We all know sleep is important for us. You must get in those 8 hours or you’re not going to be able to perform. Is this actually the case? The purpose of this article is to dig into the benefits of sleep, what lack of sleep does to your body and explores how you can improve your sleep by just 1%. Remembr, these % compound into meaningful changes.
Now, I’m not deluded and am aware that sleeping for 10 hours a night is just not an option for some people. However, what I am trying to achieve with articles like these is to change the way you think about the periods of time between your training sessions.
Encouragingly, I am seeing more and more information about the importance of sleep in the mainstream media, with some high-profile individuals endorsing prioritising sleep and attributing (some) of their success to this valuable recovery tool. Although these aren’t cyclists, these ‘fairly’ high-profile athletes you ‘might’ have heard of that have endorsed sleeping for long spells include Roger Federer, Lebron James and Usain Bolt. What they all have in common are two things: 1: They have all performed at the highest level for a very long period of time, and 2: They sleep 12 hours a day! Yes, you read that right, 12 hours. Half the day spent asleep; 10 hours a night and 2 hours in naps.
Again, you might argue that this isn’t realistic for someone with a family, who works, and wants to train. You might be right, but it’s nonetheless something to aim for and prioritize. The performance gains will be far more substantial than a shiny new pair of Zipps or a skinsuit. Think about all the money and effort you put into cycling. Bikes, gear, special food and drink, travel to name a few. Most of us have spent eye-watering amounts to gain 1 or 2 watts (not everyone is this committed of course, but many are). My point is, you put in a lot of money and work to get better, to race, to break your PB or to just get fitter. But what many don’t realise, sleep is the most valuable and effective performance enhancement tool you have (Nedelec et al., 2015). And it is also free!
The benefits of good quality sleep are so numerous it would take a long time to list them all, but here are a few: you age less quickly, your immune system is stronger, your heart will be healthier, you’re less likely to be overweight, gain weight, or overeat, your attention span and concentration will be better, your emotional and mental health will improve, you’ll be less stressed, you produce more testosterone, there’s a reduced risk of developing diabetes, and you will probably have better relationships (Vyazovskiy 2015).
The functions of sleep include energy conservation, nervous system recuperation, host-defence mechanisms, and restoration of optimal performance – which are all critical for elite athletes (Halson et al,. 2019; Walsh et al., 2021).
Lack of sleep or short habitual sleep duration could directly affect exercise and sports performance directly through impairments in heart rate, minute ventilation, and lactate concentration (Roberts et al., 2019). It can also indirectly affect exercise and sports performance through alterations in mood, motivation, and/or perceived exertion, cognitive function, memory learning, metabolism, increased risk of illness, and injury (Halson, 2019; Fullagar et al., 2015). Walsh et al. (2021) report that sleep loss impairs cognition learning and memory consolidation, and mental well-being. It disrupts growth and repair of cells, metabolism of glucose and lowers the protective immune response to vaccination and resistance to respiratory infection (very relevant in the current climate). So you might be more susceptible to becoming ill, and if you get vaccinated it might not be as effective if you miss out on sleep.
The list of things that can affect our sleep duration and quality is quite long. Unfortunately, many of us will do lots of these and thus will find it tricky to avoid them. The main ‘badies’ are caffeine consumption, muscle soreness, injury, jet lag, travel (sleeping in foreign environments) and social media / video games (Knufinke et al., 2018; Lastella et al., 2014). It has been reported that there are noticeable sleep disturbances during short-term intensified training in trained cyclists (Killer et al., 2017; Hausswirth et al., 2014).
Lastella et al. (2015) reported decreases in the quality and amount of sleep in a simulated 3-week grand tour, and other studies with high training loads found the same (Killer at al. 2017;). Walsh et al. (2021) report that sleep disturbances are frequently reported as symptoms of overreaching and overtraining. This manifests itself as difficulties initiating sleep, restlessness and heavy legs during sleep.
