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We all know how important sleep is for our training, recovery, and performance, but have you ever stopped to think about how your routine—and your chronotype—might affect your sleep? Your chronotype refers to your body’s natural inclination to sleep at a certain time. We all know those people who are raring to go at 5:30 a.m. swim practice and, conversely, those who are still wide awake and doing their best work at 11 p.m. Well, there’s now an increasing amount of research that indicates this isn’t just a personality quirk; it’s defined and driven by your chronotype.
Wakey wakey, rise and shine
Your chronotype can have an influence on not just your best sleep times, but it can also have an impact on your appetite, exercise performance, and core body temperature. It can play a part in determining when you feel most alert, most creative, and most sleepy. And while it might be abundantly obvious to you what your chronotype is, sleep expert JD Velilla has some tips if you’re unsure. Velilla is a member of the Global Wellness Institute and the head of sleep experience at Serta Simmons Bedding.
“The easiest way to figure out your chronotype is to pay attention to your normal routines,” he said. “Early birds naturally go to bed early, wake up early, and typically don’t need to use an alarm clock in the morning. Night owls naturally go to bed later, wake up later, and usually find themselves hitting the snooze button a few times in the morning.”
But if you’re looking for more evidence than this, he suggests waiting for an easy/recovery training week and letting your body dictate when you go to bed (i.e., wait until you feel tired to go to bed; wake up when your body naturally wants to, without setting an alarm). “This is a great way to let your body naturally show you your chronotype,” he said.
Of course, it’s not always possible to simply sleep as long as your body wants to, especially for the time-crunched triathlete looking to squeeze in workouts before family life begins or the office beckons. If, for example, you happen to be a night owl but your job or training schedule dictates that you have to be up early, then what can you do to maximize productivity and energy levels? “This is where consistency and discipline has to come in,” he said. “While your body will naturally gravitate towards going to bed later and waking later, it’s important to stay on the same schedule. You’ll need to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including the weekend. Start by finding the time you’d like to wake up every day, then count back 7.5-8 hours to find your bedtime. Lock this in and stick to it. The minute you deviate from this schedule, your body will try to revert back to night owl hours. Also, triathlete workouts place a lot of strain on our bodies. The more strain you endure from the workout, the more sleep you will need that night to recover, so adjust your bed time accordingly.”
If, even with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, you still find yourself struggling and fading during the day then try to add in a 30-minute nap (work permitting!)—but it’s important to make sure this is prior to 2 p.m, Velilla said.
He also advised being patient with yourself—your chronotype is something that’s determined by your DNA, you can’t just change it. He said: “Your chronotype is a genetic propensity—it’s in your DNA!—for when your body wants to go to bed and when it wants to wake up. It is important for understanding when your body will naturally be most productive which can help you schedule your days to better support your activities. For example, night owls are naturally more productive later in the morning or early afternoon. By knowing this, you can schedule your most important or difficult tasks during the time of day you are best suited to manage them.”
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