The free and legal performance-enhancer we’ve all got access to

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What if I told you there is a performance-enhancer that could boost your endurance performance by more than 30%, reduce your risk of injury by 65%, and decrease your risk of all-cause mortality (your chance of death in a given age group for any reason) by 80%? What if I added that it’s also free, completely legal under every governing body in the world, and available to everyone around the world, 24/7? Must be too good to be true, right?

One word: Sleep.

Studies have shown that sleep is one of the most important processes in our lives. It is essential for learning, recovery, and information processing – whether it’s preparing for tomorrow’s work presentation, or recovering from the day’s workout, there is nothing more important than proper rest.

When it comes to athletic performance, training and nutrition are nothing without proper recovery (i.e. sleep). Many athletes think of “recovery” as a protein shake, using a foam roller, or a trip to the chiropractor. And while most of these modalities have positive effects on recovery and therefore performance, it is sleep that is most often neglected.

The dangers of sleep deprivation

Studies have shown that athletes who average less than eight hours of sleep per night are 60-70% more likely to suffer a sports-related injury. In a recent study lead by Matthew Milewski MD, sleep was negatively correlated with risk of injury in adolescent athletes – that is, when hours of sleep went down, risk of injury went up.

Interestingly, this association was even more striking in older adolescents (16-18 year olds). As grade level increased, the risk went up and up and up. Sleep-deprived seniors were nine times (!) more likely to suffer sports injuries than sleep-deprived freshmen. The difference in risk between a well-rested freshman (>8 hours of sleep/night) and a sleep-deprived senior is more than 10-fold.

While the difference is most striking in young athletes, the negative correlation between sleep and risk of injury persists throughout our lifetime. One study showed that adults who get just five hours of sleep are 60% more likely to be injured than adults who get nine hours of sleep.

Other effects of poor sleep (<6 hours per night) include decreases in peak muscular strength, vertical jump height, and peak running speed. As if that weren’t bad enough, less sleep is associated with quicker lactic acid build-up and decreased respiration ability and efficiency.

Basically, if you want to lose every race, get less than six hours of sleep per night.

In addition, performance tends to plateau as we get older. Gains in strength, skill, and speed occur quickly and almost effortlessly when we are young. But, as we age, our abilities converge. The “elites” cluster near the top of the athletic mountain, and we are all left searching for an extra 1% – a marginal gain, if you will.

Many athletes try changing their diet; vegan, keto, paleo, all-carb, no-carb, etc. Others might try adding weight training to their program. But what most people don’t realize is that the biggest gains can come from the simplest fix: getting more sleep.

Image: Kashif Haque/Flickr

How Sleep Improves Performance

Studies have shown that getting more sleep is associated with higher levels of cognitive functioning – the ability to think, process, and problem-solve – as well as increased athletic performance in both strength and endurance sports. In skill-heavy sports like darts and tennis, increased cognitive functioning provides a distinct advantage. But even in hard-hitting sports such as football or rugby, improved cognition will take your game to the next level.

You’ll be able to study more tape, remember plays and formations, and recognize the tendencies of opposing teams before they realize that you’re onto them – you’ll constantly be one step ahead of your opponent.

In cycling and endurance sports, increased cognition improves overall awareness, reaction time, and the ability to process information on the fly. Whether it’s the Sunday group ride or a WorldTour stage race, increased awareness can help improve your performance, but it can also save your life.

Realizing a car is pulling out in front of you 20 meters ahead can save both you and you riding partners when you are aware of your surroundings and have a quick reaction time. And for those of you that love siestas, you’ll be happy to hear that a 20-30 minute nap can improve alertness by 100%.

Sleep has more direct influences on athletic performance as well. Multiple studies have shown that improved sleep habits correlate with increased metabolism, improved immune function, and accelerated tissue repair. This is most important for athletes who are nearing their physical peak. When their training load is at an all-time high, their immune system is functioning at an all-time low. Their bodies are trying so hard to keep up with the physical training, they aren’t able to recover as quickly and efficiently as if they were resting on the couch. This is where sleep comes in.

During a big block of training or racing, the body is working just as hard overnight as it was during the day. But instead of facilitating muscle contractions and pumping the heart 180 times per minute, the body uses fat, protein, and carbohydrates to repair muscles, replenish glycogen stores, and prepare for the next day of training.

Studies have shown that improved sleep correlates with better performance at high intensities. One paper, authored by Cheri Mah, a researcher at Stanford, showed that increased sleep improved sprint times of basketball players by 5%. In the context of elite sports, 5% is much more than a marginal gain.

Sleep Recommendations

Young adults (18-24) should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Experts also recommend 7-9 hours for middle-age adults (25-64), and 7-8 hours for older adults (65+). I know what you’re thinking: ‘That’s a huge range! Plus, I get eight hours of sleep per night, so I should be fine.’ But here’s the thing: sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity.

Even if you lie in bed from 10:00pm until 7:00am, you may not be getting a full nine hours of quality sleep. Light and noise disturbances, temperature changes, and drugs and alcohol have a huge effect on our sleep quality.

During the night, our brain and body move through three distinct cycles: light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. Light sleep is when our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Our breathing slows, muscles relax, and heart rate slows down. As we move into deep sleep, our brain activity becomes long, slow delta waves. Finally in REM sleep, our muscles are completely relaxed – almost paralyzed – and our brainwaves become rapid again; this is when we dream.

(One theory says that the reason for complete muscle relaxation during REM sleep has to do with acting out our dreams. If we dreamt about jumping off a cliff we wouldn’t want our bodies acting that out in real life!)

Here is where sleep quality matters most: deep sleep, and REM sleep. These stages can make up 30-40% of our total sleep time, and are the most important for overall recovery, muscle repair, and cognitive processing. But it is also these two stages that are most severely affect by disturbances, temperature changes, and substance use.

Thus, a person with quality sleep habits who sleeps from 10pm on Friday until 7am on Saturday will be much more alert, aware, and physically recovered than some who drinks and parties until 2am, falls asleep on their friend’s couch with the light on, and “sleeps” until noon the next day. Nine hours of quality sleep is better than 10 hours of inebriated, interrupted, and unusual slumber.

Signs of sleep deprivation – especially in sleep quality – can include lethargy, sluggishness, and drowsiness throughout the day. If you have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, or you feel the need to sleep an extra two hours on weekends, you are likely missing out on quality sleep. Below are some tips for improving your sleep quality:

1. Minimize disturbances – Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool throughout the entire night.

2. Stick to a sleep schedule – Try to fall asleep and wake up within the same hour (or ideally, half-hour) every day of the week. Including weekends!

3. Turn off the TV – Avoid electronics screens for at least 20-30 minutes before bed, no matter how enticing the latest article from Peter Flax might seem. You can read it in the morning over breakfast. Instead, read a book, write in a journal, or do some light stretching or yoga before bed.

4. Be mindful of your evening nutrition – Pay attention to what you eat and drink, both throughout the day, and closer to bedtime. Avoid late-night snacking, especially sugar, alcohol, and caffeine in the last two hours before bed.

Overall, you want to develop a bedtime routine. Changing into your pyjamas, brushing your teeth, and crawling into bed with your favorite book will not only relax your mind and body, but it will send an unconscious signal to your brain that bedtime is near. And with that signal comes the release of melatonin (the “sleep drug” that is available inside your head 24/7) and off to dreamland you go.

Get all that right and you won’t just improve your sleep — you could also improve your performance on the bike.

About the author

Zach Nehr is a Level 3 USA Cycling coach, a Cat 1 cyclist and a graduate from Marian University where he received a Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Physiology.

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