There are very high levels of sleep inadequacy in athletes. Habitual sleep durations are reportedly <7hours, and sleep dissatisfaction, unrefreshing sleep, long time to fall asleep, day-time sleepiness and day-time fatigue are common themes. Global studies on sleep quality show that 50%–78% of elite athletes experience sleep disturbance and 22%–26% suffer highly disturbed sleep (Walsh et al., 2021; Tuomilehto et al., 2017). These are very high numbers, and clearly you don’t want to be among these.
A finding that was particularly profound was that mental performance impaired by sleep loss decreased in a dose-dependent fashion, i.e., the less sleep the poorer the performance (Sargent et al., 2021). But there is a large variability in individual responses; some maintain good levels, others perform poorly. This has important implications for decision making, tactics, but also safety on the road, as a chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of injury (Milewski et al., 2014), as well as risk for illness or immunosuppression, such as the common cold (Prather et al., 2015).
Coffee rides, coffee culture, caffeine and cycling go hand in hand. As most of us love the stuff, caffeine is worthy of a separate paragraph. In a nutshell, caffeine is almost always bad for our sleep. Sorry to spoil your fun, but a study showed that even 16 hours before sleep 1-2 double espressos had negative effects on sleep (St-Onge et al., 2016).
Caffeine intake leads to increased time to fall asleep, decreases sleep duration, sleep efficiency and perceived sleep quality. Unsurprisingly, athletes often report issues with falling asleep after evening competitions, as dosages of 3-6mk/kg body mass (210-420mg for a 70kg rider) are usually ingested to aid performance quite late in the afternoon or evening (Walsh et al., 2021).
There is no easy solution and there might be a trade-off between performance enhancement and reduced sleep quality, but perhaps this should be reserved for races and not training. Habitual caffeine consumers that ingest caffeine later in the day will have persistently disturbed sleep to a degree that they will not even be aware of it. It is advisable to use educated caution and try to limit caffeine consumption to earlier in the day so that sleep quality improves. I know it’s not the same, but who can really tell the difference in taste?
Sleep requirements vary greatly among individuals and different age groups. The UK and US National Sleep foundation agree that teenagers need 8-10 hours (9 hours is a good goal to aim for), and most grown-ups require 7-9 hours, with most agreeing that usually around 8 hours is a good number to try and achieve (Hirshkowitz et al., 2015). However, some athletes might need more; some significantly more (see above high-profile athletes for examples). To find out how much sleep you need, try sleeping until you naturally wake up on rest days (do this more than once to get a reliable number). Then aim for that every day. If you need to get up early, then logically you need to try to go to bed earlier. Get used to the idea that this is a necessity, not a luxury. I will try to sell this idea to you in the article, with some helpful tips.
Let’s start with some evidence. In a novel study from 2011, Mah et al. implemented a sleep extension program. They told athletes to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule and told them to aim for at least 10 hours in bed at night. Then they were asked to also include daytime naps. The intervention was highly successful, and the athletes increased their sleep duration from 6hr 40min to 8hr 28min. This almost 2 hours increase in sleep resulted in improvements in sports specific performance, better reaction time, less daytime sleepiness, and improved mood. However, it couldn’t be determined whether it was the extra time at night, or the addition of naps that led to these improvements, but it does tell us that either option should help us improve our performance.
Of course, there are some people that genuinely need less sleep, but these are in the distinct minority. If you constantly neglect how much sleep you need you are negatively affecting your health (Simpson et al., 2017).
In the most recent study on athlete’s sleep behaviour, Sargent et al. (2021) examined 175 elite athletes. They had them fill out a 12-night sleep diary and activity monitor in a normal training phase. The athletes reported that they felt they needed 8.3 ± 0.9hrs sleep to feel rested, but average sleep duration was only 6.7 ± 0.8 hrs. This is a sleep deficit index of 96 ± 60.6 minutes! Ultimately only 3% got enough sleep, 71% fell short an hour or more. Interestingly, sleep duration was shorter in individual sports (6.4hrs) vs team sports (6.9hrs); something to bear in mind for us cyclists.
