Jen Rulon

How often do we hear, “I will sleep when I am dead?” Sleep is crucial for our success, and I am not just talking about triathletes. I am saying that business owners, parents, entrepreneurs, and even kids, need their sleep. As a coach, I tell my athletes: ”Sleep MUST be a part of your routine. It is part of your recovery and your success as an athlete.”

Why? Scientific literature has shown what happens to athletes who are lacking sleep, whether it may be acute sleep deprivation or chronic sleep deprivation. The lack of adequate sleep for athletes can cause many different issues such as:

  • Both aerobic and anaerobic performance can decrease.
  • A decrease in competitive ability.
  • A decrease in their determination or their drive.
  • A decrease in intensity for their training (i.e.: Rather do a 30 min run, than interval work on the track).
  • Negativity toward various aspects of life (training, work, family, etc.).
  • A greater amount of overall fatigue.

The Importance of Prioritizing Sleep

As a motivated, goal-oriented individual, your day-to-day life is probably pretty busy. Maybe you are trying to juggle a full-time job and a family while also working toward your personal, professional, and fitness goals. With all of this going on at once, it might be easy to neglect one of the most important components of your health: SLEEP!

Sleep, like saving money or training for a race, is additive. That means consistently getting enough sleep every night will benefit your health and training in the long-run. On the flip side, sleep deprivation may not only degrade your performance but also increase your risk for health complications such as cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and even cancer, among others (Costa, 2015). Here are some specific ways in which prioritizing your sleep will positively impact all other aspects of your life:

Mental Health and Function

Your brain is amazingly complex and consumes a massive amount of energy each day. Like any high-functioning machine, it needs regular maintenance. Sleep has been shown to clear toxins and metabolites from the adult brain which build up during the day. This not only helps your brain to function better, it also may reduce the long-term risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (Xie et al., 2013).

There is also evidence that while the negative effects of sleep deprivation on attention and alertness can be reversed, albeit temporarily, by the use of stimulants such as caffeine, higher cognitive functions such as perception, memory, and decision remain degraded (Grundgeiger et al., 2014; Joo et al., 2012). Sleep deprivation is also linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression (Luik et al., 2015). This is all to say, if you want to be make better decisions and be smarter and happier, be sure to get more high-quality sleep!

Physical Health

As with your brain, sleep profoundly impacts almost all of the other organs and tissues in your body. For example, sleep deprivation has been implicated as one of the biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the most significant cause of adult mortality worldwide (Jackson et al., 2015). Moreover, a greater amount and higher quality of sleep supports increased immune function, blood sugar regulation, and insulin sensitivity (Irwin, 2015; Reutrakul and Van Cauter, 2014).

If you’re trying to put on strength and muscle, sleep can help with that too. Increased sleep has been shown to increase muscle mass and strength in a variety of different demographics (Auyeung et al., 2015; Buchmann et al., 2016). After all, you don’t build muscle in the gym; your muscles grow when you allow them to rest and repair after your workouts.

Athletic Performance

All elite athletes know how relevant sleep is to optimizing their performance. Though this might be a no-brainer at this point, sleep deprivation is strongly correlated to decreased athletic performance, and vice versa (Fullagar et al., 2015; Thun et al., 2015).

One interesting study conducted in 2013 on runners in the North-Face Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc, an Extreme Mountain Ultra Marathon, revealed that drowsiness was associated with slower race times. Moreover, those who adopted a sleep management strategy before the race based on increased sleep time completed race significantly faster than those who did not (Poussel et al., 2015).

How to Improve Your Sleep

So, what are some actionable steps you can take to improve your sleep? The first and most obvious is to simply get more of it, ideally 8 but no fewer than 7 hours (Axelsson and Vyazovskiy, 2015). If you are finding that difficult to achieve, here are some tips to increase the quality of your sleep:

  •    Refrain from using your smartphone or other electronics before bed. Several studies have linked exposure to blue-light from personal electronics to disrupted sleep cycles (Chellappa et al., 2013). If you absolutely need to use your computer or smartphone at night, most modern devices have a “night-shift” or nighttime mode which warms the color temperature of your screen to eliminate blue-light.
  •    Avoid caffeine before bed. Caffeine has been shown to remain active in adult humans for up to 6 hours or more (Drake et al., 2013). Ideally, limit coffee/caffeine consumption to the morning hours to ensure a good night’s rest.
  •    Limit alcohol consumption before bed. Though alcohol does have some somnogenic (sleep-inducing) properties, it has been shown to disrupt sleep during the second half of the night, leading to fewer hours of the deep, restorative sleep your brain and body need (Thakkar et al., 2015).
  •    Take a warm shower before bed. As you prepare to fall asleep, your core body temperature drops slightly. Taking a warm shower and drying off before bed may simulate a drop in body temperature, helping your body to relax and prepare for sleep (Liao et al., 2013).
  •    Develop a bedtime routine. Whether it’s listening to classical music or reading a book (but remember, no electronics or blue light!), studies on the psychology of habits show that a trigger behavior (bedtime routine), repeated in a constant context (bedroom in the evening), associated with a positive outcome (high-quality sleep) is the key to healthy habit formation (Judah et al., 2013).

In Conclusion

Whether you are training for a race or just want to become healthier all-around, getting enough high-quality sleep should be one of your top priorities. Make sure that you’re getting at least 7 hours a night and that you aren’t sabotaging your sleep by staring into your phone screen or drinking caffeine or alcohol before bed. Consistently getting a better night’s rest will boost performance in all other aspects of your life!

(Interested in those References? Click HERE to check them out!)

AUTHOR: Jen Rulon

I have been coaching triathletes, runners, and cyclists for over 21+ years; I received my Master's Degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Science. And as you may have learned, there is more to life than swimming, biking, and running. It is a lifestyle, and I am here to help you cross that finish line with a smile, whether it is an Ironman Triathlon or the Ironman of Life. You can find my knowledge shared in Triathlete Magazine, Runners World, on the TEDx Stage, the Health and Wellness Expo in San Antonio, TX, Southwest Research Institute Human Performance Summit, Training Peaks Workshops, "Self Motivation Strategies for Women" on Amazon, Men's Journal Online, and the New York Times. I also practice what I preach—she's a 15x Ironman Triathlete who participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on October 14, 2017.

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