To be honest, we all know we feel better after a good night’s sleep. But as athletes, while we are often highly committed to our training sessions and love to tick those completion boxes, the reality is that we don’t always prioritize our recovery in the same way.
Is sleep really that important? (ie, I don’t have time for this!)
Our pituitary gland is the master hormone organ and controls a myriad of functions in the body such as thyroid function, growth and reproduction. The pituitary is highly affected by a lack of sleep, and therefore are these other vital functions in the body. During sleep, our fight or flight activity is decreased, also allowing our adrenal glands (producing ‘stress’ hormones) to recover and recharge. At the same time the gallbladder will excrete toxins to avoid them backing up in the liver.
Sleep recharges our immune system and makes us not only better at resisting illness (such as the office cold) but it also decreases the chance of chronic diseases such as diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure.
And if you are an athlete thinking ‘well I’m healthy and won’t get any of them anyway’ perhaps listen up to this… a chronic lack of sleep predisposes you to obesity; or put another way – adequate sleep promotes a balance in your satiety hormones and therefore can help to control your hunger.
What interrupts our sleep?
A study recently identified that 50% of elite or highly trained athletes are poor sleepers. Add in late night and early training sessions, travel and jet lag, plus the added stress and stimulation due to regular competitions and no wonder they are struggling. We can also tend to use devices in the evening as we chill out after a big day, however screen time can have deleterious physical effects by inhibiting the secretion of melatonin, not to mention the emotional effects of a stimulating or unsettling social media platform late at night.
Ready to increase your energy and boost your recovery this weekend? Here are some strategies to consider – bearing in mind that creating an individualised sleep routine is key to getting the best recovery…!
1. Kickstart your morning! Get an early cortisol hit – this can be as simple as a short bout of exercise and then a healthy breakfast which includes protein, carbs and fat (think eggs on toast with spinach and avocado, or a protein smoothie including nuts). Cortisol should peak between 6-8am in the morning to set us up for activity and productivity!
2. Kill the stress: The aim here is to control blood sugar levels and stress throughout your day to avoid cortisol spikes as you are challenged. Try taking mini-breaks of 5-10 minutes every hour to breathe and stretch or talk a walk and drink water. Also consider a highly restorative afternoon nap… My favourite is the ‘coffee nap’, having a coffee around 1pm and then heading off for just 12-15 minutes of dedicated snooze time. Once the caffeine has kicked in and your brain is rested, you are refreshed and ready to be productive for the afternoon.
3. Wind down proactively: By creating a consistent and calming wind down routine you give melatonin a chance to do the wonderful work and naturally induce sleep. By setting an early wake up alarm it is pretty simple to work back from there to know what time you need to be in bed – a 5am alarm could suggest lights out by 9.30 and so that means no screens and dim lights after 8pm; no food after 7pm and a tummy soothing peppermint tea; and a warm shower to wind down after work. Other wind down techniques that our athletes find helpful are a stretching/roller session, and some mindfulness and reflection on their day which can assist in easing psychological stress and worries.
In the same way you can’t out-train a bad diet, there are no magic supplements that will compensate for a lack of sleep. However, everything you choose to eat throughout the day is influencing both cortisol and melatonin production, so by eating sleep supporting nutrients such as green leafy vegetables that contain tryptophan (a precursor to melatonin) and incorporating adequate supergreens and protein to your diet, you will provide your body the nutrients it needs to do its best recovery work at night. Try implementing your own, individualised sleep routine to feel the benefits of restoring both your physiological and psychological state every night.
So my challenge to you this week is to create your own routine which allows 7-8 hours sleep every night, whilst at the same time as focussing on increasing your nutrient intake during the day. Simple changes that can be truly life changing… worth a try!