Is sleep part of your training?

Weekend warriors and professional athletes alike, we all need adequate amounts of sleep. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things we tend to ignore. DR DALE RAE delves deeper.


How often do you hear people boasting about how little sleep they need? Given the pressures we have today to balance work, family, sport and some kind of social life, I have to admit that the thought of only
sleeping 4 or 5 hours per night sounds good. Imagine how much extra time we would have in our day; how
much more productive we could be. Or not. The reality is that stealing from sleep time is almost certainly going to backfire down the line. The sleep deprived version of you will be less productive at work, more forgetful, grumpy or emotional, more likely to have accidents or make risky decisions, make poorer food choices, be an increased risk for weight gain, insulin resistance and heart disease … and don’t get me started on what will happen to your sports performance.



While you might get away with a “not too shabby” performance following one night of poor sleep, it is
the role that sleep plays in recovery from training that is key. Top athletes and coaches have known intuitively for years that optimal recovery requires optimal sleep. Nolan Hoffman, winner of this year’s Cape Town Cycle Tour mentioned that he tries to sleep 8-10 hours each night, since that is when his body recovers. Rumour has it that Roger Federer aims for 10-12h! You may have noticed too that many highprofile international sports teams are implementing sleep coaching strategies to help give their athletes the edge. Slowly but surely the science is catching up. Recent studies have shown that one night of complete sleep deprivation impairs recovery from a rugby match and a night of partial sleep deprivation reduces recovery from a high intensity interval training session in cyclists.


You may be curious as to why sleep is required for recovery. Here’s the brief answer: If our sleep is healthy,
we should spend about 20-25% of our night in deep (aka slow wave) sleep. We think that this is when the
body goes into repair mode – fixing or replacing damaged cells, building the protein you need for your muscles to grow, tweaking your metabolism to adapt to your training demands, replenishing fuel supplies, and laying down the neural networks that allow you to successfully perform complex movement tasks. To me, these sound like really great reasons for investing in sleep and making it part of your training programme.



This is not rocket science, it just requires some thought and discipline. There are three things that we need to consider: timing, duration, and quality of sleep.

Timing As diurnal creatures, we have evolved to be active when the sun is up and resting when it is dark, so
plan to have one consolidated nocturnal sleep period somewhere between sunset and sunrise. Bear in mind, however, that the early birds among us will choose earlier bed and rise times, while the timing for night owls will be later. You may have noticed too that you naturally wake earlier in summer but battle with those early morning training sessions in winter. This is quite normal since our sleep timing will almost certainly change with seasons as days lengthen and shorten. So while there is some play in the system to account for individual needs and season changes, consistency in timing is key since our bodies respond well to routine. Keeping bed and wake times within a 1 – 1.5h range in any given week helps reinforce your body’s sleep-wake rhythm, making falling asleep at night, staying asleep throughout the night and waking
up the next morning that much easier.

Duration Although the National Sleep Foundation in the US recommends that adults sleep between 7-9h per night for optimal health, they also recognise that for some people 6h is sufficient while for others 10h is
necessary. This is not a licence to go rogue and get away with as little sleep as possible. Rather, to get that elusive edge in sport, work, family life and health, you need to find your personal sleep sweet spot (more on this next time). Bear in mind too that your sleep need changes depending on what’s happening in your world at any given time. In a high training load period, your sleep need will increase, as it will when work demands high mental functioning or you are coping with emotional challenges. You may also notice that you can get away with less sleep-in summer than winter, and that on holiday, once you have repaid some
sleep debt, your sleep need may reduce.

Quality This is probably the elephant in the room. Everyone talks about how many hours they should sleep each night, but not too many people interrogate quality. My view is that it is so important that I would choose shorter good quality sleep over longer fragmented sleep any day. Good quality sleep is quite simply unbroken, restorative sleep. I think of it like this: if you don’t find falling asleep too stressful, barely remember the night and begin to surface just ahead of your alarm – that was probably a good quality sleep. Numerous things can ruin quality like stress, a racing mind, a baby, a sleep environment that
is too hot/cold/light/noisy, a snoring partner, stimulants (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines), alcohol,
some medications … the list is endless. Observing which factors either enhance or impair your sleep quality is a good idea, but since removing the culprit is often not possible, or very difficult to do alone this is one area of sleep for which you may require help.



I am willing to bet that there is not too much here you haven’t heard before. But I am also willing to bet that sleep is not a part of your training programme. My challenge to you is to reflect on your sleep habits and needs and build it into your training programme. Let the recovery begin!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *