Sleep It Off

Catching your zzz’s is crucial to your health and athletic performance, but how seriously are you taking your sleep regimen?

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You eat healthfully, train with the best, stay up-to-date on the newest workouts, and search out the latest and greatest supplements. You can most likely get away with a few hours less sleep every once in a while without much of a negative effect on your athletic performance—but regular interruption will start to work against you…and fast.

Often overlooked as part of a serious training routine, proper sleep can give you the edge that all athletes are looking for. Aim for 7-9 hours per night, although everyone is different, and you’ll need to experiment to see how much sleep is right for you. When ignored, not getting enough sleep can be a detriment to even the most well-trained fighter.

Summer is a tough time of year for sleep. Days are longer, social gatherings are on the upswing, and there is just more to do. Even though August marks the last full month of summer fun, hot summer nights extend a little later in the year. Don’t let your social calendar run you ragged. It takes dedication and willpower to regularly eat clean and train hard. Don’t let something as easy as sleep trip you up.

Other than the obvious pitfalls of inadequate sleep—including increased fatigue, reduced reflexes, and trouble with concentration and decision-making—what else happens when you elude the sandman?

Sleep deprivation has been shown to:
• increase levels of cortisol
• decrease glycogen synthesis
• decrease activity of human growth hormone
• increase your rating of perceived exertion
• decrease aerobic endurance
• create imbalances in ghrelin and leptin (hormones that regulate hunger and fullness)

What does all of this mean to an athlete? Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands. It should be naturally highest in the morning and lowest in the late evening. It’s part of the “fight or flight” response and can increase during times of stress—all kinds of stress, such as work or emotional/relationship stress, stressful events (from sitting in traffic to bodily injury/trauma), high-volume training, and lack of sleep. The problem isn’t cortisol itself, but when it becomes chronically elevated all the time. As an athlete, there’s no way around the rise in cortisol in response to intense exercise, but people who are well trained and fueled will adapt over time. Unfortunately, you can’t control traffic jams or your boss’ whims, but you do have control over your sleep schedule.

Cortisol is catabolic, and chronically elevated levels can start to break down tissue, inhibiting muscle growth and repair. It can also lead to suppressed immune function, as well as decreased insulin sensitivity, which can eventually cause a wide range of problems, including increased storage of body fat, high blood pressure, and kidney issues.

Decreased glycogen synthesis with decreased sleep? You don’t want that. Glycogen is the storage form of the carbohydrate glucose, the main source of energy for athletes. In addition, inadequate sleep can cause a nose dive in your aerobic endurance required for long hours in the gym, as well decreased activity of human growth hormone and testosterone, which is needed for muscle growth and repair.

On top of all that bad news, your sense of perceived exertion during training sessions and competition will increase, and your hunger/fullness hormones (ghrelin and leptin) will be in disarray, causing many athletes to overeat. This is especially dangerous late at night, because most late-night snacking is not broccoli and carrots.

So put the ice cream down and go to bed. Training is hard. Eating grilled chicken and veggies while your friends are downing pizza and beer is hard. Sleeping is easy. Don’t undo all your hard work by skimping on sleep.

If you’re having trouble falling asleep on a regular basis, try:
• Keeping your bedroom dark by using blackout curtains
• Drinking chamomile/sleepy-time decaf herbals teas before bed
• Cutting caffeine after your morning cup of coffee (or all together)
• No heavy meals, alcohol, television, or use of electronic devices (tablets, lap tops, etc.) before bed
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