Sleep for cyclists: how to ensure you’re recovering properly

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We all know how important sleep is, not just for physical regeneration but for mental and psychological recovery as well. And when you’re a cyclist – professional or otherwise – sleep plays an even more vital role than it might for the average person.
CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef spoke with Dr Shona Halson, Senior Physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), to find out what the research does and doesn’t tell us about our requirements for sleep, and to get a few tips on how to ensure we’re recovering effectively for that next ride.

At the most basic level, humans need sleep for mental and physical regeneration. If we don’t get enough sleep, our regular cognitive function can be impaired (try a day’s work on no sleep) and our body won’t get a chance to recover from the day’s exertions — clearly important if you’re a cyclist.

More sleep for pros?

It would seem to make sense that elite athletes need more sleep than amateur athletes and those who don’t exercise — with greater training and racing loads, you’d assume that the pro cyclist’s body requires plenty of regenerative sleep, particularly during a Grand Tour, say.

Interestingly, this is a largely under-researched area and there’s little if any evidence to show that elite athletes do in fact need more sleep than the average person. One thing that research has shown is that, regardless of how much they might need, elite athletes tend to get less sleep than the average person.

As Dr Halson explains, the reasons for this are numerous.

“If we’re talking about people that do stage races, there’s obviously travel associated, there’s general fatigue from riding and … while we think that exercise is good for sleep, too much exercise — so what [elite] athletes might do — might be a little bit more problematic for sleep.”

Elite athletes are also more likely to have injuries or general soreness that can hamper sleep, and in cyclists, heavy or twitchy legs can make it difficult to get to sleep. In the case of track cyclists, big race meets are often held at night, which can make it hard to wind down in time for a normal sleep, particularly if the athlete has taken caffeine before or during competition.

Effects of bad sleep

For athletes in primarily skill-based sports, a poor night’s sleep can reduce the time available for mental regeneration, potentially hampering performance the next day. Why? Because the body prioritises physical regeneration in the first half of sleep and mental regeneration after that.

But in the case of endurance athletes like cyclists, the penalty for a bad night’s sleep mightn’t be so high. As long as the physical regeneration happens then it should be possible for the athlete to perform as normal, even if they aren’t as mentally sharp the next day.

“The good thing about that is if you’re racing the time trial at the Olympic Games and you don’t sleep that well the night before, you’re probably going to be OK”, Dr Halson told CyclingTips. “There’s no real reason to get super-concerned.”

It’s when one bad night’s sleep becomes three or four in a row that alarm bells should start ringing.

“After three or four nights things, from a performance point of view … start to get worse”, Dr Halson said. “If you’re starting to get three or four nights of really bad sleep, you want to … get on to it and address it pretty quickly.”

So what does “bad sleep” mean? How much sleep should elite athletes be getting? Unsurprisingly, it’s more complex than simply saying “eight hours”.

“We see athletes who need quite a long duration of sleep just to function, then we have other athletes that can get by supposedly quite well on six or seven hours”, Dr Halson said. “What we always try to do is talk to athletes about what they feel good getting in terms of the amount of sleep.”

Human Growth Hormone

Human growth hormone is a naturally occurring complex protein produced by the pituitary gland and is part of the repair and restoration function of sleep. HGH is released by the brain into the bloodstream during sleep and it does so in surges. Sleep and exercise induce the release of HGH, and a bad sleep means that there is no surge in growth hormone release.

You can read more about how sleep affects the release of HGH and some interesting facts here.

Everyday cyclists

Of course the majority of us cyclists don’t make it to the professional ranks. Riding recreationally or racing as an amateur almost always means we spend less time on the bike than the pros, but there are other factors which might make a proper recovery harder for us everyday riders than for the pros.

“If you’re [talking about] a ‘weekend warrior’, they’re probably working, they might have kids”, Dr Halson said. ‘There’s a whole lot of other things that are thrown in there that probably mean that the requirement for sleep is really quite high as well.”

For professional cyclists that don’t have to worry about a job outside of cycling, it’s easy heading out for a ride at ‘pro hours’ (mid-morning). For those of us that need to squeeze our riding in around work and other commitments, it can mean a very early start, particularly given it often takes a few hours of riding to create any significant training benefit.

