Traditional approaches to optimising health include healthy eating, doing more exercise, reducing sedentary time, quitting smoking, and reducing stress. Only recently have people begun to realise that sleep needs to be a part of this holistic approach.
And what an important realisation! Not only is sleep the time when our bodies repair and regenerate, but good quality sleep enables us to reap the benefits of sound nutrition, exercise, and relaxation.
Sleep is not negotiable when it comes to health. Poor quality sleep increases our risk for obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and taking it to the extreme, without sleep we can’t survive.
Our immune system also relies on sleep to get its job done: much of our resistance against pathogens is built up while we sleep, not to mention the housekeeping function of killing off mutated or damaged cells. I view good sleep today as a long-term insurance policy for good health in the years to come.
Sleep sports performance
When it comes to physical performance, high level athletes have known intuitively for years that sleep is key for recovery. I asked Nolan Hoffman, winner of the 2018 Cape Town Cycle Tour, about his sleep patterns. He shared that he tries to sleep 8-10 hours each night, since that is when his body recovers.
Rumour has it that Roger Federer aims for 10-12 hours! And it is no coincidence that many high profile international sports teams are implementing sleep coaching strategies for their athletes.
Slowly but surely, the science is catching up. A study in Australia showed that complete sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a rugby match.
My research, published in 2017 by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that partial sleep deprivation reduces recovery from a high intensity interval training session in cyclists.
In case you are curious as to why slumber is required for recovery, here’s the brief answer. If all is well with our sleep, we should spend about a fifth to a quarter of our night in deep (slow wave) sleep. We think that this is when the body goes into repair mode – fixing or replacing damaged cells, building the protein you need for your muscles to grow, tweaking your metabolism to adapt to your training demands, replenishing fuel supplies, and laying down the neural networks that allow you to successfully perform complex movement tasks.
So if you are looking to get ahead in your sport, you may wish to take a look at your sleep.
Your unique sleep sweet spot
You’ve heard this a thousand times before, but we are all unique – even in our sleep needs. Although the National Sleep Foundation in the US recommends that adults rest seven to nine hours per night for optimal health, they also recognise that for some people six hours is sufficient, while for others 10 hours are necessary.
This is not license to go rogue and get away with as little sleep as possible.
Rather, to get that elusive edge in sport, work, family life, and health, here are four tips to help you find your personal sweet spot.
It should take us between five and 20 minutes to fall asleep at night. If you fall asleep as your head hits the pillow, it is a sign that you have significant sleep debt and that your current pattern is sub-optimal. As an aside, routinely taking longer that 20 minutes to fall asleep may indicate the presence of sleep-onset insomnia.
How refreshed do you feel when you wake up?
Within 30 minutes of waking, you should feel that you are firing on all cylinders, not yearning for more sleep, or planning a post-lunch siesta. The point of sleep is to reduce fatigue and reverse the sleepiness that built up the day before.
If you don’t feel refreshed, you are likely well under your personal sleep quota.
How alert are you?
Can you make it throughout the day paying full attention to all tasks thrown your way? Are you able to manage your work – especially mentally challenging tasks and those requiring good memory? If so – perfect. If not – you know what I am thinking!
Do you need catch-up sleep?
This is when our sleep on off-days is at least 1.5 hours longer than our sleep on work days. Ideally our timing and sleep duration should be consistent from night to night, and for the most part, not too much should change on weekends.
If you regularly need to sleep in for more than 1.5 hours on off-days, this indicates that your sleep during the week is insufficient.
A final thing to bear in mind is that your rest needs changes depending on what’s happening in your world at any given time. In a high training load period, your need will increase, as it will when you are very stressed or having to put in long hours at work. You may notice that you can get away with less sleep in summer than winter, and that on holiday, once you have repaid some sleep debt, your need for slumber may reduce.
So go ahead – actively seek to determine your personal sleep needs – and get the edge.
This article was originally published in TRAIL 29.
Dr Dale Rae is Senior Researcher at the University of Cape Town, and Director of Sleep Science at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
More reading for better sleep
Then read this 2018 research by Tristan Martin, Pierrick Arnal, Martin Hoffman, and Guillaume Millet on sleep habits of ultrarunners if you are hungry for more.
They conclude that “sleep duration among ultramarathon runners was comparable to the general population and other athletic populations, yet they reported a lower prevalence of sleep disorders. Daytime sleepiness was among the lowest rates encountered in athletic populations, which may be related to the high percentage of nappers in our population. Sleep extension, by increasing sleep time at night and daytime napping, was the main sleep strategy to prepare for ultramarathons.”
For further insights into the benefits of sleep for athletes, read Athletes And Sleep.