Matt Chatlaong will soon begin working on his Masters degree in Exercise Science as he continues to coach cyclists while racing his bike for the Herbalife p/b Marc Pro – Nature’s Bakery Elite Cycling Team.  In this article he takes a closer look at how sleep can impact your cycling performance.

Sleep and Athletes

As athletes, experience tells us that good sleep plays a key role in performance.  Often times, our best performances follow a good night’s sleep, but in some cases, days we’d like to forget are preceded by periods of bad sleep.

What exactly do we know about sleep and its relationship to exercise performance?  In this edition of the DDA blog, we’ll take a look at what sleep means for performance in both the short and long term.

What’s Normal?

According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation in 2013, healthy adults in America sleep an average of just over 7 hours per night [1].  The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults sleep somewhere between 7-9 hours per night, but what about athletes?

There actually has been limited research into the requirements for sleep in athletes vs. sedentary populations, but it is only reasonable to think that athletes require more rest and sleep than their non-athlete counterparts [5].

No set recommendations have been made, but some authors recommend that athletes should sleep 9-11 hours per night [2,5].  How many hours of sleep do you get on average?  If you said less than 7-9, you aren’t alone.  Recent research suggests that athletes often sleep less than the recommended 7-9 hours [2-4].

Training can be confusing. In our free eBook, we’ll show you four ways to use your data and insights from science to ride better than ever.

Over Time

Let’s say that you routinely sleep less than the recommended 7-9 hours per night.  Maybe you have a demanding job, kids who play sports,  or you and your partner just like to watch a movie every night before bed.  Either way, you end up with around 6 hours of sleep per night.  At this rate, whether or not you are an athlete, research has shown you are entering some rather dangerous territory.

When sleep is regularly restricted to less than 6 hours per night, there are substantial disturbances in cognitive capacity, glucose metabolism, appetite regulation, and immune function [4, 6-9].

It seems reasonable to suggest that prolonged periods of such disturbances can induce a chronic state of mental fatigue, which can negatively affect exercise performance.  Furthermore, it appears that prolonged reduction in sleep quality and quantity can result in autonomic nervous system imbalance, simulating symptoms of overtraining syndrome [2].

The bottom line – if you’re sleeping less than 7-8hrs a night your training quality over time is likely going to suffer.

Out of the Ordinary

Maybe you are an athlete that is lucky enough to sleep 9-11 hours per night, but occasionally you deal with situations that interrupt your normal routine. One of the demands of cycling is making trips around the state that you live in (or maybe farther) in order to race.

Along with pre-race nervousness and anxiety, there are interrupted sleep patterns, unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, and early mornings that affect your sleep quality and quantity.  Luckily, the effects of acute sleep restriction on exercise performance have shown mixed results, as seen in an in-depth review by Fullagar et al.  [2].

While some studies in the review showed poor sleep negatively impacting exercise performance, others showed that acute sleep deprivation had little to no effect on exercise performance, especially in well trained athletes [10-13].

In short, there is no conclusive evidence dooming you to failure on race day after a bad night of sleep.  In fact, there’s a large body of evidence that says you will probably be just fine.  Knowing this should give  confidence that you can still perform well in the wake of a poor night’s sleep on the road.

Getting Better at Sleep

One emerging question among athletes, coaches, and researchers is – can we train ourselves to sleep better?  While individual differences exist, there is some evidence that we can employ a number of strategies to improve sleep.

It’s important to note that “sleep training” doesn’t happen in one night, it takes time and commitment to “train” your sleep habits.  Having said that, following these tips could improve your sleep quality and quantity over time:

  • Develop and follow a regular bedtime and wake time routine to help utilize your body’s natural promotion of sleep [14,15].
  • Choose daytime nap periods carefully, as excessive napping is shown to negatively impact nighttime sleep quality [14,16].
  • Evaluate the room you sleep in, preferably removing any devices that can provide light, or arouse cognitive activity in the event of a sleep disturbance. e.g. cell phone, TV, alarm clock, and other electronics [14, 17, 18].
  • Use stress management techniques, such as meditation that may help “switch off” your mind at bed time [14, 19].

Prioritizing additional sleep might mean reorganizing your schedule to sleep in and push your typical morning workout to the afternoon [4] or perhaps skipping a morning workout all together.  It could be a worthy trade for athletes to sleep in more frequently in exchange for greater training consistency and quality.  In any case, consider putting in the work to optimize your sleep routine as one of the foundations of your recovery strategy.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Long Term – With prolonged sleep restriction, the quality of your training over time is likely going to suffer.  You’re at greater risk for infection [4, 20], overtraining, and burnout [2].  With this in mind, most coaches and athletes see long term consistency in training as vital for reaching optimal performance in a target event [21].  In short, if you’re going to train consistently with quality, prioritizing sleep is a must.

Short Term – Don’t stress after a bad night of sleep! It is possible that even with a night or two of bad sleep, performance may not be negatively affected.

Training can be confusing. In our free eBook, we’ll show you four ways to use your data and insights from science to ride better than ever.

Matt Chatlaong
Data Driven Athlete


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