“And then you’ve got long rides on the weekend, which is where a lot of people get the opportunities to get a sleep in”, Dr Halson said. “[The amateur athlete] doesn’t get that.”

Getting a good night’s sleep

So what can everyday cyclists do to ensure they get enough sleep and that they’re recovering properly (physically and mentally)?

“One of the really key things is to set a good routine for sleep”, Dr Halson said. “So going to bed at the same time and waking up the same time — that’s one of the most important aspects of sleep.”

Napping can be an effective strategy as well, but as Dr Halson explains, it needs to be done right.

“Be strategic about when you nap on weekends. If you go out for a big ride you might need a nap in the afternoon, but general recommendations are don’t sleep after three or four o’clock in the afternoon because that will impair your night-time sleep.”

And impairing night-time sleep on the weekends can mean you start the working week in a state of sleep-deprivation.

Avoid smartphones

Another tip for good sleep that Dr Halson suggests is one that’s only really become relevant in the past five years or so — avoiding the use of smartphones in bed.

“The light that’s emitted from these devices obviously goes through the eyes and directly to the brain and hits the body clock.”

One of the chemical compounds in the brain that plays a vital role in facilitating normal sleep is melatonin. The production of this hormone, which causes us to feel drowsy, is blocked by sunlight (and other light) during the day, allowing us to remain awake and alert. At night, when the light disappears from the sky, melatonin builds up in the brain, causing us to feel drowsy. Unless we shine light into our eyes just before bed.

“We’re not exactly sure how much of a problem it is, in terms of the melatonin etc., but you combine potential influences on melatonin plus the stimulation from checking emails or checking social media right before bed and, in [AIS] athletes at least, it’s really a problem,” Dr Halson told CyclingTips.

Exercising at night

While many amateur cyclists tend to get up early to exercise, there are those that might prefer to or might only be able to exercise in the evenings. As you might expect, late-night exercise has the potential to disrupt regular sleep.

“Doing high-intensity work, later in the evening, is not good. Because what you need is wind-down time before bed — you can’t just switch off”, Dr Halson said. ‘You speak to professional football players and it takes four hours post-game to fall asleep — you can’t just fall asleep immediately.”

The ideal situation according to Dr Halson is to be finished the day’s exercise with enough time to have something to eat and some wind-down time before bed. For most people this is at least an hour.

“People go to bed and think ‘I’ve just exercised; I should be really tired’ but there might still be a bit of adrenaline going around, there might be a few hormones that are still going around, body temperature is probably up, which is not want you want for sleep — you want it to be going down quickly.”

Nutrition and sleep

For professional athletes (and amateur athletes who are looking to lose weight) the feeling of going to bed hungry after a long ride will be all too familiar. While only limited research exists in this area, it is believed that going to bed hungry might be detrimental to sleep. On the flip side, it seems that heading to bed feeling overly full is likely to be disruptive to sleep as well.

And as Dr Halson explains, it mightn’t just be how much you eat, but what you eat before bed that could impact how well you sleep.

“There’s a number of different substances that you can ingest that will, through a series of chemical processes, end up as melatonin. So you might be able to speed up sleep by eating different kinds of proteins or carbohydrates”, Dr Halson said. “That’s one thing we’re really looking at now at the AIS, is how we can stimulate sleep and overnight muscle recovery at the same time.”

The impact of nutrition choice on sleep is still an under-researched area but it is believed that there are some proteins — such as tryptophan — which might promote better sleep. But much work is still to be done in this area.

“At the moment there’s probably nothing definitive that I could say ‘I would take this’, except to say that milk has all of the good stuff in it. So the old wives tale of having a glass of warm milk before bed is actually pretty good.”

In closing (your eyes)

So while there are no hard and fast rules about how many hours of sleep professional or amateur athletes should be getting each night, there are certainly things we can do to ensure that we’re getting enough, good-quality sleep. Chief among them seems to be the need for consistency with the amount of sleep you’re getting and the time at which you get it.

Further reading:

CyclingTips would like to thank Dr Halson for her time.

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