It’s hard to imagine the world’s best athletes being caught napping, yet sleep is vital to any fitness training programme – whether going for gold or aiming for a first 10k.
Train and rest
How many of us consider sleep when we launch into a new fitness regime? For every elite athlete, though, time in slumber is as vital as that spent at the gym.
It’s important because recovery is everything, and the best form of recovery is sleep. Athletes have a saying that you can only train as much as you can recover.
Scientists have known for decades that cells and tissues get repaired overnight by a cascade of hormones controlled by the endocrine system, in tune with our daily biological clock known as the circadian rhythm. Since the body’s natural default setting is homeostasis – meaning it wants to remain in balance – given the right conditions, it will repair itself even if we push ourselves. Athletes have critically managed training and rest periods to capitalise on this. A heavy training load is meant to push you to the limits, and will create a stress response in the body. This causes tiny bits of damage to muscles and cells so the body repairs itself in a better state than before which is called “super compensation” and you can feel it.
Getting to the point of over-tiredness is not an option. Heart rate monitors help track what’s happening, showing if performance drops due to under-recovery through suppressed heart rate or inability to produce lactic acid
A main coping strategy is to de-stress and deal with issues as soon as they come up so they’re not turning over in the mind, disrupting sleep. Sportspeople increasingly use mindfulness techniques for this. Psychologists have suggested using apps so you can tune into the here and now by just focusing on your breathing.
As for jet lag, sleep and meal times are worked out with military precision to adjust to the new time zone as soon as possible. The trick is to get out into daylight without sunglasses as it helps shift the body clock.
Everything in a professional athlete’s regime supports good sleep, and an overarching piece of advice is to never underestimate its importance. It’s the first thing to go when things get busy, but when we are feeling low or bad, there’s nothing better than a good night’s sleep. Next day, you are always in a better space to address things.