Sleep is part of your training formula

If “Big Sport” thinks it’s important?

Yes, we now have sleep coaches and big sport is turning to these sleep experts to help their elite athletes sleep deeper and longer. It’s no secret, we have always known that a good night’s sleep is beneficial. However, perhaps its importance in the training equation has in the past been overlooked or taken for granted, but no longer.

From big-money football clubs to pro cycling teams, big sport is investing heavily in sleep technology, from sleep pods, special lighting and nutrition. Team hotels are being vetted and uprated to ensure that the environment is compatible for a good night’s sleep and travel schedules are being planned to minimize the effects of time zone difference and interrupted sleep. Not to mention that professional big ticket on the payroll “sleep coach”!

So why is sleep so important

For anyone, let alone an athlete in training, eight hours of good quality sleep per night is essential for good health, wellbeing and adaption.

With the correct amount of progressive exercise and a balanced natural diet, coupled with a good night’s sleep, you will make bigger gains than ever before. Anything less than 8 hours simply will not do, as it’s your minimum 24-hour reboot.

Of course, professional athletes can train for 4 hours a day and then sleep for two, then training again and sleep for ten, sleeping is a big part of the job.

Work, eat, sleep and repeat is the fundamental law of successful training.

Many amateur athletes train hard to stimulate adaption but do not make the gains they deserve, because they are more than likely missing one or even two of the essential three ingredients.

One reason might be that we are trying to cram too much into our schedule. Our lives and sometimes a lack willpower already spent on training, push us two make convenient but inadequate nutritional choices to provide the material that will repair and create adaption, and secondly, the day is just not long enough to fit it all in and get a good night’s sleep to allow for that repair and adaptation.

The solution is simple if we and our lives will allow it, and if you want to succeed as an athlete good sleep and nutrition is an absolute must. By increasing the sleep element of your training schedule there are major additional gains to be had.

What gains?

Sleep deprivation clearly impairs learning and concentration whilst an improved sleep routine will improve the same. Via a process called consolidation, sleep can help you reinforce memories and better learn new skills discovered while you were awake. Your mental focus, attention and willpower batteries all get recharged while you sleep.

An improved sleep routine also reduces inflammation which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and premature aging.

Regarding weight control researchers at the University of Chicago found that dieters who were well rested lost more fat as a percentage of their weight loss than those who were sleep deprived, who lost more muscle mass although they shed similar amounts of total weight regardless of sleep. This is particularly important for the athlete. It’s also true that people that sleep less tend to snack more. What else do you do at 2 am but check out the fridge?

The Really Important Bit

More sleep will improve, recovery, and ability to make positive adaptations. This is because Athletes don’t get fitter when training. Although training provides the body with the necessary stimulus to positively adapt, coupled with good nutrition it’s during the periods spent asleep, when the body recovers and adapts, that make you faster and stronger.


That’s because your immune system recuperates when you sleep. Your rejuvenating hormones, like human growth hormone (HGH), begin to naturally peak, promoting muscle, tendon, and ligament repair and growth. Even neurotransmitters are replenished to allow for faster reaction and transmission of instruction to the muscles and other body systems.

Just for further information and clarity neurotransmitters are the chemicals that relay signals from a neuron to a targeted cell within the body. Pretty much every function within the body is controlled by neurotransmitters including our perception of fatigue and pain. They’re the brain’s little messengers, and if they’re not working correctly due to lack of sleep, you can’t expect to be effective come race day.

It is accepted that increased sleep will improve both training reaction, energy levels and therefore performance. Ideally, a professional athlete should aim for 10 plus hours of sleep per 24 hours, as a serious amateur 8 hours should be the minimum.

I can’t get to sleep, and I need to so much

Training is a formula, a mixture of progressive exercise, balanced nutrition and sleep. Adequate sleep is so often the element that is missing from many an amateur athletes training formula.   

If we lack time to train, we often lack time to sleep, add some stress and the formula fails to work. The advice is as old as time itself, what you need is a good night’s sleep!

It happens to us all

Every time I am on guiding on a tour, at night I lie awake desperately trying to sleep. It’s the same when I was and still occasionally race. I have always thought this to be my Achilles heel. My guide partner Xavier sleeps like the dead, I swear he could hang from the ceiling like a bat and still be asleep in a moment and at any time of the day, but me, no such luck.

Just like knowing you must be for some important reason up early for a journey somehow causes some of us to have poor night’s sleep, the double whammy of knowing you must make an early morning race start and perform is too much for the head to take, the result is I lie awake desperately trying to sleep. I know how important sleep is for performance and I know I must be up early to make the start, so yes there is perhaps a little anxiety at work here and perhaps this is why, I cannot sleep, so could ignorance be bliss.

Thankfully, at home in my cosy Devon Cottage, I sleep like Xavier who sleeps like a vampire at midday, but when I am away it’s the same old story.

Insomnia, The definition.

At some point many of us normally sound sleepers suffer from the odd bout of Insomnia.

Insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep, remain asleep, or get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling rested. Its symptoms include difficulty falling asleep, frequent wake-ups during the night, waking up too early in the morning, daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

Insomnia can be acute (lasting one to several nights) or very sadly chronic (lasting from a month to years). Sorry ladies, but it’s more common amongst women, so I must occasionally be showing my feminine side here.

Difficult sleep is often a symptom of a condition, such as depression, chronic pain, or stress, and in my situation, although I don’t feel unduly stressed this is most likely the cause. Before an event or when on a tour I am perhaps sub-consciously a little anxious, this coupled with a break in normal routine and bedtime surroundings this double whammy that leads to acute insomnia. We are creating or even creating a cycle here, as stress can induce insomnia and a lack of sleep will induce stress.

