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It’s quite easy to think of training as the movement based stuff; the running and the strength sessions. Then we might spare a thought for our nutrition, and when we think of recovery, we might think of the easy runs, the stretching, rolling and days off. But do we think about sleep as part of our training routine? If we do, do we give it enough weight?

Despite sleep being the most important aspect of recovery, it’s amazing how often it’s really far down the list.

Good sleep enhances your recovery and improves muscle repair, giving you faster recovery, whilst reducing injury risk now and later on, and of course, it’s free. Optimal sleep quality and quantity is the single best recovery strategy for athletes. Without it, your immunity and endocrine functions can be impaired, which negatively affects the recovery process.

Adolescent athletes sleeping less than eight hours on average per night per week are two times more likely to suffer from an injury. This has been attributed to increased reaction times; staying awake for just for 17 hours can result in a reaction time matching someone who is legally intoxicated. Would you toe the start line of a race or head to the gym drunk?  

Dr Loosemore (team doctor to the British Olympic boxing team) considers sleep to have such an impact on performance, at the recent Olympics none of his athletes competing within 48 hours of the opening ceremony attended the event. Those who went to the ceremony “suffered badly. It had such a negative effect on their performance and that was almost entirely due to lack of sleep”.

In general, every healthy adult should have a minimum of seven hours (often eight or nine) of unbroken, quality sleep.

Great, but how? If you’re someone who’s getting six hours, going from that straight to nine is going to be a massive habit to change, so just like running, build on it gradually.

Set yourself a good sleep routine.

When we’re awake, our brain is ticking over in a sympathetic state. When we sleep it shifts into a parasympathetic state, a.k.a. ‘sleep mode’. If we’re spending the last hour before bed watching TV, or with our mind racing, we’re keeping our brain in this sympathetic state right when it needs to be shifting. By having a sleep routine you can kickstart this shift and massively improve your sleep quality.

Think about:

  • Putting your phone away and turning the TV off one hour before bed.
  • Relaxing; have a shower, stretch, read a book.
  • Leave a notepad next to your bed,and write a to-do list of the things in the mind. Now you’re not going to forget it you can let your mind go to sleep without worrying.
  • Having a regular bedtime and wake up time.
  • If you aren't asleep after about 20 minutes, get up and do something calming or boring with the lights off until you feel sleepy, and then try again.

These are things to help you come down from the day and switch off, and whilst it might not work for everyone, it’s a good place to start.

Your core temperature is a big one too. For the best sleep, you should be pretty cool. That nice relaxing warm shower or bath before bed can actually have a negative impact as you’re increasing your core temperature when you should be doing the opposite. Try a cooler shower and setting your bedroom to between 18 and 20 degrees (yes, 18 might feel freezing, so gradually decrease it).

Also, invest in some blackout curtains. Sunlight is the biggest stimulus to move brain into it’s waking state, so whilst it’s the easiest way to move out of that groggy state when you wake up in the morning, it’s a huge inhibitor to a good night sleep.

Think about what you do during the day.

How you go about your day effects your sleep. Caffeine is an obvious one; with a half-life of about six hours, you certainly want to be avoiding it from mid-afternoon. Alcohol is a biggie too; whilst it helps you fall asleep, it’s often fragmented and prevents the rapid eye movement (which is a super important element of a good quality sleep).

Snooze (don't).

Do you enjoy smacking the snooze button and stealing an extra ten minutes of sleep? Well, that extra ten minutes (or even more if you keep smacking your alarm) is pretty rubbish. Why not just set your alarm for when you actually need to get up and get the most bang for your buck from that extra ten, or twenty, minutes by having unbroken, restful sleep. Then, when you do need to wake up, just open the curtains. The sunlight will drag you out of that groggy state pretty quickly.

If you invest in your training, then make sure you include sleep as a key component. Without it, you're missing out.

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