Why Sleep Hygiene Is So Important To Your Athletic Success

Building solid habits in the lead up to bedtime is key to a restful night's sleep—and your success in training and racing.

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It should come as no surprise that quality sleep is a critical part of any training program. If you’re not sleeping well, much of the time and energy you spend trying to improve at swimming, biking, and running is futile.

Sleep is what allows the body to facilitate muscular and hormonal recovery. When we sleep, our body repairs itself and also gets a mental break from the stresses of the day. Conversely, without regular, uninterrupted z’s, our bodies get limited to time to rest, rebuild, and reset.

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Recently, the phrase “sleep hygiene” has become somewhat of a trendy term to describe what are essentially good sleep habits. Triathletes are often told to practice good sleep hygiene, but what does that mean, and how can tiny adjustments to an evening routine improve sleep all that much?

Dr. Michael Awad, chief of sleep surgery at Northwestern Medicine and chief medical officer at Peak Sleep, explained that, yes, altering your evening routine for the better can foster sleep habits that will help you thrive in life and in athletics.

“Lack of sleep is associated with increased risks for cancer, heart attacks, depression, and anxiety,” said Dr. Awad. “Almost every cell in our body relies on sleep to function properly.”

Sarah, a 35-year-old triathlete living in Anchorage, Alaska, knows firsthand how difficult it is to maintain a semblance of training or professional work while suffering from a sleep disorder.

“I was training for my first marathon a few years ago, and I noticed when I had higher training days, I wasn’t sleeping as well,” said Sarah. “From then on, it progressed from restless sleep to being awake for a few hours in the middle of the night multiple times a week.”

Sarah’s story isn’t unique. According to Dr. Award, upwards of 60% of Americans will experience transient sleep interruptions (i.e. sleep interruptions that come and go) throughout their lives.

“My entire life, I have liked to sleep 8-10 hours a night,” said Sarah. “I am not someone who can function on five hours of sleep. I work long days and prefer to train in the morning, so if I don’t get enough sleep, my whole day is shot.”

Many triathletes can likely relate. Seeing as most of us aren’t living just to train (although wouldn’t that be nice!), we must balance the need for enough sleep with other responsibilities like family, work, and relationships.

Dr. Awad noted that most adults need eight hours of sleep per night. There are small percentages of folks who can function on slightly less sleep or even may require more sleep. No matter who you are, though, the concept of “catching up” on sleep is a myth.

“The reality is we can’t actually catch up on sleep,” said Dr. Awad. “Many of us try to truncate our sleep during the week to fit in training and work and then sleep in on the weekends.”

While most triathletes rarely “sleep in” Dr. Awad notes it’s far better to stick to a set sleep and wake time each day than try to cut down on snoozing time during the week and make up for it elsewhere.

Aside from creating a steady sleep schedule, there are other habits that foster positive sleep hygiene that are easy and safe to implement. You might roll your eyes at this common one, but it is critical to avoid blue light one-to-two hours before bed. Blue light is emitted from phones, computers, and many consumer electronics. Dr. Awad noted that blue light is the “most stimulating” wavelength of light, meaning it sends signals to the brain to stay awake.

Another option for crafting beneficial sleep hygiene is to set a cooler temperature in your home. “One of the natural cues for our body to initiate sleep is a drop in core body temperature,” said Dr. Awad. “For most people, this temperature range is 68-74​ F degrees Fahrenheit.”

Another habit that might be hard to break, but will reap great rewards is cutting down on caffeine. Caffeine can be extremely detrimental to not just falling asleep, but to quality of sleep, too. Caffeine has a half-life of 10 hours. This means that 10 hours after an afternoon cup of coffee, 50% of the caffeine is still flowing through your veins. Caffeine also reduces the amount of REM sleep (i.e. deep sleep) you get. REM sleep is what scientists call “restorative” sleep as it’s when the body does much of its recovery from one day to the next.

Sarah noted that throughout her time working with a therapist on her sleep issues, she found a few things that also promoted better sleep hygiene.

“Not lying in bed awake was really helpful,” commented Sarah. “You wouldn’t sit at a dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why lay in bed waiting to get tired?”

Sarah even crafted a “sleep hygiene corner” in her house that allows her a calm space to read, meditate, and practice other therapy techniques before feeling ready to hit the hay.

Lastly, if you’re an early-riser, congrats! The sleep gods are in your corner. Getting early light exposure kickstarts your natural circadian rhythm.

“Exercise in the first half of the day helps to build what we call ‘sleep pressure,’” noted Dr. Awad. “Sleep pressure is a scientific concept; in order for us to get tired at night, we need to have built up enough of the chemical adenosine in our brain. Adenosine is what makes us ready to fall asleep at the end of the day.”

Training in the morning can help regulate adenosine production, poising you to be ready to head to dreamland come bedtime.

Changing some of these habits might feel like a drastic shift for many athletes, but the sacrifice will pay off. Dr. Awad reminded us that athletes who achieve eight hours of sleep have quicker reaction times, make fewer mistakes, and have better split-second decision making.

In ​one study​ done on nine competitive cyclists, the cyclists’ sleep was manipulated over a series of days. When the cyclists had enough sleep, they performed well on a daily time-trial exercise. But decreasing the cyclists’ sleep by even an hour for two nights showed a 3% decrease in their time trial output.

If you’re cutting off sleep in the name of training, consider that you may be missing out on as much as 3% gains all for an earlier alarm. In a 13-hour Ironman, that’s 23.4 minutes. Implementing sleep hygiene isn’t just “a good thing to do”—it’s one of the easiest ways to improve yourself as an athlete.

Sleep Hygiene Habits to Build

  1. Set a bedtime and wake time and stick to it every day.
  2. Avoid blue light (ahem, your phone) at least an hour before your bedtime.
  3. Assess the temperature of your sleeping environment. Is it too hot? Either turn the air down or find other creative ways to cool down.
  4. If you can’t sleep, get up and do something to reset and then try again in a little bit.
  5. If you’re a later sleeper, consider slowly shifting your wake-up time to an earlier time and knocking out some of your training in the morning hours.

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