How Can I Combat Insomnia?

Daytime preparation


Stay away from stimulants such as caffeine and energy drinks for at least four hours before you go to bed and limit their use during the day, so it’s out of your system by bedtime.  

After a poor night’s sleep when we’re tired it’s tempting to turn to coffee, however that caffeine hit will make it harder for you to fall asleep at night, again creating a vicious cycle. 


Alcohol won’t help either, as it can disrupt sleep cycles later in the night plus it won’t help you perform in the event, so if you do have a drink firstly ensure it’s in moderation and have a sundowner but not a nightcap.

Power Nap

Although it is excepted that napping during the day for around 20/30 minutes is good for you, try to avoid napping after 15.00 if you think that you may have trouble sleeping.

Light aerobic exercise

Some light aerobic exercise following your evening meal at least 3 hours before you go to bed will help you get a better night’s sleep. The best thing to do is take a walk after or before dinner, this will also help activate your fat burning energy systems and therefore help control your weight.


Also getting outside during the day to soak up some natural light and fresh air as this will also help you sleep.

Using Control Techniques

Now I’m Counting Sheep!

It’s not such a crazy idea. Control techniques such as counting sheep or focus breathing do work to stop the mind whirling.

Focusing on one thing can help the brain settle down, making sleep more possible. If sheep are not your thing try focusing on your breathing by counting the cycle, inhale hold and exhale in a count of perhaps 4-4-4.

For complete relaxation try 7-4-11 which activates the parasympathetic nervous system shutting down the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the fight-or-flight response, which prepares the body for intense physical activity. The parasympathetic nervous system has almost the exact opposite effect, relaxing the body and slowing down many high energy functions.

Or imagine yourself sleeping while practicing deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.  

Use a body scan starting at one end of the body and working up or down, clench and then release each section of muscles for instant all-over muscle relaxation.

No More Jobs!

To start with get all the jobs done way before you hit the sack, making sure you have a few clear stress-free hours to do just nothing but relax. A hard-working brain keeps the body awake.

Bringing work into the bedroom is a sure way to prevent you from getting to sleep.

Your Environment

At least one hour before bedtime the professional advice tells us to dim the lights, turn off the television, phone, and computer, thus turning off the brain by turning off the stimulus.

Use Distraction?

However, although I agree with most of the above, in practical terms and from personal experience I find the brain needs some low-level distraction.

My theory is that often insomniacs are often serial thinkers and given any clear space and opportunity the brain will start to think. The answer, distract it with something mundane. I watch Family Guy, to quickly turn off the brain, others read unengaging books.

Is Your Bed Comfortable?

An uncomfortable bed or bedding will not help you sleep either, of course, some aspects of your environment maybe beyond your control when away from home. However, it’s true that a dark, cool, quiet bedroom environment aids sleep.

Something Warm To Drink?

The calming effect of chamomile tea can help us get our heads in the right place to sleep. Some swear by a hot glass of milk. Why not take it into the bathroom with a hot bath or shower. Stepping from warm water into that pre-cooled bedroom will cause body temperatures to drop slightly, which can induce sleep by slowing down metabolic activity.

Try Light Aerobic Activity

Although serious exercise is a big no before bedtime it is thought that some easy leg lifts and squats can help divert blood flow to the legs and away from the brain. This can help calm the mind along with stretching and a little light yoga.

Are You Ready For Sleep?

Don’t try to sleep until you’re sleepy as climbing into bed when you don’t feel ready for sleep is setting yourself up for failure. Instead, stick with the Brain distraction, or clear mind relaxation until you are ready and if all else fails there is always sex which is guaranteed to combat insomnia with or without a partner.  

 When insomnia strikes don’t lie there beating yourself up, accept it, don’t worry about tomorrow, be gentle with yourself, relax count the sheep and wake up in the morning wondering when you got to sleep.

If you Train Hard, Sleep Hard

During a racing and training, the body’s oxygen usage greatly increases, and there is a dramatic increase in lactic acid accumulation in the muscles which causes damage that must be repaired. Tiny micro-tears are formed in the muscles when we perform strenuous work, and the body’s intense energy reserves are exhausted.

We are overloading our bodies, and the harder we train or race, the more sleep we will need to firstly repair and recover and then and only then adapt.

So, Remember the Training Formula

Training is a compound of the following elements: –

Progressive exercise 
A balanced diet
Adequate Sleep

Repeat the process, as per a chain reaction!

More from Nigel at BPM Coaching


How To Climb Faster, Climb Smarter

The 80:20 rule – the secret of better training

Nigel Hale-Hunter
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Nigel Hale-Hunter

ABCC level Cycling Coach and Mias MTB Guide/Leader at BPM Coaching
I became a coach because I wanted to train "smart". Most of us have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to training and I understand the importance of making the most of the limited time. Training to a structure made me a successful competitor and now I enjoy helping others achieve their goals. See my a new website bringing high-quality training and advice to all for just £15.99 in the form of an evolving online book.
Nigel Hale-Hunter
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Posted in Preparation, Training.

I became a coach because I wanted to train "smart". Most of us have a limited amount of time that we can dedicate to training and I understand the importance of making the most of the limited time. Training to a structure made me a successful competitor and now I enjoy helping others achieve their goals. See my a new website bringing high-quality training and advice to all for just £15.99 in the form of an evolving online book.