What was interesting to see was that those who slept more either went to bed earlier or got up later (seems logical, but useful to see). Those who slept most fell asleep between 22:00 – 22:30 (7.2hrs sleep) or woke up between 09:00-09:30 (7.6hrs sleep). Those who slept less went to sleep at 23:24 (±00:42) and woke up at 07:18 (±00:48). This highlights the importance to plan ahead and either make sure you get to bed earlier or have the possibility of getting up a little bit later in the day.
I won’t bore you with too much detail, as you only need to know the basics. There are two main sleep phases REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. NREM sleep has deep sleep, light sleep, and awake phases. Non-REM sleep is divided into three stages, representing a continuum from ‘light’ sleep in stages 1 and 2, through to ‘deep’ sleep in stage 3.
The different phases switch throughout the night and include when you went to bed. However, this must include how long it took you to fall asleep (called sleep latency), as the time in bed alone shouldn’t be classed as time asleep. Important to note is that deep sleep is the crucial sleep phase for recovery (Halson, 2014). During REM sleep your body doesn’t move, and you have numerous occasions of REM and dreams. REM sleep is significant for brain function, and your brain is active, but your body is paralysed during it. Overall, you will spend most of the time in light sleep, then REM sleep, deep sleep is the shortest phase and finally you will be awake numerous times during the night even though you’re not aware of it (Knufinke et al., 2018).
The reason deep sleep is vital for recovery is because we release growth hormones that aid our repair. It has been shown that the best conditions for anabolism (building / repair of muscles) are during deep sleep (Roberts et al., 2019). Furthermore, restricting deep sleep duration has been shown to reduce subsequent performance (Halson, 2014). The duration and composition of normal sleep changes across the life cycle. At the ages most relevant to aspiring and established athletes, a sleep of 8–10hours for an adolescent (aged 15 years) contains approximately 57% light sleep, 22% deep sleep and 21% REM sleep; and a sleep of 7–9 hours for a young adult (aged 30 years) contains approximately 61% light sleep, 16% deep sleep and 23% REM sleep (Walsh et al., 2021). Alcohol has shown to reduce our REM sleep and leads to more frequent waking in the later stages of sleep, thus decreasing your sleep quality (Halson, 2019).
Our bodies like routine, and in a large study with 8000 participants at the University of Georgia they found that those who get up and go to bed at the same time have not only better sleep quality, but also find it easier to get up. Luckily, if you are reading this then it is likely that you are already fitter than the average person. This is good, as less fit individuals don’t sleep as well, their sleep is not as good and is more interrupted. This is in part as exercise calms anxiety, which can cause insomnia. Sargent et al. (2014) report that when sleep was restricted the night before training, numerous negative consequences were reported. The athletes had poorer mood, higher levels of fatigue and greater perception of effort than after normal sleep.
Our brain has a body clock situated in the suprachiasmatic nuclei in the hypothalamus, and this clock becomes synchronised in tune with the environment and solar day, which is a ~24 hours ‘circadian rhythm’ based on the ‘zeitgebers’ (German word for time cues). We follow cues such as light and dark, which leads to the release of hormones that make us sleepy, or wake us up, as well as changes in the core body temperature (Walsh et al., 2021). Therefore, excess external light at night (such as from screens) can affect our ability to sleep, as we are confusing our brain into thinking that it is not time for sleep yet.
Chronotype is something we’re born with, as it is a genetically determined predisposition that means we either prefer to be most active in the morning (lark), the middle of the day (neither type), or in the evening (owl). It has been found that elite athletes tend to be more morning people than the average population (Lastella et al., 2016).
1. Create a perfect sleep environment. Your bedroom should be dark and cool with little to no noise. Invest in some heavy shutters, curtains, or quality eye mask. If needed, earplugs can help if you can’t avoid noise.
