Sleep: The Fourth Discipline

Recently, I saw this tweet pop up from one of my (very fast) friends Cody Beals:

 

I have had the pleasure of training with Cody through a few camps and he tends to be doing one of two things: stealing all your KOMs or sleeping. Cody lays down so much fast training that I am convinced that his bike shocks him any time the speed falls below 40 kph.

Sleep has been making the headlines more and more as of late. Plenty of people can offer you studies that support that basic fact that sleep aids in performance. There are some differences in the most effective way to sleep (i.e. broken and longer versus shorter and straight through), but I think it’s safe to say that any improvements in sleep, either in volume or quality are going to be better for us; not just for performance, but for general health.

A few years ago, Gordo Byrn made a statement at a presentation that every athlete in the room should try and find a way to average 30 minutes or more of sleep/night versus trying to find room for an extra or harder training session. In other words, get more out of the work you are currently doing by showing up to the sessions fresher and more recovered. A month ago, when I was presenting for Tri Shop in Texas, fellow presenter (and AG winner at IM Louisville), Jim Brown, told me and everyone else that the key difference in his recent success came from averaging an extra hour of sleep per night, and not from any major changes in his training plan.

Now, this is not to say that better training does not lead to better results as well. It just means that better training is only attained when an athlete is capable of properly absorbing it. I believe it’s fair to say that many athletes are not maximizing their sleep and recovery with the training load they are currently undertaking. Therefore, the overall quality of that training ,and the subsequent fitness (or lack thereof), is compromised.

Over the years, I have had to face a number of challenges when it comes to improving as an athlete. There are many things that I have little control or influence over, but I have always felt that if I found myself under-fueled or sleep deprived, it was on me. I have never been someone that does well on little sleep. After a couple days of compromised sleep, I am not only terrible at training, I am terrible at life. Not only that, but living at altitude requires about an hour or so of extra sleep (for me) than I seem to require at sea level.

With the above considerations, you will find a list below with some things that have helped me to get more and better sleep over the years.

  1. Darkness and temperature: We use blackout curtains to get our bedroom as dark as possible and we keep the sleeping temperatures cool at night. Most months of the year, I crack the bedroom windows an hour or so before I go to sleep to get the room temperature down.
  2. Bedroom is for sleeping: My wife, Brooke, used to like to watch TV in her bed as she went to sleep each night. She has been kind enough to do away with that habit over the years. I do not watch a TV, tablet, computer, etc. in the bedroom in the hours leading into when I/we go to sleep. I have always kept the two rooms separate and I always seem to fall asleep very quickly.
  3. Use an alarm clock, not a phone: There are a lot of recommendations on limiting the usage of your phone or computer just before going to sleep. I personally don’t have a time limit on that, but I do leave my phone in a different room when I go to sleep. If I need an alarm I just use a clock and not my phone. This always helps with the temptation to check anything “one last time” before going to sleep or from being interrupted by late or early calls/texts.
  4. Caffeine usage: I drink a lot of coffee. This makes my situation a little different from other people as I do not seem to be as sensitive to caffeine as others. Having said that, I generally do not take in caffeine after 3:00 in the afternoon if I am not planning to do another training session. If I have training scheduled, consuming caffeine before a late session has little effect on my sleep. This is certainly not the case for others. Bottom line, if you choose to consume caffeine, understand its effect on your sleep habits.
  5. Avoid high intensity into the evening: I generally have the flexibility to do my training early enough in the day to avoid this issue, but occasionally I do not. In the past, I have taken part in evening races (time trials, aquathlons, etc.) and they often don’t conclude until 7 or 8 at night. While I actually perform pretty well late into the evening, I have a very hard time winding down and falling asleep on those nights (and hardly more than an hour or two after an Ironman). With this in mind, I tend to stay away from high intensity training in the late hours of the day unless it’s a special occasion. When it does occur, I try to really get in a longer, low intensity cool down to help bring my heart rate down.
  6. Have a sleep back-up plan: There are times when I have trouble sleeping, either in initially falling asleep or waking up in the middle of the night feeling stressed or simply “thinking too much.” I am sure that this happens to many people and there are likely a variety of ways to cope with this problem. For me, I simply move somewhere else. For whatever reason, if I find myself wide awake at the wrong time I go somewhere else and almost 100% of the time I fall asleep rather quickly. I do not think this is something that you want to be doing night after night, but when the odd occasion occurs that you find yourself incapable of falling asleep, try going to another bed, or couch or wherever. It just might serve as an effective short term fix.
  7. Keep routine hours: Generally speaking, I go to sleep and wake up within a one hour range on either end. If I plan to get more sleep, I find it better to go to bed earlier, rather than waking up later. Even if it amounts to the same hours, the effectiveness of the sleep always seems superior when tacked onto the front end.
  8. Get a pet: I sleep better with animals around.

You might notice that I have not addressed napping; this is because I can rarely fall asleep during the day and so I always look to maximize my sleep at night. I am well aware that napping can be an effective component of recovery, but I will leave it for someone to address as it is not part of my routine.