Optimising your sleep - The zero cost way to accelerate you towards your fitness goals.

Sleep has an intimate relationship with fitness but it is so often overlooked as a variable that can be manipulated in pursuit of our fitness goals. I believe this stems from a knowledge gap. For a long time the fitness industry has been narrow minded in their commercialisation of products and services that only focus on improving a client's training and nutrition. Until recently it was very uncommon for general population athletes to introduce recovery protocols with their training beyond basic mobility and rest days. Thankfully this disregard for recovery has shifted to old school thinking as the fitness industry has begun moving in parallel with the broader health industry to explore recovery protocols that optimize for physical and mental performance. Approaches to recovery are as varied as training styles however it would be remiss not to give special attention to sleep because of a number of reasons. Firstly, sleep is a zero cost protocol, secondly, sleep is already occupying at least a quarter of your life, so given the sunk cost value of time it makes far more sense to try to optimize this facet of recovery before introducing new protocols that only further complicate your schedule. Finally, the benefits unlocked by adequate sleep will extend beyond your training goal to improve your overall health, relationships and cognitive functions. Learning to optimize your sleep is like taking the red pill, it’s a tough lesson that will make you question your behaviour but with enlightenment will allow you to radically improve your experience in and out of the gym.

Before introducing protocols that improve sleep it’s important to have an understanding of the physiological changes that occur when humans are punching Z’s as this helps to illustrate the importance of this shut eye. The human sleep cycle is divided up into 4 different stages that the brain will cycle through sequentially multiple times during the duration of a sleep.

  • Stage 1 is the dozing off period as the body relaxes and transitions between consciousness and sleep.

  • Stage 2 brings the body into a subdued state with a low temperature, relaxed muscle and slowed heart rate. In this stage brain patterns distinct from that during the day begin occurring.

  • Stage 3 is known as the deep sleep and is critical for restorative functions of the body as the body is in a total state of rest of your lowest heart rate and only limited brain functions.

  • Stage 4 is the REM stage which sees brain activity pick up to levels similar to when awake while simultaneously experiencing a temporary paralysis of the muscles.

The first 3 stages are known as the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and are thought to be the most important for physical recovery. While stage 4 or the REM stage has a more profound impact on cognitive function.

It probably comes as no surprise that many of us are failing to get the optimal amount of sleep. Research conducted by the Australian Government indicated that up to one in three adults are failing to reach the 7 hour minimum that health professionals generally advise as the minimum amount. Despite the wide spread finger pointing at technology as the primary reason for this, hanging blame on one factor of the modern world is an oversimplification of an issue that varies in its causes for different age groups and cultures. One interesting factor that could be mitigated with education is the misguided belief that an individual simply ‘doesn’t need as much sleep as others’. I believe this stems from the glorification of public figures such as Margaret Thatcher who claim to function optimally off incredibly short bouts of sleep; and while people may convince themselves that they operate well off limited rest less than 1 in 500,000 people carry the genetic predisposition that legitimises this claim, and even then the individuals still need 6 hours and 25 minutes.

In order to meet competing commitments many of you will undoubtedly feel like managing your training load and sleep are a zero sum game, either forcing an early wake up to train or a late night session. But if you’re serious about reaching your fitness goals, carving out adequate time to sleep is of paramount importance. Having mentioned the direct impact that lack of sleep will have on the body's ability to fall into the different restorative stages of sleep it’s also important to consider the second order consequences that will occur and can seriously impact progress. Being sleep deprived not only impacts your physiology but your motivation and coordination. Trying to train under a state of fatigue will at best lead to suboptimal outcomes limiting your ability to progressively overload and at worst could lead to injury. While this may sound dramatic I speak from experience having tweaked my erector spinae when rowing without proper regard for form and bracing.

Improving your sleep is the easiest and cheapest way for you to elevate your progress in the gym. Not only will it help your fitness but it will impact a number of other important facets of your life making it in my eyes a no-brainer for anyone irrespective of their fitness level. To help get you started on this below are four protocols relevant to fitness enthusiasts that are recommended by neuroscientist Matthew Walker who authored the NY Times bestseller ‘Why we sleep’.

4 protocols from Matthew Walker that will help gym enthusiasts improve sleep.

  • Reduce caffeine intake: Many of us rely on caffeine to give us a kick start to our day but don’t realize how long the effects can be and what this means for sleep. Caffeine inhibits the adenosine receptors that help to regulate feelings of sleepiness, this is why it can be difficult to get to sleep after coffee and there can be a crashing sensation after the high because of the pent up adenosine.

  • Aim for regularity in your sleep schedule: Everybody has an internal clock that helps to regulate the body's hormones that signal when it’s time to rise and sleep. While the natural cycle is based on the movement of the sun these cycles can be tweaked by repeatedly sleeping at the same time. That is why if you are going to wake up in the morning to train then try and make this a regular occurance and balanced with an early night to provide ample time to sleep.

  • Use warm baths and showers before bed: Anecdotally many of you will know that a hot shower or bath before bed can accelerate the falling asleep process. Contrary to what you may think, this is happening because the internal body temperature is lowered. When exposed to these warm climates the body self thermoregulates as a protective measure to ensure our organs don’t cook. In doing so the internal body temperature is lowered which is conducive to sleep as the circadian rhythm predisposes humans to associate colder hours of the day with night time.

*Steer clear of the ice baths at night*

  • Get some sun: In the aforementioned protocol we discussed how the body uses hormones to regulate levels of tiredness based on the body's sleep cycle. By exposing your eyes to sunlight in the morning your nervous system and your mind is essentially primed for the day and it signals to your circadian rhythm where you are at in the 24 hour cycle of a day that will help to correctly regulate your levels of tiredness that evening.

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