Athletes are well aware of the importance of proper training if they want to make progress. They are also aware of the need for proper nutrition. Often given short shrift, though, is the need for recovery from those workouts. We have discussed massage and other general methods of recovery. Now I will discuss the importance of adequate rest between workouts. Since we spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, I think it is important that we understand this process more, especially with regard to recovery from physical exercise.
How Much Sleep Do Athletes Need?
Most people are aware the body needs sleep. After all, sooner or later we get tired. But just how much sleep do we need? This is difficult to say because like many other things, it depends on individual differences. Some people need more sleep than others due to metabolic reasons. Even the same person at different stages of his life will need differing amounts of sleep. And even that individual will need different amounts of sleep depending on his or her activity level.
Young people will usually require seven to eight hours of sleep per night for optimum performance. That is, optimum for average daily living. When that young person decides to become involved in serious athletic training, then the need for extra sleep will soon rise. It has to. The more physical activity you do, the more the muscles and nervous system will break down in the natural course of experiencing stress on the body. That rebuilding is done during sleep for most part. So naturally, the more you do, the more time it’s going to take to rebuild those systems, and the more sleep you need.
What Happens During Sleep
What exactly happens when you hit the sack and get to dreamland? First of all, you will go through a light sleep stage. Once you lie down and become relaxed, you might dose off. Maybe you will go to sleep fully at this point, but often you will reawaken but without fully cognizant vision. Not long after you maybe doze off again. This is what is called the threshold stage of sleep. This type of sleep is not enough to ensure adequate recovery.
But if all goes well, you soon will enter into the first stage of real sleep. Bodily processes slow down somewhat, temperature drops slightly, and the heart rate drops too. This is not a very deep sleep. As with the threshold stage this type of sleep is not sufficient for adequate recovery.
After some time, you enter the second stage of sleep. This is much deeper and your body processes slow down even more. This process continues until your body enters into its deepest sleep stage. This is where we use the term rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep). It takes from one to two hours for you to reach this stage. This is where you start dreaming, as your eyes move rapidly and so might your body. Oddly enough in this situation your body processes speed up, mainly the heart rate but blood pressure can also fluctuate considerably. It is this situation that can generate some of the fantastic dreams we may remember afterwards. These can include the terrifying ones many of us are familiar with, such as falling, having an accident, or being chased. It can also produce more pleasant dreams. Finding money is a common one, I’m told.
That is the sleep cycle from start to finish, but this is not when you wake up. You actually go through several of these cycles in the course of a night, each one lasting from one to two hours. After the REM stage experience, usually after only a very short time, the cycle starts over, back at light sleeping. This is why we can be easily awakened at times and not at all at others. Finally, after eight hours or so, your body processes get back to normal in preparation for waking up.
The Special Sleep Requirements of Athletes
This is what happens with a good night’s sleep. This is what is necessary for the adequate recovery of a non-athlete. But this may not be enough if you are serious athletes doing a high volume of training. You will need more sleep or else you will be going into training sessions in sleep debt. You might get away with this for one training session, but it cannot continue if you expect to make any progress. Sleep debt also creates a window for opportunistic infections to enter the body. Invariably, I get a cold or the flu after two or three days of inadequate sleep. Since even these relatively benign diseases take a week to run their course, they inevitably lead to compromised training.
With that in mind it behooves you to manage your sleeping. Training should not occur too early or too late in your waking hours. You do not want to train early in your day because you will not only be somewhat groggy during your workout, but that workout will sap your energy for the rest of the day. Alas, most athletes who are not professionals have to contend with school or a day job, so this may not be practical for everyone.
On the other hand, you do not want to train too late in the day either. You will be tired from the day’s activities and training will not be optimal. That much is obvious. However, there is another reason you don’t want to train late. This is because for sleep to come easily the body and, more importantly, the mind should already be in a somewhat relaxed state before going to bed. Heavy workouts require a higher level of arousal. You cannot do snatches, cleans, or squats in a lackadaisical manner. You have to give them your full commitment. When you do that, you are going to climb to a certain Ievel of excitement and it will be harder to come back down and easily get to sleep. Because of this, most lifters like to do their training sometime in the afternoon.
And it’s not just training you have to be careful with. Any sort of excitement can make sleep induction difficult. The last hour or so of your waking day should not be spent on anything too stimulating. Watching a movie is good, but those that are overly exciting should be avoided. The same goes with music. Soft music is fine, but heavy metal is not likely to make your sheep-counting easier. This is more a time for quiet reflection and low stimulation, even though this may not be the first choice of many of the younger lifters. There is a time and place for everything, but recovery must take first priority with any serious athlete involved in intensive training.
How to Strategize for Short Nights
Sometimes it is not possible for you to get all of your required sleep during the night. In that case, there is nothing wrong with taking a nap at some point during the day. Elite level lifters do this a lot. Some like to take a short nap before training, others prefer to take one after training, and many do both. Those who train at a professional level will have three or four short training sessions over the course of the day with a lot of horizontal time in between. Many European gyms have attached bedrooms with cots for the lifters to rest between sessions. In any case, napping is useful for not only getting the right amount of sleep, but also to inject a little restorative work in the middle of the day. This will add a little positive slope to your energy graph and make the rest of the day a bit easier.
Proper training, proper nutrition and proper recovery are the triumvirate of athletic success. The first has always been important, it took years before we realize the importance of the second, and now we must all be conscious of the importance of the recovery process – especially those hours when we are unconscious.
1. Starr, B. “The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training For Football.” (Forest Hill, Maryland: Fitness Consultants, 1976) pp188-193.