Sleep and exercise go hand in hand. We cannot have one without the other unless we want to put our bodies under serious strain. Research has proven that poor sleep has significant negative effects on our hormones and the ability to achieve optimum performance as well as full brain functionality. As an avid exerciser, Dr James B. Maas, PhD states that to ensure we can make the most of our workout and recover better, sleep is a major part of any athlete’s success.
When growing up, our parents enforced the rule of a bedtime schedule and although we may have wanted to stay up later and watch television, there is a good reason behind keeping a regular sleep pattern. Sleep is a rest period for our bodies, however, internally it is actually a very active stage whereby, as we move through the sleep cycles, blood flow increases, travelling to the muscles. This gives our bodies the fuel it needs to stabilise, repair and build muscle tissues.
What is sleep?
It is important to define exactly what it is when we speak about sleep. Every night a person undergoes a change in their brainwave activity, which affects breathing, heart rate and body temperature. We leave a state of waking consciousness and enter a restorative unconsciousness that we remember little to nothing about after hours of reduced physical activity.
Our body temperature fluctuates during wakefulness. However, when we sleep, our central set temperature is reduced by a few degrees. This is the way the body maintains energy stores and prepares the body to store energy throughout wakefulness. Sleep also helps to regulate our breathing. When we are awake, we tend to have different rates of breathing due to emotions, speech and exercise. Our physiological activities during sleep are also increased. What this means is that the increase in growth hormones, digestion and cell repair are heightened during sleep cycles, suggesting that sleep is needed for certain processes to be effective and regulate essential restorative functions and prepare the body for growth and change.
Sleep and memory
One of the vital roles of sleep is to help us solidify and consolidate memories. As we go about our day, our brains take in an incredible amount of information. Rather than being directly logged and recorded, however, these facts and experiences first need to be processed and stored. Many of these steps happen while we sleep. Overnight, information is transferred from more tentative, short-term memory to stronger, long-term memory – a process called consolidation. It may be tempting to push your body until you are satisfied with your result by practising that deadlift, however, if you are feeling lethargic and exhausted, this is your body telling you to put things aside for the night and allow your unconscious mind to internalise the training. The more tired we become the more our moods tend to drop and negativity seeps in. Negativity can become contagious. A good night’s sleep refreshes your body and mind, therefore, fostering a positive mindset for you and those around you. Researchers have also shown that after people sleep, they tend to retain information and perform better on memory tasks.
What makes a good night’s sleep?
Making small changes to your daytime routine as well as your bedtime routine can have a profound impact on how well you sleep, how well your body recovers during sleep and how you feel when you wake up.
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If you have a regular sleep-wake schedule you will feel more refreshed. Avoid time variations for getting into bed and waking up. The more you alter your natural sleep-wake cycle the harder it could be for you to get proper rest. You do not want your body to be constantly trying to play catch-up.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone triggered by light exposure. It helps regulate your sleep-wake pattern. When it’s dark your brain secretes more melatonin, which makes you sleepy. When it is light a smaller amount is released, making you more alert. Unfortunately, the stresses of modern life alter your melatonin levels. For example, working in a dimly lit office with harsh screen light during the day can trick the body into limiting the production of melatonin because partial light mimics the drowsiness you feel when approaching bedtime. To set yourself up for a good night’s sleep, it is recommended that you reduce the use of electronic devices up to two hours before your head hits the pillow. This means no late-night television and you should refrain from reading using backlit devices.
If you exercise regularly you will find your energy levels increase and you feel less drowsy during the day. Exercise and sleep go hand-in-hand as exercise aids in speeding up metabolism, it elevates your body temperature and stimulates hormones such as cortisol, which enlivens your fight or flight response; a natural response for perceived threats or stress-related situations. It is essential that you time the type of exercise you do correctly. High-intensity workouts should be performed earlier in the day. The later your body is put through intense exercise the harder it is for your body to produce a natural parasympathetic state. This state calms the body, offering a natural release which prepares you for bed, helping you to fall asleep more easily. Try meditation or a slow yoga class if you are looking for an evening exercise routine.
What you eat can also impact your sleep patterns dramatically. Caffeine in the afternoon or before bed stimulates the body and restricts it from naturally relaxing at night. Alcohol has a more damaging effect as it is known to increase the symptoms of sleep apnea, snoring, disrupted sleep patterns and decreased rates in the growth hormone. Consuming a large meal before bed that takes longer to digest, such as beefsteak, uses additional energy while sleeping. Eating a late-night meal can also leave you feeling full and uncomfortable, which can impact the restfulness of your sleep.
Muscle growth and sleep for athletes
When we exercise, we damage our muscle fibres – that’s why your body feels so sore after a good workout. After intense exercise, our bodies repair those damaged fibres by fusing separate strands together. These new, repaired strands are thicker, which is how muscles build. This process takes longer when our bodies are not accustomed to intense exercise, which explains why it can be tough to get over that initial hurdle (and soreness!) when starting out. Once the body starts going through this process of damage and repair frequently, endurance builds, and repair becomes easier and faster.
During sleep, the body releases a natural growth hormone which stimulates tissue growth and contributes to muscle recovery and regeneration. There are two modes of sleep we fluctuate between throughout sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM, during which time the body performs different jobs. During non-REM, or ‘deep sleep’, blood pressure drops and breathing becomes slower and deeper. Because the brain is resting, there is an increase in blood supply available to muscles, which means they’re getting more oxygen and nutrients than when you’re awake, boosting healing and growth.
In order to maximise the recovery process, it is important for athletes to normalise their sleep patterns. According to Dr Bert Jacobson, a professor from Oklahoma State University: ‘Research shows that sleeping better and longer leads to improvements in athletic performance, including faster sprint time, better endurance, lower heart rate and even improved mood and higher levels of energy during a workout.’
How much sleep?
Expert opinion varies somewhat on how much sleep each individual should get every night. Typically, the recommendation is around 7-8 hours per night. For athletes, additional sleep may be useful as additional kilojoules are burned during periods of rigorous training. An extra hour or two of sleep will assist with recovery and alertness, particularly when competing.
When trying to work out how much sleep is right for you, try keeping a journal of your sleep patterns. If you include the times you go to sleep and wake up, how you feel when you wake up and your athletic performance the following day, you should be able to map out how much sleep sees you performing at your best.
Signs of sleep deficiency
Michelle Austin from the ACT Academy of Sport says you may need to address your sleeping habits if you have any of the following signs and symptoms:
• It takes more than 15-20 minutes to fall asleep
• You experience a broken and restless sleep
• You wake up unrefreshed, despite spending longer in bed