certain time, giving your mind time to switch off from the stimuli. I also advise trying not to fall asleep with TV on, because the light and noise will disrupt how deeply you sleep even if it doesn’t wake you.”

Sleeping conditions are also important and that includes factors such as the quality of your bed, temperature, humidity, general light source, as well as smells and pollution. In fact, most experts suggest that making the bedroom a dedicated space for sleep, devoid of distractions, is one of the best ways for creating an atmosphere conducive to sleep.

Additionally, eating and drinking immediately before bed can lead to disrupted sleep because your digestive system is working hard. “In particular, you should avoid things with high caffeine and sugar content, which will spike your blood sugar and put a hold on your sleep,” recommends Bryan. You should also avoid over-hydrating, because getting up repeatedly in the middle of the night will disturb your natural sleep cycle.

Ensuring you relax before trying to sleep is also important, says Bryan. He recommends attempting breathing exercises, pointing out that this might work particularly well for people who’ve had a particularly stressful day. “The more relaxed you can be before you go to bed the better the night sleep will be,” he says.

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