Sleep: The Most Important Thing You Aren’t Doing!

One of the most important aspects of my role as a coach is to understand the goal(s) of my clients, to know their ‘why’. I then try to educate them on how they can stay on the right path to achieve their goal(s). In this period of lockdown, many of the topics I usually cover with my clients are temporarily irrelevant, or no longer within our control. Sleep and it’s importance to our health is however very relevant and perhaps more within our control than ever.

Dr Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep”

With that in mind, I’ve been researching this topic and would like to share with you some information I recently read from a book entitled “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Mathew Walker. He is a British scientist and professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the impact of sleep on human health and disease. Previously, he was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

I have taken a lot of interesting points from the book as well as podcasts Dr Walker has featured on. (His podcast on the ‘Joe Rogan experience’ is one I would particularly recommend). Some of the key takeaways that stood out to me are as follows:

  • “Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”.
  • One hour of iPhone use before bed will delay the onset of melatonin (the hormone for sleep) production by about 3 hours. Your peak melatonin levels will also be about 50% less.
  • Men who only sleep 5-6 hours a night will have a level of testosterone 6-10 years their senior.
  • Human beings are the only species that deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain. Mother nature has never faced the challenge of coming up with a safety net for lack of sleep.

So, the message is clear. Sleep is crucial for all round health and wellness. But what should a person do if they have a hard time falling or staying asleep?

  • Regularity is most important – go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Stay aware from screens for the last hour of the day.
  • Turn off most of the lights in your house at night 2-3 hours before bed.
  • Keep your bedroom cool: your brain needs to drop its temperature 2-3 °F in order to sleep. Studies show sleeping somewhat naked can help too.
  • Warm your hands and your feet to move the blood away from your core out to the surface. Dr Walker recommends either going to bed with socks and gloves on, or taking a warm bath right before bed. With a warm bath, you get vasodilation (rosy cheeks, red skin) and all of the blood rushes to the surface. When you get out, you have a massive heat dump from the body, and the core body temperature plummets.

Sleep and Diet

A person’s diet can also impact on the quality of their sleep. Dr Walker recommends that you “don’t go to bed too full, and don’t go to bed too hungry”. Furthermore, diets that are high in sugar and low in fibre tend to result in less good quality, less deep sleep which is more fragmented.

Is it Nap Time?

So, should we use naps as a way to compensate? Dr Walker’s view is that we can’t use naps to regain what we’ve lost. “Sleep is not like a bank. We can’t accumulate a debt and hope to pay it off on the weekend”. He estimates that if you pull an “all nighter” and then sleep as long as you want the next night, you’ll sleep longer but you’ll only get back 3-4 hours of that lost total.

Impact on Physical Performance

So how does lack of sleep effect physical performance? Here are some of the high level facts I found most interesting:

  • If you’re getting 6 hours or less, your time to physical exhaustion drops by up to 30%.
  • Lactic acid builds up quicker the less you sleep.
  • Your lungs ability to expire CO2 and inhale oxygen decreases.
  • The less sleep you have, the lower your peak muscular strength, the lower your vertical jump height, and the lower your peak running speed.
  • Risk of injury is higher. One study showed a 60% increase in probability of injury comparing people who get 9 hours of sleep a night, to those who get 5 hours.
  • Your stability muscles fail earlier when not getting enough sleep.

The optimal number of hours sleep per night is 7-9 hours. Once you get below 7 hours, we can measure impairments in the brain. If you’re dieting, but not getting sufficient sleep, 70% of all the weight you lose will come from lean muscle, not fat! Our bodies become resistant to giving up fat when under slept as we use it for protection instead.

Caffeine Fix

Can we rely on supplements to help deal with a lack of sleep? Caffeine can help you get over the basic reduction in alertness and can moderately improve response times. However, this should not be seen as a long term plaster. Ask yourself when you wake up, do you have a coffee or tea because you want it or because you feel you need it?

There are many other issues the book covers such as the horrible effects caused by lack of sleep, medicine, evolution and more. Information such as this is priceless and so important for our health in general life, let alone in the sphere of sport and training.

Now, as with changing any habits, it could take some time for your body to adapt so that your new sleeping habits become permanent. Be patient. There are no quick fixes, despite the effort we put in. Think of this as a long term change which could benefit you for a lifetime.

I will leave you one of my favourite quotes from Dr Walker:

 “Sleep is the elixir of life. It is the most widely available and democratic powerful healthcare system I could ever possibly imagine.”

If you would like to discuss any aspects of this blog, please get in contact.

Coach Sam Saunders