Sleep: The Essential Nutrient
There’s a lot of factors an athlete can control to optimize performance and recovery: nutrition, programming, supplementation. All this can be dialed, but if high quality sleep is not there, almost none of the previous factors will even matter.
Why is quality sleep so essential? It’s a complex question, but to break is down to two simple answers from an athletic perspective:
Sleep is required to stimulate regeneration & repair, both physical and hormonal. The biggest time of secretion of growth hormone happens during the first few hours of sleep, as cortisol drops and melatonin secretion spikes
We are tied to the earth’s cycle of day/night by millions of years of evolution; aka our circadian rhythm. While it sounds a bit hokey, there is no way around this despite science and technology–our DNA still thinks its 2 billion years, BC. And when we tie our sleep/wake cycles to that of sunset/sunrise, we optimize point #1.
How do we optimize sleep as a modern day athlete? Some basic sleep habits:
Aim for 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. This will vary from person to person—find your sweet spot. And don’t kid yourself that “you need less”…do a week of aiming for 9 hours (you won’t miss the Bachelor, trust me), and see how you feel
Create a healthy environment: Cool, pitch black—this is essential. Even a little light can suppress melatonin secretion. Iphone? Plug it in, but move it out of reach. Trust me, you’ll hear the alarm. If your sleep is dialed, you’ll wake before it goes off.
White Noise: While we don’t have the soothing sounds of nature outside our cave anymore, this is one area modern day technology can help. Our brain craves input, and a noiseless room with occasional random sounds can disrupt sleep; the constant “whrr” of a fan, or my fav, Sleep Machine app, keeps a constant flow of ambient sound to dampen excitability.
Get morning sunlight, and watch that sunset: This sets our clock for the day AND night; blue light spectrum from morning/high noon sunlight suppresses melatonin, and red light spectrum a boosting effect on melatonin.
Reduce electronic use: For the above reason, almost all electronic screens use a blue-light spectrum…iPhone, computer, television. Get this for your home computer (its free) F.lux. It auto-adjusts the spectrum of your monitor to more “reddish” tones after sunset.
Create Ritual: This teaches our brain when it’s time to wind down…utilize consistent times, lower the lights, brew some non-caffeine herbal tea, etc.
Supplements: This is an area I’m slightly looser on, just due to the important of sleep for athletes; keep in mind, sleep issues are almost ALWAYS psychological in cause, and not a deficiency. OTC supplements like ZMA, GABA, and melatonin can all help normalize sleep—but are by no means essential, and needs vary from one athlete to another. Cover the above points first before even considering supplementation.
Recommended (before bed!) reading: Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar and Survival by T.S Wiley
Optimum Performance Training Team