2. Your sleep environment should be used only for sex and sleep, not for watching TV or going online.
3. The room should be cool, but not cold, at around 18 degrees °C (15-19 degree °C range).
4. Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. These beverages can interrupt sleep or lead to more disturbed sleep. Alcohol, although it can help you fall asleep disrupts deep sleep and you will not feel as rested. Caffeine has a half-life of approx. 12 hours (i.e. it stays in your system for 12 hours), so the recommendation is to not have any caffeine past 1pm ideally. This is not always realistic, but the latest should be 4pm, after that sleep quality will be affected even if you don’t think it does.
5. Keep the use of electronics in the hours before bedtime very limited. This includes TVs, mobile phones, iPads and computers. The blue light that these devices emit can affect your circadian rhythm and affect your ability to fall asleep. Try to implement a ‘digital sunset’ approx. 3 hours before you go to sleep. Try other relaxing things, such as reading. If you must use a device, invest in some blue light blocking glasses.
6. Have a regular wind-down routine. Activities such as reading, taking a bath, or meditating can help you relax and get ready for sleep. Avoid stressful discussions or answering emails late at night.
7. Mental stressors affect sleep quality, and impact performance overall. It is important to recognise these, and to try and minimise them. Not only will you sleep better, but you’ll also live longer. Avoid working late and any taxing mental tasks. Although not always realistic, try to get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying. Do a quiet activity such as reading in another room until you feel sleepy and try again.
8. Set yourself targets for sleep timing to help you achieve your optimal sleep duration where appropriate (e.g., sleeps that start between 22:00 and 22:30h or end between 09:00 and 09:30h).
1. Avoid overtraining. Keep a consistent training schedule so as not to overexert yourself. It’s not always easy to spot, but a constantly elevated resting heart rate, or inability to reach a high heart rate during training are good indicators of overtraining. (I will write a whole article on this soon).
2. Sleep and train in-line with your chronotype (either earlier if a lark or later if an owl). If you have the choice, then avoid training and competitions too early or too late.
3. Training early in the morning often leads to decreased sleep time, but often also less quality. Train too late, and you might find it difficult to fall asleep due to still feeling too awake.
4. Delay the start time of morning training sessions and/or minimize the number of training sessions that start before 6 AM whenever possible
5. Some early races can’t be changed, so try to ‘bank’ some sleep the night before. That is, get more sleep in the period before you know you will get less sleep. It works.
6. If you have a late race, try to avoid caffeine, have a proper cool down and meal as soon as possible and don’t force yourself to go to bed straight away, but try to wind down first.
8. If possible, delay your wake-up time the morning after an evening competition or training sessions.
9. Naps are very beneficial for recovery and if you don’t / didn’t manage to sleep enough at night. However, keep naps brief if possible. Naps should last 5min to one hour (if needed, up to 2 hours, but that is the maximum) and ideally not be past 3pm. However, this depends on when you go to bed, so aim for a minimum 7 hours between nap and bedtime. 20-30min naps have shown to improve sprint and peak jump velocity performance.
If naps are held daily to counteract limited sleep loss, the following suggestions are very useful. Keep them to <30mins to avoid grogginess. A ‘coffee’ nap can help manage not sleeping longer. Consume coffee (or other forms of caffeine 150-200mg) just before a 15-20min nap. This has been shown to reduce mid-afternoon sleepiness. Set an alarm 10 min longer than the nap duration, to account for time needed to fall asleep. Once awoken, expose yourself to bright light and wash your face. (Walsh et al., 2021; Bonnar et al., 2018; Milner et al., 2009; O’Donnell & Driller, 2017; Rupp et al., 2009; Sargent et al., 2014; Vitale et al., 2019;
Hopefully this article didn’t send you to sleep, but even if it did then I suppose I have done you and your recovery a favour! The main message is to be aware of the importance of good sleep, and I am confident that some of the information and advice here will help you achieve that. We all have busy lives but prioritising something that is not only good for physical and mental health, but your performance as well makes total sense, and you know it.
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