The biggest guns in the industry are pumping out articles on the big three in droves, and while I wholeheartedly agree with each lift’s importance, expecting substantial gains on each will be impossible without proper sleep. Sleep, like nutrition and restorative work, such as soft tissue release, stretching, and mobility work, is highly critical to sustaining and improving one’s athletic performance.
How many of us coaches and trainers work erratic hours? I know many fitness professionals who are burning the candle at both ends, training a full slate of clients each day, often beginning at the crack of dawn until late at night. These coaches and trainers are also working on projects, researching and writing around the clock and that doesn’t include the intermittent flurry of e-mails and calls they have to respond to on a daily basis. What about programming their clients? Continuing education? It doesn’t stop there – they still have to find what little time remains to spend time with loved ones and maintain a semblance of a social life. What usually is the first thing to go? Sleep.
Case in point, as recently as two months ago, I was juggling ten personal training clients, working as an intern strength and conditioning coach at a Division I university, teaching a college class, and putting in 30 hours a week at a hospital based fitness center, as a fitness specialist. My total weekly workload often exceeded 80 hours per week. My days would commence as early as 5:00 a.m. and would last until 1 or 2 in the morning. For a few months, I operated on as few as 3 to 4 hours of sleep per night. It sucked and my lifts, that I worked so hard to bring up in the preceding months, went to utter shit.
So why is sleep so important?
Sleep recharges your body between days that comprise a litany of obligations, which require unwavering focus and tremendous amounts of energy at times, relevantly training sessions. Analogously, if you’re using your smartphone as a GPS, to surf the web, download music, and send hundreds of texts continuously throughout the day without charging it at some point, it’s bound to sputter out. The body is no different. Acute effects of a lack of sleep include drowsiness, physical fatigue, poor mental acuity, vision impairment, and in some extreme cases, hallucinations. Sleep deprived individuals may exhibit behaviors which mirror alcohol intoxication, such as inhibited coordinative abilities, and opiate usage, such as demonstrating a flat affect. People that are often this tired will nod off for a few seconds, engaging in what scientists refer to as micro sleeps. It’s at this point, where many sleep related car crashes occur. Here’s a population relevant statistic for you coaches out there, according to recent study conducted by the Department of Transportation, people who obtain six hours of sleep or fewer each night and young adult males are at a greater risk of causing a sleep related car crash. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to plethora of medical conditions, putting those who don’t get enough sleep at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin hyposensitivity, and suffering from reduced sex hormone output.
Simply stated, sleep recharges the body.
What happens during sleep?
So I don’t put you to sleep here (no pun intended), I’ll sum things up for you as succinctly as possible. At night, our body’s physiological systems begin to slow down — in a sense they begin operating on cruise control. As we unwind for the night, natural drowsiness commences. It’s at this point that our brain waves become more synchronous, which permit more relaxation. During the day, brain activity is essentially all over the place due to a varying degree of cognitive, sensory, and motor activities occurring throughout waking hours.
As soon as the brain waves have become more synchronous, the skeletal muscles begin to relax. As sleep progresses, the muscles fully relax and we begin slipping into periods of deeper sleep, also known as REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep. It’s during these deep periods of sleep that growth hormone and testosterone are secreted in bountiful amounts. Those hormones as we know, are chiefly responsible for muscle growth and tissue repair. Also produced is erythropoietin, which stimulates red blood cell production, thus enhancing circulatory functioning and providing athletes with more stamina.
How much sleep is required?
The amount of sleep required depends on a host of factors, ranging from a person’s age to their activity levels. Amounts that some would consider plentiful, such as 7-8 hours per night, might be inadequate for infants and toddlers. More sleep is needed for manual laborers and those engaging in intense physical activity on a regular basis, such as athletes engaging in a daily offseason training program. If you expect more from your athletes, tell them to shoot for a minimum of eight hours of sleep per night. This general guideline should also be followed if you expect gains within your own training program.
Unfortunately, your athlete will not always be well rested when they show up to work with you. If this is the case, and they absolutely have to get a workout in, keep them brief and ramp up the intensity a bit. I’ve found that sleep deprived people are intolerant of high volume sessions, despite their nutritional status. I’ll usually shave one third of the workouts volume, or more, depending upon how tired they are. If they’re unable to sustain mental focus throughout an entire exercise, I might terminate that exercise, or the training session in its entirety.
To avoid the vicious cycle that sleep deprivation is, I instruct my athletes (and clients) to adhere to the following guidelines.
- Establish a consistent bedtime throughout the week
- Try to avoid eating processed, sugary foods, opting for whole foods and fruits and vegetables instead. Eating healthier goes a long way in improving the ability to sleep and sleep quality.
- Avoid consuming high carbohydrate foods before bed which triggers insulin production and blunts growth hormone production, by interrupting your sleep.
- Try not to drink more than eight ounces of water within an hour of going to bed. Also avoid foods that contain a lot of water, such as fruits and vegetables immediately prior to going to bed.
- Limit your consumption of caffeinated beverages throughout the day. A couple of months ago, Brian St. Pierre, formerly of Cressey Performance, broke down how to manage your caffeine intake during a normal day. Excess caffeine and ingesting it too far along in the day can alter your sleep patterns. Research suggests you should avoid cease all caffeine consumption six hours prior to bedtime. Check the blog post here.
- While it’s doubtful that any of your athletes use any products containing nicotine, your general clients might. Instead of broaching the uber-sensitive topic of their nicotine habit, tell them if they’d like to sleep better, they should avoid smoking immediately before bed.
- Don’t watch TV or use the computer immediately before bed. Instead, read a book, check out some articles, and if you’re an avid BSP reader, I’d suggest printing off some of Todd’s blogs to read before bed rather than viewing them on the computer screen. There’s good reason for it, recent research suggests that exposure to artificial light can increase alertness and suppress the pineal gland’s secretion of melatonin, which helps you fall asleep.
- Lastly, pay yourself first. As I always say, “be a me-first person”. Pay yourself with sleep, be it going to bed earlier or waking up later if possible, or grabbing a quick nap during your day.
I hope you find the information presented and the suggestions I offered to be helpful. Prioritize sleep if you aren’t already. Your body will thank you and you’ll love your newly found weight room vigor!