Sleep and recovery: A Sometimes Overlooked Pillar of Triathlon Performance

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There are a multitude of recovery aids available to help promote triathlon performance, but perhaps the most effective of all is readily available and completely free to all – sleep. The question is, how much impact can quality sleep have on your triathlon performance?

We instinctively know the role sleep plays in our lives. If we have a bad night’s sleep, we typically feel the effects the next day: sluggish and fuzzy-headed, we’re often less productive and make poorer choices.

But quality sleep doesn’t merely make life easier. Like food and water, it’s also essential to survive. Go without sleep for an extended period and we rapidly stop functioning. It’s no surprise we spend around one-third of our lives asleep. 

When it comes to triathlon performance, sleep is critical. But, ironically, it is often overlooked as a pillar of performance. When athletes want to improve, the first thought is often to train more. While that provides the stimulus, without the required recovery the body can quickly break down. More sleep would be a good maxim for many of us, as our guide explains.

What happens when we sleep?

Far from being a passive act, when we fall into a deep sleep our mind sets to work. Neurons in the brain beaver away, sending signals to repair and restore the entire body through a myriad of biological processes.

Scientists still don’t fully understand the role sleep plays, but research shows that it supports the cardiovascular and immune systems and helps regulate metabolism – beneficial for both short and long term health. 

What are the different stages of sleep?

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Sleep isn’t just one continuous and consistent Zzzzzzz. During a night’s sleep our body goes through four or five cycles of four different stages. The first three stages are non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) and the fourth is REM (rapid eye movement) stage – or the dream state.

1. Non-REM sleep

In the first few minutes, we enter a short, light sleep where the brain waves, heart rate, and eye movements slow down. 

2. Non-REM sleep

Just before falling into a deep sleep, our body temperature lowers, eye movements stop, heart rate slows further and muscles relax. Most of our night’s sleep is spent in this stage.

3. Non-REM sleep

This is the start of deep, restorative sleep. Our eyes don’t move, the muscles are completely relaxed and the brain waves slow even more. Cells are repaired and energy is replenished.

4. REM sleep

About 90mins after falling asleep, brain waves and eye movements increase – darting from side to side – along with our heart rate and breathing. Our brain processes information, making this stage vital for learning and cementing memories. It’s also where we dream.

How can sleep improve triathlon performance?

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There are a number of ways sleep can improve triathlon performance.

  1. Cell repair and regrowth. The most obvious one. During sleep, muscle repair, protein synthesis, tissue growth and hormone release all occur to restore our body.
  2. Energy conservation. We burn far fewer calories when we sleep as our metabolism slows, leaving us refreshed for the following day.
  3. Concentration and focus. What happens between the ears can be critical to athletic performance and sleep can aid our ability to learn, problem-solve, be creative and make decisive decisions.
  4. Emotionally balanced. Brain activity during sleep increases in areas that regulate emotions such as the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala. This may lead to a more balanced response to stressful sporting situations.
  5. Better weight management. Sleep also manages the hormones which dictate our appetite (ghrelin) and the feeling of being full (leptin). Insufficient sleep raises the level of ghrelin and decreases leptin, which can lead to overeating. Research shows that good sleep may also protect against insulin resistance – the hormone that helps cells use glucose.
  6. Improved Immunity. As we sleep our body produces proteins called cytokines that fight infection and inflammation. Sleep deprivation can inhibit the immune response, which is why sleep is vital when sick.
  7. A healthy heart. A consistent lack of sleep is connected to high blood pressure, increased inflammation and sympathetic nervous system activity and elevated cortisol levels that can all damage the heart.

How much sleep do I need every night?

The desired amount of sleep per night varies from individual to individual, but it’s advised that all of us should get at least seven hours of sleep and a more optimal level is around nine hours. Children tend to sleep more than adults and a rule of thumb is that most of us could do with more sleep than we get. There are also few if any downsides to more shut-eye.

Do Triathletes Need More Sleep?

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If you want to improve your performance then prioritising sleep is likely to help. Professional athletes often take a late morning or afternoon nap. The challenge for amateur athletes is that they often see more training as the priority. While this may be effective in the short term, if extended or additional workouts replace sleep it could be counterproductive and lead to an increased risk or illness, injury or burnout.

How can I improve my sleep quality?

Good sleep hygiene habits will help you improve your duration and quality of sleep.

These include:

  • Having a cool bedroom environment, noise-free where you can block out the light
  • Getting a comfortable bed, mattress, and pillow. Consider whether you need a replacement
  • Cutting down or not drinking alcohol. For more information on how alcohol affects triathlon performance see HERE.
  • Avoiding caffeine from early afternoon onwards and other drinks directly before bed that might lead you to wake needing to pee. (Nocturia is the medical term for excessive urination during the night.) 
  • Exercising regularly, but not too late in the day
  • Not eating too late. It may affect the natural release of HGH and melatonin
  • Increasing light exposure during the day, helping your body regulate its circadian rhythm
  • Reducing blue light exposure in the evening, such as keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom
  • Limiting day-time naps to around 30mins
  • Committing to a consistent bedtime
  • Having a bath or shower before bed to relax
  • Seeing your doctor. If you really can’t sleep, it could be worth investigating. A common issue is sleep apnoea, which causes inconsistent and interrupted breathing.
  • Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, have been found to improve sleep quality. For more information on the benefits of meditation, see HERE
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Should I take sleeping pills to help me sleep?

While prescription sleeping pills may help you fall asleep easier or stay asleep longer, they may come with side-effects and the sleep may not be as restorative. For most people, this means they shouldn’t be a default option, and used sparingly, it at all. 

What natural supplements can I take to try and improve sleep?

There are several supplements available that could help you sleep better, but before taking anything you should thoroughly research the product and any potential side-effects.

Melatonin is commonly used. It’s a hormone that tells your brain when it’s time to relax and head to bed. In some countries you need a prescription. Other supplements with purported benefits are natural herbs lavender, ginkgo biloba and valerian root, amino acids glycine and L-theanine, and magnesium.

Should I take a nap during the day?

Taking a nap during the day is down to personal preference, but many endurance athletes try to prioritise a short sleep between sessions. The caveat is that it doesn’t disrupt your night’s sleep. So, it’s typically advised to keep naps to around 30mins.

What else can I do to aid my recovery?

There are many products available to aid recovery such as compression sleeves, ice baths, massage or consuming more protein. While some of the impact may be placebo or simply reduce discomfort without promoting true recovery, these all have their place, particularly if there are quick turnarounds behind races or matches. Where sleep is beneficial is that it allows the body to settle and recover naturally.

Can sleep improve my mental health?

Research shows that sleep and mental health are linked. Sleep disturbances may contribute to the onset and progression of mental health issues, and mental health issues can contribute to sleep disturbances.

How long can we go without sleep?

While it varies from person to person, the effects of sleep deprivation start to show quite quickly.  Drowsiness, irritability and anger are common, along with food cravings and puffy eyes. We start making mistakes, lose our recall and our reactions slow. After around three days we can start to hallucinate and become delusional. Once it reaches a point where you can no longer grasp reality, it’s called sleep deprivation psychosis. The longest recorded time without sleep is just over 11 consecutive days. 

Spend a day in the life of Olympic hero Jonny Brownlee. Find out about his training, nutrition, and most importantly, recovery and relaxation in this video.

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