One of the most important, and often most neglected, aspects of any training programme is sleep. You can train all you like, but if you’re not getting enough sleep then you won’t be getting the most out of the hard work you’re putting in on the bike.
There’s simply no substitute for it, no supplement that you can take or food that you can eat will will compensate for a lack of good quality sleep. It’s when we sleep that our bodies repair the damage we have done during our training sessions, this is when a powerful cocktail of hormones get to work on repairing our muscles.
There are any number of scientific research papers that prove athletic performance is improved by sleeping for longer, a minimum of eight hours a night is recommended by leading neuroscientist Matthew Walker.
“Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day,” he says. “The physical and mental impairments caused by one night of bad sleep dwarf those caused by an equivalent absence of food or exercise.”
What’s more, a lack of sleep not only reduces our ability to recover from the training w have done, it greatly reduces our performance levels in the next session and has an impact on our immune system.
“Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system,” Walker adds. Meaning that we are more likely to catch a common cold or get ill, which results in time off the bike and a loss of the gains we have made from our training.
Walker goes on to suggest these five key ways in which we can all improve our sleep quality, and thus as cyclists improve our performance on the bike.
1. Regularity: It doesn’t matter if it is a week day or the weekend, Walker stresses the importance of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Was humans our bodies like routine and regularity, especially when it comes to sleep.
2. Darkness: We live in an age where electricity means we can have lights on all through the night, and thus depriving our body of darkness. When this happens we don’t release the melatonin, which helps with sleep. So try and dim down lights in the hour before bed, and stay away from screens, let your brain start to shut down.
3. Temperature: Most of us go to bed in a room that is too warm for optimal sleep, which impacts on the brain. We actually need to drop down a few degrees in order to initiate good sleep, so the ideal room temperature is around 18 degrees. Having a cool room is already taking your brain and body in the right temperature direction to get a good night’s sleep.
4. Caffeine and Alcohol: It might sound obvious to some but avoiding both caffeine and alcohol will have a positive impact on sleep quality. Caffeine, which is a stimulant, has a half life of six hours and a quarter life of 12 hours, which means if you have a coffee at 9am, when you go to bed at 9pm there’s still a quarter of the caffeine in your system.
As for alcohol, this is a sedative, so country to some people’s belief that it helps them go to sleep, all it is doing is knocking the brain out rather than going into a natural sleep cycle. Alcohol also fragments our sleep and, to top it all off, it actually blocks our dream sleep, or REM.
5. Bed: Don’t stay in bed awake. Why? Because the brain very quickly learns the association with being in bed and being awake. So, if you can’t sleep or struggle to get to sleep get up and get out of bed. Try going to a different room that is very dimly lit and read a book until you feel tired. Or, if you don’t want to leave the warmth of your bed, try meditation to calm the body and mind into sleep.
So no matter what your performance goal, sleep should be your number one recovery priority.